Health Tip: Downsizing Holiday Angst

Ruzanna Harutyunyan's picture

The holidays can be tough on anybody watching their weight, but they're even harder for people coping with being overweight or obese, according to Martin Binks, director of behavioral health at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center.

Social situations make people feel self-conscious about what they wear and what they eat to the point where some feel they're being judged for every morsel that touches their lips.

Today, more people face that challenge than ever before. Nearly two-thirds of the U.S. population is considered overweight or obese, according to the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, MD. Yet being overweight still carries a stigma that isn't easily erased.

"Some of the popular misconceptions about obesity are that people bring it on themselves, and that they look forward to the holidays so they can eat more," Binks says.

That's far from the truth. In reality, Binks says overweight people face this season with nervousness and anxiety. They're afraid they don't have the willpower to endure the many vulnerabilities. Some work doubly hard to avoid the social gatherings or certain foods or triggers. Others say they feel subjected to the judgmental eyes of others. "Even if they aren't being judged, they become so self-conscious that they think they are," he says.

Compounding the problem is the intense focus placed on food and its relation to holiday gatherings.


"Advertising and marketing dollars are spent trying to make us hungry and to associate good emotional experiences with food," he says. And all those visual cues makes the struggle to stay the course that much harder for some folks. "Studies show that people trying to lose weight respond more strongly to food cues in certain areas of their brain," Binks says. They're also more susceptible to the perceived emotional and psychological rewards associated with eating.

Binks says everyone can and should celebrate the holiday season without feeling badly, or putting too much pressure on themselves. Here's how:

Indulge in the inner spirit of the holiday, not the eating. What's the true purpose of the event: to overeat, or to be with friends and family and spend time playing with the kids? "If food is the entire focus, you've lost the true meaning of the gathering," he says.

When temptation looks you in the eye, use portion control. It never feels good to deprive yourself, Binks says, and you shouldn't have to. If it's a holiday meal, and you eat a little more, it won't kill your weight loss effort as long as you don't give up on your exercise plan and you get back on track with your health plan the next day.

Be like everybody else during the holidays. "Who says that because you struggle with weight that you have to be a completely different person than everyone else in society on that holiday? You can, within reason, do what everybody else does on that day and cut loose a little." Just make sure the holiday doesn't last through January.

Be realistic. If you're doing the party circuit, then spend the time socializing, not indulging. "Act the part by putting one thing on your plate, and using it as a prop," he says.

Make a resolution to find out what you're really hungry for in life and what you're looking for that you can't find in food. "That emotional piece is so important," Binks said.


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