Food and Mood
Eating well and feeling good through the holidays
Every year, just before Thanksgiving, Nancy Cyr posts a big graph on her refrigerator door that stays up through New Year’s Day. One line counts the days; the other logs the pounds. “I do a daily weigh in and track how much I gain or lose through the holidays,” she says. “It’s very important to me to have this visual reminder.” The chart literally keeps her “on track,” but it also helps emphasize her long-term, positive goal: maintaining personal health. “In Weight Watchers they say, ‘Never let a lapse become a collapse,’” says Cyr, finance director at the University’s Education Innovation Laboratory, and part of the Weight Watchers group at Harvard since 2002. “I try to keep that in mind. Because once you start beating yourself up—‘I’m such a pig, I ate that chocolate cake’—there is no energy to do something good for yourself. You’ve got to keep away from the self-loathing.”
Such preventative measures work well. Though Cyr opts out of the Weight Watchers’ point-counting regimen on Thanksgiving Day (especially for one of her favorite traditions: pecan pie), she sticks to healthier options at parties and outings during the rest of the season. “At a buffet, I take a look and see what’s there—I stay away from the dessert table—and go for the low-fat proteins and vegetables. Once I have what I want on my plate, I get away from the tables—and I don’t go back.”
This kind of proactive planning may sound vaguely militaristic, but Cyr is not the only one who seeks or employs such strategies to manage the temptation to over-indulge during the holidays—and throughout the long, cold New England winter. “The season is a perfect storm for overeating,” says former MIT nutritional biochemist Judith Wurtman, M.A.T. ’60, who has studied food and mood, seasonal affective disorder, and weight issues, among other health concerns that largely affect women. “The darkness and the cold, feelings of depression, increased access to alcohol and food, and the tradition of using the holidays as celebrations—these all make people not want to control themselves. And that’s why it’s almost inevitable that people gain weight by eating too much and not exercising over the holidays.”
The annual, cyclical rise in the number of visitors to health clinics, gyms, spas, and weight-management programs reflects overriding concerns about possible, probable, or actual seasonal weight gain. “I always have appointments the day before Thanksgiving,” says Barbara Boothby, chief clinical dietician and program manager for nutrition services at Harvard University Health Services. “Some people try to plan ahead and anticipate some of the issues, and some people are thinking about how it went last year and want to manage it better. Then in January, you have the ‘fresh start’ phenomenon.’” Judith Wurtman used to run a yearlong weight-loss program with weekly therapy sessions. During the holidays, she reports, some participants would say, “‘Don’t expect us to stay on a diet. Forget about it. We’re going to gain weight—it’s Christmas.’ And they all came back five pounds heavier.”
Why should this necessarily be the case? Why is there an assumption that it’s OK to treat our bodies badly over the holidays?
In a society plagued by obesity, diabetes, coronary disease, and other severe health problems related to being overweight, examining the assumptions around holiday consumption makes sense, Wurtman says. And figuring out our own ways of coping with the physical—and emotional—reasons for over-indulgence is a good place to start. “All of this is not new to us—‘Hello folks, it’s going to get dark very early in the day starting in the fall and we’re going to want to eat more,’” she explains. “People have to start thinking about how they should prepare and react to this beforehand.
“People need to recognize that whatever positive behaviors and habits they took on in the summer—eating more vegetables, not eating junky carbs like chips and candy and pastries—can continue into the winter,” she continues. “It should not be a matter of choice. Do you stop bathing and washing your hair, or stop feeding and walking the dog? These are not negotiable. If you’re already facing a weight problem, drinking and eating more is not good for you. And it’s not good for your sleep or cognition the next day. You have to take an interest in your own health now and in the future and exercise some restraint.”
