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Published On: Thu, Nov 22nd, 2012

Ten Tips for Battling Food (and Family) over the Holidays


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Connie Stapleton, Ph.D.

 ‘Tis the season… ready or not! The holiday season can be one of the most joyful times of the year with its dazzling colors, familiar music, social gatherings, and yes, food, food and more food! For those who have recently lost a significant amount of weight or have been serious throughout the year about managing a healthy weight, the food-infested holiday season can present physical and emotional challenges. For at least five solid weeks, food is even more ubiquitous than usual in our eating-obsessed society. It’s almost impossible to avoid fanciful confections almost anywhere you go from Thanksgiving until the end of the year. Cookies, candy, fudge and a host of other home-made delights in the break room at the office. Gift baskets abounding with fruits, nuts and bottles of apple cider arrive at the doorstep. Samples of gooey baked goods with sparkling decorations are handed out from kiosks in the grocery store. And bubbly libations accompany the gourmet delicacies served at every office and neighborhood social gathering.

 For people who are serious about maintaining a healthy weight, and for those who have recently experienced significant weight loss, the fact that the average American gains 7 – 12 pounds throughout the holiday season, can evoke strong feelings of anxiety.

 Another anxiety-producing holiday stressor can be “the family gathering.” Most of us spend time with relatives during the holiday season. Like food, there are lots of varieties of families; some food and some families are healthy and others are not! Regardless of the emotional health of one’s family, nearly all family holiday gatherings revolve around a meal, featuring time-honored secret family recipes and dishes that aunts, uncles and cousins eagerly await all year long.

 At no other time of year are there so many triggers that have the potential to steer off course those who have used food as a way to deal with emotions. In her brilliant, practical book, The Beck Diet Solution, Dr. Judith Beck notes several categories of “triggers” that can ultimately lead to eating. Three of these categories are emotional, biological, and environmental.

 Identify the Triggers in this scenario:

 Your family has decided to have Thanksgiving dinner at your Grandma Smith’s house this year. You haven’t been to that house in nearly a dozen years, since moving out of state. When you were a child you adored spending time at your grandma’s house. She is the person who taught you about gardening, how to sew, and how to bake. It’s hard to think about Grandma Smith without recalling the smell of fresh bread wafting throughout the house. As soon as you walk in the door, the smell of her homemade biscuits mingled with the traditional aroma of the turkey and dressing takes over your entire being. Before you can turn and walk toward the kitchen, you see cousin Sally. Sally was the mean cousin when you were kids. She called you “fatty Patty” and always tattled to the adults when you did anything wrong. You are assaulted by her booming voice, “Hey, there, ‘fatty Patty!’ What have you done to yourself? You’re not fat anymore!” You wish you could just punch her, but refrain from doing so as Aunt Cindy wraps you in a bear hug. That smell! Her perfume. It takes you back to the time you ate three pieces of her birthday cake before dinner. Her husband, uncle Bill had screamed at you for what seemed like an hour, but Aunt Cindy had wrapped you up in a hug then like she was doing now – and she was wearing that same scent! You finally make it into the living room and see the old blue rocker that you and Grandma sat in countless evenings while she read to you. Your eyes mist with tears. However, your thoughts are interrupted by the angry sounds of two male voices coming from the next room. They were at it again. Your twin uncles. They never got along well and used to get into fist fights, scaring you when you were a child. You would take a bowl of Grandma’s homemade cookies and hide in the closet upstairs until they would leave. Just the sound of their harsh tones made you turn and look for a sweet treat to take your mind off the fear you felt, even now as an adult.

 There are lots of triggers in this story with potential for thoughts and feelings that could lead to eating as a coping response. Emotional triggers include reminiscing on the happy memories of spending time with Grandma in the garden, while sewing and when baking in the kitchen. Cousin Sally’s name-calling would certainly trigger an emotional response, as would the memory of Uncle Bill screaming at a young Patty who ate Aunt Sally’s birthday cake.

Biological triggers in this scenario would be the sight and smell of the food when Patty walked into Grandma’s. Salivating at the thought or actual smell of the food is also a biological trigger. The sound of angry voices producing anxiety is another example of a biological trigger, as is the smell of Aunt Cindy’s perfume.

 The blue rocking chair in the living room would be an example of an environmental trigger. The closet upstairs where Patty hid when she was a child is also an environmental trigger.

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