The football game plays in the background as Grandpa sleeps in front of the TV. Dishes are being washed in a practically overflowing sink. Leftover turkey and pumpkin pie sits wrapped up in the fridge. And guests are headed out the door. It’s around this time, when the festivities have come to an end and exhaustion begins to set in, that many also start to feel a little over-indulgence guilt.
With the holidays come family gatherings, office parties, and other events where sweet treats, comfort foods, and cocktails put even best laid plans to be healthy to the most difficult test. While avoiding frequent and large servings of sugar and fat is generally advisable for overall health and wellbeing, in a quest to be healthy, sometimes the best intentions can actually lead to an unhealthy path. Efforts to eat right become wrong.
“People and their diets cover a whole spectrum with extreme overeating at one end and extreme restriction at the other,” said Kelly Allison, PhD, director of Penn’s Center for Weight and Eating Disorders, who sees patients in her clinic who struggle to find balance. “In American culture, most of people fall closer to one extreme – eating too much. The flip side, however, occurs too, and can cause just as much distress.”
Whether dieting in an effort to squeeze back into that favorite pair of jeans that pinch a little more than they did last year, following a fad diet that demands completely cutting out food groups, or simply trying to eat ”smarter” for long-term health, many will head into the coming months prepared to miss out on holiday festivities that involve food. The fears and behaviors make sense; besides obvious cultural pressures to look “good,” Allison says, it’s no grand revelation that having obesity or even just being someone who is overweight are markers and causes of a lengthy list of health issues. The National Institutes of Health has long reported that being overweight increases the risk of critical and chronic diseases like type 2 diabetes, high blood pressure, and heart disease.
Eating too much or too little may help some feel in control, especially at a time of year when pressures and emotions are often high, Allison said. And, she adds, it’s easier to cut out certain foods rather than attempt to prepare or locate well-balanced meals.
“The ‘this is good and this is bad’ black and white food categories we make in our heads are much easier to manage. Following them requires fewer decisions to be made. But living in what we call ‘the gray area’ and eating all foods in moderation is often the healthiest option.”
The “perfect” diet with no room for error will likely to be broken.
“Setting unrealistic goals is a recipe for disaster,” said Jeremy Tyler, PsyD, an assistant professor of Clinical Psychiatry at the Center for the Treatment and Study of Anxiety. “We are all bound to slip on a restrictive diet or intense workout regimen.”
What’s more, obsessing about food can compound. In the short term, choosing to miss holiday parties and events to avoid temptation, Allison says, can lead to isolation from friends and family, the very people we should be connecting with during this time of year. And in the long term, continually making severe dietary decisions can lead to a lack of vital nutrients, an underweight body, and a weakened immune system.
“Eating is a very social activity, so restricting food can restrict our interactions,” Allison said. “Some people refrain from social engagements where they know they’ll be tempted, while others may be physically present but food-based anxiety or comments about what they’re eating or not eating will keep them from enjoying the occasion. And some who give in to cravings then beat themselves up about it, and that can lead to feelings of depression.”
According to a 2017 AARP survey, 31 percent of people reported feeling lonely at some point during the holiday seasons over the past five years. And social interaction is explicitly tied to not just our mental health but also our physical health. A large 2016 study from the University of North Carolina, Chapel Hill found that as levels of social connection go up, risk of physiological dysregulation, like inflammation, goes down.
“The research tells us that when we aim to strive for perfection, we are more likely to feel anxious, depressed, and self-critical,” Tyler said.
The bottom line, Allison says, is to think twice about skipping the office holiday potluck or leaving the family function before dessert.
“If you’re at a holiday event, think of it as a unique special occasion,” Allison said. “Give yourself permission to enjoy the food in a moderate way. When you’re done, acknowledge you had it. Tell yourself ‘it was good and part of a social situation.’ Then move on and get back to your normal eating routine. Connection during the holidays is just as important as the number on the scale.”