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Your Inner Athlete: Keeping Your Holidays Guilt-free

By Dr. Haley Perlus on December 18, 2014, categorized in Health

Your Inner Athlete: Keeping Your Holidays Guilt-free

When you take 20 athletes of equal ability and give ten of them mental training, the ten with mental training will outperform the others every time. Whether you’re an athlete in competition, a health enthusiast, or new to sport and fitness, Sport Psychologist Dr. Haley Perlus shares how professional athletes mentally train to maximize results­—and how you can apply these insights to your life. Read on to empower yourself to take control of your mind, overcome fear and doubt, and realize your true potential.

We’ve all been there: holidays are here, and we swear to ourselves that we will behave this year. This holiday season, we’re staying away from the stuffing (too many carbohydrates). And we’ll pass on the Triple Chocolate Cheesecake (too much bad fat–delicious, creamy, decadent fat). Nope, when the holidays roll around, we’re going to stick to our nutrition goals. But does it really work? How many of us spend hours gazing miserably at the dessert table of pies, avoiding them like the plague, only to eventually break down. Then, afterward, when we finally muster the courage to step on the scale or try on those “skinny” jeans, we find we’ve done it again. We’ve eaten too much. It just isn’t fair! So what’s going on here?

First of all, you are not alone. The average holiday-binger eats 32% more over the four-day Thanksgiving weekend.Klesges RC, Klem ML, Bene CR. (1989). Effects of dietary restraint, obesity, and gender on holiday eating behavior and weight gain. Journal of Abnormal Psychology, 98, 499-503. With that statistic, just imagine how much more you eat during the entire holiday season! We can’t help ourselves. Food is a big part of the holidays. Even if you have learned to keep bad foods out of the home and prepare healthier sweet treats, with all of the social events, candy at the office, and tasty, yet sabotaging, gifts from friends, you simply cannot control your environment as well as you can during the rest of the year. Despite all of the oaths sworn and the best intentions, weight gain during the holidays is still a popular outcome.

So how do you stay 100% committed to your nutrition plan during the holiday season? You don’t! Actually, trying to stay on track with your program during the holidays may be the exact thing that causes you to gain weight. In understanding this phenomenon, psychology tells us that there are a few premises at work here.

The lure of forbidden fruit

The first is the theory of Psychological Resistance, perhaps more commonly known as the Forbidden Fruit effect: we always long for whatever it is that we can’t have. The restriction itself makes the holiday food seem that much more appealing. Being forbidden is what makes it so alluring. There are two sides battling within us when the holiday eats are rolled out. There is the one half that has promised to control itself, sticking to the predetermined plan. But then, there is another part of us that doesn’t understand the restriction and wants no part in it. We perceive ourselves as being punished. We see all the people around us indulging; we see the food directly before us, tempting us with the sweet scent. We are fighting an inner battle, telling ourselves that we have to have some temperance, while the other half of us is screaming for a taste. This personal conflict leads us to rebel, to fight back against the voice trying to restrain us—despite the fact that it stems from within us.

Too many sweet dreams lead to sweet meals

We are also slaves to the Law of Dominant Thought when we try to stick to our healthiest nutrition plans. This law says that the focus of our thoughts will direct us to what we ultimately achieve in life. If we spend the day obsessing over pumpkin pie, we shouldn’t be surprised when we wake up with whipped cream smeared on our chins. Focusing too much on “bad” foods is exactly what makes us give in to them. The holidays especially are times of vulnerability because we can’t help but be exposed to unhealthy foods. That, and the tendency to consume alcohol, can make a person more likely to overeat, according to a study published in Health Psychology.Boutelle KN, Kirschenbaum DS, Baker RC, Mithcell ME. (1999). How can obese weight controllers minimize weight gain during the high risk holiday season? By self-monitoring very consistently. Health Psychology, 18, 364-368.

Eating as an antidote to stress

The third premise that underlies our overeating is stress. Of course, stress is ever-present when holiday times come. We are planning, cooking, decorating, and managing our schedules to such an extent that the added anxiety can push us to find comfort at the bottom of a cup or two of eggnog. Studies tell us that the stress of the holidays pushes us to further crave foods that are high in fats, sugars, and other carbohydrates because those are the foods that calm our stress hormones.Dallman MF, et al (2003). Chronic stress and obesity: A new view of “comfort food.” Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences, 100. That’s why we call them comfort foods.

No one wins an internal battle

The final factor of our overeating is the Teeter Totter Effect, or the theory of Cognitive Dissonance. It goes back to the rift within us, the two sides of us that are fighting for control of the body. We want to settle the battle, to restore mental balance. This means that one of the sides has to give a little. The desire for instant gratification makes us give in to the side that will satisfy us more quickly, and that will always be the “hungry for the unhealthy” side.