A sobering holiday greeting, no doubt. Yet why should food be the center of holiday and winter fun? There are plenty of other corporeal pleasures to indulge in on a cold winter’s eve. Elizabeth Somer, author of the popular Food & Mood: The Complete Guide to Eating Well, proffers suggestions at http://elizabethsomerblog.com. “Food is an important part of holiday festivities. The key is to preserve the tradition and avoid the binge,” she begins. Focus on the real meaning of the holiday: enjoying the company of people you want to be with. “That means putting food in its place. Mindlessly inhaling a third helping of stuffing won’t satisfy your soul and build memories like holding grandpa’s hand during the Super Bowl or sharing belly laughs with your sister in the kitchen.” So consider other non-food-oriented winter activities: host a game or talent night with family friends, open up the floor for dancing, meet at the local sledding hill, or swim at the nicest indoor pool you can find (preferably with a hot tub!). Or simply gather with others to commemorate a loved relative, read favorite poems, and tell stories from holidays past.
Why does food take on emotional weight, so to speak, in times of stress? One reason is that physiologically, we’re still hard-wired to do something physical to combat feelings of anxiety, overwhelming emotions, et cetera, says Barbara Boothby. “But in this day and age, our response to that physical need is to eat, when that is the last thing we need. What we really need to do is move our bodies—go outside, get some exercise—or get some water, or sleep—or get away from the people who are annoying us!”
The holiday season can certainly be “merry and bright,” but it also can be taxing, or even depressing, for many people. There’s the compulsive socializing—often at parties with people we wouldn’t necessarily choose to spend time with—and the stimulation (bad or good) of having relatives around, Judith Wurtman says. There’s the added pressure to spend money that you may not have on gifts, and the time and work involved in finding the “perfect presents.” Taking some time out every day to gain perspective on what’s happening, how you feel, and what you’re doing helps process this extra stimulation and these tasks. “Most of us are busy, and when you add the busyness of the holidays, it’s easy to lose sight of mindfulness and taking care of yourself,” Boothby explains. “Often, instead of eating, people might simply need to take some quiet downtime.”
When it comes to parties, Wurtman suggests making sure you really want to go in the first place. Then assess what, if anything, is causing distress before you go—that way, “you are less likely to eat and drink impulsively in order to make yourself feel better emotionally.” Look at your party calendar and decide to attend only half the events, she adds, and don’t stay long if you aren’t having fun. (Wurtman admits she sometimes used to have her children phone her at a set time when she went out, so she could pretend they needed her at home.) “People really notice only if you don’t show up at all,” she says. “You can walk in and say, ‘Hello, thanks for having me, your house looks beautiful.’ You don’t have to stay and overeat. Or you can scan the room and think, ‘What’s my strategy for dealing with this nervous-making situation? Do I seek someone particular out to talk to? Do I take frequent breaks in the bathroom to escape?’”
Wurtman’s advice on family gatherings is equally pragmatic. “Do you really have to have 50 relatives over at Christmas?” she asks. “If you really can’t stand being with your family, can you possibly go away without having them write you out of the will?” And whether families gather by custom or by choice, members can still de-emphasize eating together by doing other things together: taking the dogs for a long walk, playing a game of soccer outside or board games inside, or asking people to bring current photos in order to create a family scrapbook that everyone can decorate (and then bestow on the eldest member of the clan).
Physical activities can help curb the desire for “trigger foods.” Nancy Cyr, for example, finds that sweets—especially chocolate—draw her like an intoxicating drug. “I can have one bite of a soft, gooey, homemade cookie, and there go the rest of them,” she says. “There are a lot of problems that can be solved momentarily by eating a bowl of chocolate-chip cookie dough.” Luckily, Cyr enjoys winter and its sports; she and her family run a traditional road race every Thanksgiving morning, which makes everyone feel good and energized. “Then we eat in the middle of the day, so there’s no big buildup to the big meal,” she says. “And then it’s still light out, so everyone can take a walk afterwards.”
Building in routines for exercise and access to sunshine does a lot for our psyche, adds Judith Wurtman. “People, especially women, have to be given permission to act in their own best interest,” she explains. “At the end of the day, remember that this is your body—not your hostess’s, not your mother’s—and you’re not benefiting anyone by overeating and -drinking. If Christmas and the other holidays are about being kind to others, then start by being kind to yourself.”