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Cookies are not the enemy: Smarter ways of thinking about food during the holidays

Make conscious choices, learn to "surf the urge" and have a plan for food pushers.

Christmas cookies
There is a certain Cookie Canon - the classics, the old reliables, the cookies that can appeal to a crowd. Photo by Tom McCorkle for The Washington Post.
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It's an annual holiday tradition that kicks off at Thanksgiving and continues through New Year's: food guilt. Caught between the desire to enjoy holiday favorites and the fear of putting on extra pounds, people bond over the sharing of timeworn tips such as "eat before you go to a party" or "try to fill up on vegetables before you hit the rest of the buffet" - joyless cliches that really don't work. Then, on Jan. 2, they join a gym.

As a dietitian and a certified intuitive-eating counselor, I find that my clients often fall into one of two extremes: plunging into overindulgence or retreating into deprivation. But I know there's a better way to handle the endless parties, cookie-baking co-workers, eggnog lattes and family members pushing second (or third) helpings. My alternatives? Calling a timeout on obsessing over how many carbs or calories are "allowed" or labeling foods as "good" or "bad," in favor of a more meaningful approach - focusing on how they want to feel at the end of the meal, party or evening. The result? Feeling happier, healthier and more at peace. Here's how to try it yourself.

Make conscious choices

Often, food regret happens because we eat on autopilot, pulled along by momentary impulses and others' decisions and desires ("Oh, they're having seconds, so I will, too," or, "I guess I have to try this pie . . . they made it"). In these situations, ask yourself a few reflective questions: What are the holidays about to me? What foods do I look forward to each year? What foods do I always eat that in hindsight I really could care less about?

A habit worth cultivating, before each meal or gathering, is to ask yourself how you want to feel when it's over. Then consider what foods look good, will taste good and make you feel good. Once you have consciously chosen what you want to eat, honor your right to enjoy it guilt-free, even if friends, family or co-workers raise an eyebrow.


Know a craving from an impulse

A true craving - such as when you are yearning for a favorite dish that you haven't enjoyed since last year's holidays - is a slow burn, whereas a food impulse comes on suddenly, often because you see or smell a tempting food. Another difference: A food impulse is generally "of the moment" and will fade if you let it, while a craving lingers or keeps returning.

One technique for dealing with an impulse-type craving is to "surf the urge" rather than trying to block it. Imagine your craving as an ocean wave, and watch as it builds, peaks, then dissipates. What doesn't work is chasing or "eating around" a true craving with foods you deem more acceptable. If what you truly crave is a sugar cookie, trying to satisfy it with cinnamon rice cakes won't work - plus, you may end up eating more than if you had just let yourself enjoy the cookie.

Develop a plan for food pushers

Are you a people-pleaser? Does this extend to food? If so, you should prepare strategies for enforcing your personal boundaries without stepping on toes.

One good tactic is to start with a smile and a compliment: "Wow, that looks delicious," or, "That's so nice of you!" Next, deflect: "Too bad I'm not hungry right now," or, "Wow, I wish I hadn't just eaten lunch . . . I'm stuffed!" If you know the pusher won't be checking up on you, you can say, "I'll have some in a little while."

If none of that works, "No thank you" is always a perfectly acceptable response. Although most food pushers mean well, you're under no obligation to eat food you didn't plan for, aren't hungry for or simply don't want.

Show yourself compassion


Do you find this time of year more stressful than special? Family dynamics being what they are, the holidays can bring a lot of heavy emotional baggage, just as comfort foods - sweet and creamy or crunchy and salty - are close at hand.

If food is your primary - or only - way of coping, this is not the time to pull the blanket out from under yourself. Instead, consider making 2019 the year to get the help you need to develop a more robust set of coping skills.

More food for thought

  • The holiday season can be hectic, making it easy to skip or delay meals. Or, if you have a history of dieting, you might be skipping meals to "save" calories for a holiday gathering. Either can lead to food choices that you don't feel good about in hindsight. Honor your hunger by planning and eating regularly spaced meals.
  • Instead of falling into the all-or-nothing trap - guiltily deciding that anything goes because you've already blown it by overindulging - use curiosity and compassion to reflect on what is happening. Stress? Mindlessness? Lack of boundaries? Extreme hunger?
  • Don't try to arbitrarily fill up on celery sticks at the holiday buffet, but do listen to your body. You'll probably find it craves some lighter fare - such as vegetables - to balance richer holiday delights. Maintaining daily healthful eating habits during the holidays helps bookend those meals that are intended to be special to the season.

Although the modern food environment gives most of us year-round access to almost any food we desire, the holidays are still special - plan to enjoy them, thoughtfully.

This article was written by Carrie Dennett , for The Washington Post.

Registered dietitian is author of "Healthy for Your Life: A Holistic Approach to Optimal Wellness" and owner of Nutrition by Carrie.

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