How to avoid eating a huge holiday meal
Illustration: Serge Bloch
Ahhh, the good cheer, the family gatherings, the gift giving—and the extra pound or two that appears just in time for New Year's. Suzette Glasner-Edwards's "assertive dieting" techniques will help you survive the season with no pain and, best of all, no gain.
"It's the holidays. I can always restart my regular eating habits come January." Whether my patients say it or hear it from others, that sentiment can sabotage smart eating plans. And it helps explain why this time of year marks the beginning of irrevocable weight gain. Research published in the New England Journal of Medicine suggests that while people tack on only about a pound at the holidays, they don't lose it—the gain just stays through the winter and accumulates, year after year.

To avoid that trap, you'll need to gird yourself against the temptations at parties and family dinners. That's where assertive dieting comes in: I teach my patients how to anticipate problems and effective ways to say no—and mean it. The decision to give in to or resist an impulse often comes down to a split second. Taking charge in that moment with grace is a skill that requires preparation, rehearsal, and a handful of strategies that you can use in any social situation.

Well-meaning friends and relatives will go to what often feels like malicious lengths to get you to overeat. Some of the pressure is understandable. After all, food has become mixed up with demonstrations of affection; think of not just holidays but weddings, bar mitzvahs, and even wakes—they all prominently feature food. As a result, rejecting a second helping can feel as if you're rejecting a loved one. Cathleen Adams, a systems analyst in Los Angeles who has dieted on and off throughout her life, knows that feeling well. "It's very hard for me to say no to anyone. Finding ways of doing it without hurting people's feelings has been a challenge."

Jeffery Anne Bellows, a mother of three who lives in Denver, feels guilty when declining a home-cooked meal. "If someone has gone to a lot of trouble to make a special dinner, I don't want her to think I didn't like it," says Bellows. That worry has led to some regrettable diet lapses for her.

Adams uses a technique I teach: practicing assertive statements. Working on this with dieting buddies or other supportive friends is a great way to build the skill. Alternatively, you can polish your assertive style in front of the mirror. The trick is to strike the right note—regardless of how someone's offer of food may feel, their intentions are usually pure. I recommend people comment on how delicious the food looks and recognize the effort that went into preparing it: "Wow, that looks fabulous! You must have spent a lot of time making it." And yes, definitely practice until you find a way to sound natural and convincing—"I think I'll pass this time," for example.

You don't gain immunity from peer pressure when you graduate from high school. Studies have found that even adults feel the need to conform, and it's so automatic that it barely enters our conscious thought. Many of my patients report that fear of attracting attention or having to explain that they're dieting has led them to make food choices that are inconsistent with their goals.

I tell my would-be assertive dieters that weight and health goals have to take precedence over the reactions and feelings of others. When Adams senses her willpower wavering, she reminds herself about her family's history of diabetes and weight problems, both of which make her concerns about offending a friend seem insignificant. With those priorities in mind, she can trump her need to please others and politely decline.

Letting go of others' opinions has been another valuable technique for Bellows. Even though it makes her feel self-conscious, she'll typically eat only half of what she's served. "I've noticed that people overserve their guests, the same way restaurants do," Bellows says. She puts the fork down and resists eating more by telling herself, 'This doesn't work with my calorie count for the day; I'm just going to stop, and that's of primary importance.'

If you still feel as if saying no puts you in the spotlight, you're probably overestimating how much attention others are paying. I like to remind my patients that at social gatherings, most people—hosts included—are too busy socializing to see what other partygoers are eating. And even if someone does take notice, successful assertive dieters learn to shrug it off. Bellows' daughter, Anne, a project director in Los Angeles, maintains a "so what" attitude by reminding herself of the most important asset she brings to any social event: herself. "Coming to the party, having fun, and being me is what matters, not what I eat when I'm there."

Turkey and stuffing? Check. Mashed potatoes, check. Pie, check. Within reason, you know what will be on the table before you arrive for most big meals, and if you're not sure, call ahead. Then you'll be able to sit down ahead of time and plan out what—and how much—you can eat. (Be sure to save a few calories for the unexpected treat just in case someone offers your own personal kryptonite—egg nog, say, or pecan pie.) This is a great assertive dieting tactic you can employ year-round. Before dining out, Bellows sometimes looks up a restaurant menu online and decides in advance what to order. When she's at the restaurant, she requests a to-go container when the food arrives so that when she hits her portion limit she can immediately pack away the leftovers. At a large holiday gathering, the food will be sitting in front of you for a while, but with a little preparation you can make sure you don't overload your plate. If you're at a buffet, prior to serving yourself, scan the selections carefully for what you can eat to squelch impulsive food choices. And assertive dieters tell themselves that the first selections are final; no going back for seconds.

Having lost 63 pounds, Bellows now knows she can learn something new from every experience, even if she does make an error. And her experience has taught her that the most important thing is to be forgiving: "There are times when you'll succumb to the temptation and times that you won't. But beating yourself up about it will only make you eat more."

Suzette Glasner-Edwards, PhD, is a clinical psychologist and researcher at UCLA.


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