So we see that there are a lot of pressures and factors that drive us to eat a week’s worth of meals in one sitting. We only further rev up the crave engine when we force ourselves into patterns of strict denial. So how can we overcome all of these influences and keep off added holiday pounds?

The true solution for a healthy holiday

One common method is to attempt to make our typical holiday fare healthier. We may use some of the delicious Vega Recipes for our desserts. However, this only works if we are hosting and baking for all of our holiday parties, and this is highly unlikely. Once we lose control of what goes into the food, we are back to the battlefield, facing off in a sure-loss fight.

So what is the solution? The solution is the Holiday Hall Pass. This sweet indulgence allows us to eat as we wish over the holidays, with four safeguards to prevent us from getting too crazy. These safeguards create a safe environment to rule with a clear mind, promoting positive emotions that settle the negative ones we experience when we attempt to deprive ourselves.

Safeguard #1

The first little helper is a pre-performance morning exercise routine to wake up your feel-good emotions, healthy cognitions and positive self-talk. We just need to spend at least 15-20 minutes doing anything active: jogging, walking, yoga... whatever it is that we do. This sets a positive tone for the day, helping us to keep off (or at least manage) the stress and make healthy eating choices. During the holidays, it is best to be active every single morning to stay consistent.

Safeguard #2

Our second safeguard is to journal. If we simply write down what we do and feel throughout the day, we become aware of our choices, causing us to continue to make good ones. Research shows that journaling can double the results of weight loss.[annotation4. Baker, R. C., & Kirschenbaum, D. S. (1998). Weight control during the holidays: Highly consistent self-monitoring as a potentially useful coping mechanism. Health Psychology, 17, 367-370 Although losing weight isn’t our goal during the holidays, the principle remains. Through writing, we bring logic back into the present moment, which helps us overcome our emotional tendencies, and positively self-talk our way through holiday eat-a-thons.

When using journaling to stay present and focused during the holidays, be strategic with your timing and content. For maximum results, journal immediately before you show up to a holiday event (i.e. in your car if need be). Write down what you’ve already eaten that day and how your choices have made you feel. If you have been eating healthily so far and are energized and proud of yourself, bringing those thoughts and feelings to the present moment will enhance your opportunity to be mindful about what you choose to eat at the holiday event. Conversely, if you’ve already chosen to eat unhealthily throughout the day, the awareness you bring through this journaling process will help you to create a plan of action for the upcoming event. It’s not about saying to yourself  “Well, I’ve already ruined this day so I’ll start again tomorrow”, but ratherasking yourself, what is one positive thing you can achieve at this event to feel good about yourself and the choices you made.

Safeguard #3

The third safeguard is setting Holiday Indulging Intentions. Remember, this isn’t about denying ourselves anything delicious; our intensions simply set the scene for an enjoyable yet controlled feasting experience. We can choose to allow a small indulgence with each meal, whether it be one piece of cake or a few little cookies. We can also choose to go all out for one special night. The point is to give ourselves reasonable leeway that won’t result in unbuttoned pants and total guilt come the New Year. Along with this, we can use cues—like premade questions pre-programed and scheduled in our smart phones to help us stick to our intentions—to ensure we succeed.

Safeguard #4

The fourth and final safeguard is to own our decisions and enjoy this Holiday Hall Pass! Feeling guilty about indulgences only amps up the stress, leading us right back to the plate of festive chocolates. We can enjoy our holidays and indulge without needing to beat ourselves up. Accept the Holiday Hall Pass and don’t revert to those negative tendencies.

The Holiday Hall Pass allows us to indulge while staving off cravings. Chastising and shaming ourselves only leads to more sugar consumption and bigger waistlines, which isn’t what any of us wants. We can have a fun and enjoyable season without packing on the pounds. So let’s give ourselves the gift of indulgence this holiday season!

Dr. Haley Perlus

Dr. Haley Perlus is a freelance writer and regular contributor to Vega’s Expert Panel. With a Ph.D. in Sport and Exercise Psychology, M.S. in Sport Pedagogy, and numerous fitness and coaching certifications, Dr. Perlus is an expert at empowering athletes of all types and health enthusiasts achieve peak results. An adjunct professor at the University of Colorado, international speaker, former Alpine ski racer, appointed Industry Leader for IHRSA.org, and author including soon-to-be-released The One Minute Dietand Guidebook to Gold, Dr. Perlus helps people reach their highest standard of performance. For a free chapter of one of her books visit www.DrHaleyPerlus.com
Dr. Haley Perlus

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