Surviving the Holidays
How to keep your emotions in check--and your diet in control
This time of year is supposed to be filled with comfort and joy, right? So why do you anticipate entering January feeling like an emotional and physical basket case? If you have diabetes, you know that the season of good cheer brings with it some serious bad stuff, like jealousy, temptation, and guilt. Well, this year you can break the cycle, by learning to understand your emotions--and preparing yourself to eat well.
Like it or not, you're going to encounter some culinary challenges over the holidays. Pumpkin pie, thick turkey gravy, and fried potato pancakes all symbolize the season, proving that holiday meals represent more than nourishment. "It's almost historical tradition," says Leon Rappoport, PhD, professor emeritus of psychology at Kansas State University and author of How We Eat: Appetite, Culture, and the Psychology of Food. "There's always a pattern, whereby special foods are set aside for special occasions. There is this deep emotional attachment or tendency to have a special occasion to look forward to."
Even if it weren't a special occasion, many family get-togethers would still focus on food. The reason for that, says Rappoport, is that "food is both symbolically and concretely a representation of love." That doesn't mean you must choose between food and family or friends. But knowing why holiday gatherings center on food can help you mentally get past the urge to overindulge.
After you realize why everyone else seems to be splurging on fatty, sugar-laden foods, try to understand why you want to treat yourself, too. "In order to maintain some degree of control over [his or her] diet, an individual needs to let thinking dominate feelings. Thinking tends to take a back seat to the emotions," says Rappoport. What that means for you: While you may be more prone to overeating during the holidays, it's possible to control your diet by thinking logically (with your mind) and not emotionally (with your stomach). From there, you can begin to tackle the primary emotions you may experience: jealousy, temptation, and guilt.
Emotional trap No. 1: Jealousy
You've just downed your umpteenth broccoli floret, and your best friend is shoveling another dip-heaped chip into her mouth. "No fair!" you think. "You see this clearly in children," says Rappoport: "That childish experience of seeing others are getting more than you, that never really fades. Those feelings of somehow not being treated fairly can last a lifetime." If you think eating holiday meals should be fair, you're setting yourself up for disappointment. Instead, acknowledge--then move past--your jealousy. Sure, you won't get to munch on endless fried mushrooms with the rest of the party, but your controlled eating will have a huge impact on your health in the long run.
"Jealousy is such a hard thing to get over," says Angela Ginn-Meadow, RD, LDN, CDE, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator with the Joslin Diabetes Center in Baltimore. "You need to really think ahead. What do I think I might want to enjoy? And how does it fit into my meal plan?" Begin by telling your friends and family (or at least the host) about your diabetes. Making other guests aware of your situation may help them be more conscious of their own actions--or at least prevent them from fawning over a particularly tasty hors d'oeuvre right in front of you.
Getting over food jealousy requires you to understand your diet. You can overcome this emotion, says Ginn-Meadow, "when you get to the point where you say all foods can really fit, it's just the portion size." Talk to your doctor or dietitian about modifying your diet so that you can eat small servings of the foods you love. "When you deprive yourself or if you go on a diet or if certain food items are taken away from you, you will feel jealous," she explains. "But if you allow yourself small portions, you will feel less jealous seeing other people eat."
Emotional trap No. 2: Temptation
It's no surprise that you've never been tempted by beans, romaine lettuce, or green pepper slices. You can chomp on those until your taste buds cry mercy without doing much damage to your diet, making the prospect of eating them underwhelming. But pecan pie? And buttery mashed potatoes? Those types of foods have you salivating after a single glance. The reason is simple: You want what you can't have.
"The forbidden fruit is always sweeter," says Rappoport. "Whatever you tell somebody they can't have, they want it." According to Ginn-Meadow, turning down temptation takes a lot of planning. "Never go to a party or even go holiday shopping without eating. If you eat prior to going, you're not as hungry, and everything isn't as tempting," she says. Ginn-Meadow urges her clients to fill up on high-fiber foods like an apple, a small salad, or a half of a peanut butter sandwich before they go to a party. Drinking plenty of water beforehand will also help you feel full.
