A whirlwind of office parties, family reunions, and shopping days, the holiday season can easily sabotage the healthy limits we normally set for ourselves. But it's not just the overabundance of sweets that lures us, says Judith Wright, author of The Soft Addiction Solution (Tarcher, 2006). “The holidays stir up emotions that we often don't know how to deal with, so we end up self-medicating through unhealthy behaviors,” she says. Plus stress — another bad-habit trigger — can get exceptionally intense during this time of year. “When we don't have ways to relieve stress every day, our habits tend to break down,” says Wright. Of course, stress isn't exactly a holiday-specific phenomenon. But when compounded with the season's tendency to disrupt our regular routines, it can leave us especially vulnerable to relapse.
In some cases, it may be best to avoid the party circuit altogether and unwind by seeing a movie with a friend, but simply making a commitment to abide by healthy habits can be a good step. “If you hold a vision of yourself as a healthy, fit person, it can help you be more immune to temptation,” says Wright. Research supports this idea: In a Brown Medical School study published earlier this year, people who planned to firmly maintain their usual diets over the holidays ended up exercising more often and practicing greater restraint with food than other study participants. So make a commitment, then try these expert tricks to stay on track.
Nourish — don't nosh distractedly
Powerless against pumpkin pie? It's likely you're looking for another kind of nourishment, says Carol H. Munter, psychoanalyst and co-author of Overcoming Overeating (Da Capo, 1998). “If you're compulsively eating, it's often because you're using food to find calm rather than ease hunger,” she says. “So when you feel the urge to indulge, ask yourself if it's a physical or emotional need. If it's the latter, you need to find another way to soothe yourself.” Aside from seeking out a professional to talk to and sticking to your regular stress-busting exercise routine, set aside 20 minutes each day for activities that feed your spirit — such as meditation, yoga, listening to music, or reading a good book — to enhance your overall sense of calm, says Wright. Also try the following.
Eat well, consistently. Depriving yourself of good food makes you much more likely to overeat at gatherings, says Melinda Johnson, RD, of Chandler, Arizona. Instead of holding off on food all day in anticipation of eating heartily that night, be sure to munch on delicious, nutrient-rich eats throughout your day. Another trick: Sit down to a small meal before going out, making sure to slowly savor each bite. “You'll take the edge off your hunger, which allows you to make saner choices once you're at the party,” explains Johnson. Incorporate lean protein sources, such as fish or legumes, to help boost satiety and prevent overeating, suggests Cathy Wong, ND, author of The Inside Out Diet (Wiley, 2007). A 2007 study performed at Pennsylvania State University also showed that consuming a low-calorie, broth-based soup first may help you eat fewer calories later during a meal.
Give yourself a task
“If you assign yourself a job at a party, it will make you less likely to overeat just to have something to do,” says Wright. Take on the task of introducing partygoers to each other, or help the host take coats from guests. “Instead of going into the party thinking, ‘I'm going to feel awkward and out of place,’ you can make yourself more comfortable by making other people feel comfortable too,” says Wright.
Satisfy your sweet tooth naturally
It's no secret that sugar-laden pies and cookies can lead to unwanted pounds. To cut back without sacrificing altogether, Wong recommends turning to naturally sweet goodies like cinnamon-sweetened chai tea (without added sugar) and using the sugar substitute erythritol in your holiday baked goods. Extracted from fruit, erythritol is 70 percent as sweet as table sugar and can also be used in coffee and tea, says Wong.
Raise your glass — in moderation
Sipping mulled wine or champagne can be a fine way to celebrate, but holiday cheer shouldn't end in a hangover. If you have a hard time stopping after a few swigs of egg-nog — which also packs major calories — Wright recommends assessing your stress levels. “Overdrinking often occurs when you're feeling anxious at a function,” she says. “But if you have some awareness of those feelings, you can try to focus on talking to a friend instead of stuffing your feelings away with alcohol.”
Banish butterflies with botanicals
To avoid overdoing it, consider easing anxiety beforehand with natural remedies, says Wong. In addition to sipping tension-taming chamomile tea while getting ready, try taking a few drops of Bach Rescue Remedy (a flower-essence combo) or a tincture of passionflower. You can also dab a handkerchief with a few drops of lavender essential oil and breathe it in whenever you need to unwind your nerves.
Have a party plan
It's smart to set a drink limit for yourself — one or two glasses of wine, for instance — before hitting up a soirée, says Wright. “And make sure you go into the party well hydrated, so you don't end up drinking something alcoholic just because you're thirsty,” she adds. For extra support during those high-temptation moments, ask a friend or loved one to serve as your go-to person. For example, “plan to make contact with each other several times throughout the night,” Wright recommends. “If you're going alone, choose a friend who you can call to check in with, so you can feel like you've got a buddy on your side.”
Switch it up
Keep a glass in hand, but rather than polishing off one cocktail after another, alternate alcoholic beverages with nonalcoholic drinks such as spiced tea or sparkling water. “Try to make the alcohol-free drinks special in some way — by adding fruit or mixing the sparkling water with juice — so you're not just stuck with tap water,” says Wright. Sipping spritzers (white wine and club soda) also helps save you from getting sozzled, says Johnson. Or, if you're ordering a mixed drink like vodka and soda, ask the bartender to go easy on the alcohol, pour more of the bubbly stuff, and add a splash of fruit juice.
Curtail caffeine dependency
Even if you're not usually caffeine crazed, relying on coffee, soda, and other stimulants to power through overscheduled days can quickly become habit. Caffeine may exaggerate the body's response to stress and — when used in excess — result in headaches, anxiety, and nervousness for many people, says Wong. She recommends sticking to a daily caffeine intake of less than 100 mg (approximately one 8-ounce cup of coffee, or two cups of black or green tea) as well as avoiding sugar-packed — or artificially sweetened — energy drinks.
Rest up, work out
“If you find yourself relying on caffeine to get through slumps, take a look at how you're sleeping,” Johnson urges. Getting at least eight hours sleep each night is essential for restoring energy and preventing crashes, as well as sharpening memory and taming inflammation, she explains. If you start to drag midday, try taking a quick walk around the block. “Sometimes when you're reaching for caffeine, what you're really craving is a little movement to get your blood pumping,” Johnson points out.
Energize with herbs
For optimal energy when you're stressed out, adaptogens can work wonders, says Wong. Adaptogenic herbs support adrenal function, offset the ill effects of stress, and boost your cells' access to energy. What's more, several adaptogens — including eleuthero and astragalus — may rev up immunity and protect against viruses, such as those that cause colds and flu. Wong suggests taking ½ teaspoon ashwagandha tincture three times a day and 200 mg rhodiola in capsules once a day or seeking out a supplement formula that contains both.
Certain essential oils — such as rosemary, bergamot, eucalyptus, and lemon — can enhance your energy when you smell them, Wong says. For a quick pick-me-up, place a drop or two of oil on a tissue or handkerchief and breathe in deeply, suggests Wong. You can also mix 10 drops of oil per 1 ounce of water in a spray bottle; spritz throughout the room when your energy is low.
Log off, tune in to others
Can't tear yourself away from your computer? That fixation may signal a craving for connection or need to escape a certain feeling or situation. “Oftentimes, that urge to constantly check email or log on to social networking sites reflects a hunger to belong and be part of something,” explains Wright. It might even mask a more serious problem for some people: In a number of studies published in the past few years, scientists have detected a link between Internet dependency and depression. For parents of young kids, Internet obsession can be particularly detrimental to family relationships. By tracking the triggers that send you straight for the screen, says Wright, you can break down your Internet addiction and build deeper, more satisfying connections.
Take time each day to catch up with a friend or a loved one — whether it's on a lunch date or over the phone. “Once you get more of that real contact in your life, the old habits begin to drop off,” says Wright. What's more, social connection is known to stave off depression and lessen the risk of Internet addiction.
Set a screen-time schedule
Without establishing a limit to your online time, it's easy to waste hours hopping from site to site. Wright recommends scheduling a few blocks of Internet time each day, and keeping your computer off (laptop closed, monitor covered) at all other times. If you're clacking away at the keyboard till the wee hours of the morning, you may need to reinvent your bedtime routine. Power down earlier, relax, and indulge in a favorite activity. “It helps to give yourself a treat, like taking a bath or reading a few chapters from a book,” says Wright. Plus, bedtime rituals support healthy sleep, something you may need more of, says Wong.
Telling the people you trust about your health goals can provide both support and the motivation to push on. “Once you've let people know what you're trying to do, it gives you some social incentive to stay on track,” says James Claiborn, PhD, psychoanalyst and author of The Habit Change Workbook (New Harbinger, 2001). And for extra encouragement, enlist a friend to team up with you on healthy activities like working out and preparing good-for-you meals.
KEEP IT UP
How to make good habits stick? Check out these secrets to healthy success, shared by James Claiborn, PhD.
Whether you're trying to kick caffeine or quit biting your nails, tracking your habitual behaviors in a journal may help shake them off. “These behaviors are often automatic, so simply paying more attention to them can go a long way in making changes,” says Claiborn.
TAKE BABY STEPS
Especially during the frantic holiday season, setting reasonable goals is crucial. “If you say, ‘I'm going to run three miles a day,’ it may seem so overwhelming that you end up not following through,” says Claiborn. “But if you aim for 15 minutes of walking daily and build from there, it's much more manageable.”
PREP YOURSELF FOR SLIPUPS
Occasional relapses are nearly inevitable, says Claiborn. But beating yourself up only worsens the situation. “Just look at it as a learning opportunity,” encourages Claiborn. “Ask yourself what went wrong, what set you off, and which risky situations you might want to protect yourself from in the future.”
According to the American Lung Association, about 18 percent of U.S. women and 24 percent of U.S. men smoke cigarettes, greatly upping their risk of heart disease, several forms of cancer, macular degeneration, and other chronic diseases. The holidays can be a tough time to stub out the habit, but these effective therapies can help you stay on the path to becoming smoke free.
Known to ease stress, reduce cigarette cravings, and alleviate nicotine withdrawal symptoms, this needle-based Chinese therapy has been shown to benefit quitters in several recently published studies.
ST. JOHN'S WORT
A small study in Complementary Therapies in Medicine found that taking the mood-boosting herb St. John's wort might help you stick to not smoking. Because St. John's wort can interact harmfully with some prescription and over-the-counter medications, Cathy Wong, ND, recommends consulting a physician before using the herb.
A 2008 report from Nicotine & Tobacco Research indicated that combining hypnotherapy with the nicotine patch may yield long-term benefits for those attempting to quit smoking. To find a therapist near you, visit the National Board for Certified Clinical Hypnotherapists at natboard.com.
A freelancer based in Los Angeles, Elizabeth Barker has resolved to finally break her long-lasting Red Vines habit in 2009.