Plan ahead by ensuring there's at least one diabetes-friendly dish available. "If you're able to bring something, ask the host. I even encourage [my clients] to ask, 'Can you make something with less sugar or sugar substitute in it? Could you even make something with less fat?'" says Ginn-Meadow. Bringing your own dessert or side dish will provide you with a "safety" food--one with nutrition information you know--when buttery cookies start calling your name. (The recipes on page 40 offer a few ideas for take-along yummies.)
Once you're at the party, simple strategies can help you avoid overindulging. First, realize that holiday foods pack in calories--more than you may realize. "Eating during the holidays, it can be over 1,000 calories for that holiday meal," says Ginn-Meadow. Her tips: "Put sauces and dressings on the side. Or dip a fork into the dressing" instead of pouring it on top. To avoid eating too many unhealthy foods, try loading up on veggies, broth-based soups, or salad before the main course arrives; you'll be less likely to splurge on high-calorie, high-fat foods when you're already half full. And limit your alcohol intake. Not only is alcohol high in calories, but it'll make you hungrier than you already are.
Again, portion size is key. Maintain good blood glucose control by not only watching what's going onto your plateful, but also how much. If you have a hard time controlling yourself, try limiting your food allowance to one plateful. Once you finish a plate of foo(appetizers included), call it quits. And if there's an item you can't live without (say, creamy mashed potatoes), consider forfeiting another food (like dinner rolls) so you can enjoy it. When it comes to dessert, don't rush. "If you're going to have dessert, make sure you wait some time," says Ginn-Meadow. "Go for a walk in between. It does take 20 minutes for your brain to see you're full. Then see how you feel."
It's important to allow yourself to enjoy foods that fit into your meal plan in small portions. If all else fails, says Ginn-Meadow, "try not to hang around the food. Visit with friends or coworkers, really being able to catch up with the little details we miss during the year."
Emotional trap No. 3: Guilt
What started out with a sliver of angel food cake has snowballed into a taste test of five different pies. How did it happen? After pie slice No. 2, you felt guilty and decided that, since you already failed, you may as well enjoy yourself. "Once you go beyond the limit [you've set for yourself], there's a feeling that there's no redemption and you might as well enjoy [the food]," says Rappoport. "People get to the point where they say, 'I don't care anymore.'" Thinking of minor slipups as failures only hurts you in the long run. In order to really get over your food guilt, you need to acknowledge your lapse and then move on. "That was then, and this is now. Things happen. We're human," says Ginn-Meadow. "Don't feel guilty, just get back on track."
Getting back to healthy living means reverting to normal meal planning and physical activity. That second part--exercise--is crucial. "The [National Institutes of Health] did a study that [showed] weight gain happens during that 6 weeks," says Ginn-Meadow of the holiday season. "Physical activity is a big, big player in maintaining your weight during that time frame. Do physical activity all throughout the holidays. Make shopping a real vigorous activity."
Having a healthy, happy holiday isn't impossible, even if you're dealing with a stringent meal plan. Preparation and moderation are key, but so are frequent blood glucose checks. Amid the hectic holiday schedule and excitement that abounds at family gatherings, it's easy to forget to test often. Still, knowing where your blood glucose is can help you make smarter decisions. "Anything that's out of schedule, we do encourage you to test," says Ginn-Meadow. "Testing your blood [glucose] really allows you to see what's going on in your body."
Remember, too, that with the breaks from work and the chance to spend that time with loved ones, this season should transcend what's on the table. "The biggest thing is putting eating in perspective," says Ginn-Meadow. "The holidays aren't about food; they're about catching up with family and friends." And if you stay mindful about what goes on your plate, you'll enter 2009 enjoying life to its fullest.