How To Avoid Stress-Eating Over The Holidays

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Staying healthy during the holidays sounds nearly impossible, right? I mean, everywhere you look it's temptation at every angle. Cookies, cakes, pies, oh my! But what if I told you that staying healthy had actually very little to do with food itself? What IF staying healthy during the holidays depended more on our stress levels and mindset than anything?

Let's start by examining the holidays and stress levels as a whole. When we envision the holiday season, we generally think of it as a time for happiness, gift giving, a time for love and family. In actuality, it can be a very stressful time of year. In fact, according to a 2009 study, a striking 90 percent of Americans experience some sort of anxiety during the holidays. So much for it being the most wonderful time of year!

Diving a little deeper, people worry about their financial and work situations, which can become a bigger source of stress than the demands at home. Oftentimes people worry about not being able to afford the holidays or perhaps even getting laid off. People worry about the ability to take time off and the result of an increased workload. Anxiety and stress is also heightened by the pressure and demand to spend a lot of money caused by the commercialization of the season.

Switching gears and putting the holiday season aside, let's review the relationship between stress and food. Studies show that in times of sadness, people favored eating high-fat/sweet rewarding foods and that a rise in emotional distress caused an increase in the intake of "comfort foods," even when we were not hungry and had zero need for calories.

You see, my theory is that maintaining optimal health during the holidays may, in fact, have very little to do with food itself. Perhaps the reason is the toxic combination of an overabundance of pleasurable foods coupled with the increased amount of stress that contributes to unhealthy holidays. In fact, 56 percent of people reported that they were more likely to resort to food as a means of reducing stress during the holidays. Alcohol consumption also jumped; 30 percent said they are likely to turn to booze as a stress reducer during the season.

But then there's one more thing: our mindset. What are we thinking and feeling when we indulge in holiday treats? Chances are if we are already overwhelmed and experiencing holiday anxiety, we are more than likely not having positive thoughts.

Your mindset about your food and what you eat is everything. In fact, according to the New York Times best-selling book E-Squared: 9 Do-It-Yourself Energy Experiments that Prove Your Thoughts Create Your Reality, author Pam Grout challenges readers to set a 72-hour deadline. During this time period, people were instructed to infuse each bite of their food with positive thoughts, envisioning each bite bringing nourishment to your body. After the 72 hours, many people found they lost 3 pounds!

And then there is the famous (and my favorite) Milkshake Study conducted by researcher Alia Crum. Crum was curious if the placebo effect elicited the same results in food labels as it did with medication. She divided people into two groups and gave each group the same milkshake (with about 300 calories total). The catch was that one group's milkshake was labeled "sensishake" and that it was fat-free and guilt-free with only 104 calories. In contrast, the other group's shake was labeled "indulgence" and "decadence" with a whopping 620 calories. Crum studied a hormone called ghrelin, which signals the need for food. When we are hungry, our ghrelin levels rise, causing our metabolism to drop in case we do not find food. When we eat, our ghrelin levels drop and metabolism spikes to digest the food.

The results? Participants consuming the "light" shake had significantly higher levels of ghrelin compared to those consuming the "indulgent," shake which exhibited much lower levels of ghrelin. In fact, the "indulgent" group's ghrelin levels dropped an impressive three times as much as the "light" group, meaning that their milkshake had left them more satisfied on a physiological level.

These studies reflect the direct relation between our thoughts and mindset and the food we eat. If we enforce negative thoughts, our bodies will respond negatively. The reverse is also true: If we enforce positive thoughts, our bodies will respond accordingly.

OK, back to the holidays, so what does this mean? The toxic combination of high stress, easily accessible indulgences, and negative emotions contribute to a decline in health during the holidays. Chances are if we are stressed out and eating an abundance of pleasurable foods, we are more than likely feeling extremely guilty, which has a direct effect on how we digest and absorb our foods. Don't get me wrong; I'm not saying limit your stress and then eat everything in sight and it will be OK. I am pointing out the fact that perhaps our stress is driving us to eat more (particularly unhealthy) foods that are readily available this time of year. If we are less stressed, we will not feel the need to overindulge.

This holiday season, the focus needs to be on limiting stress, which starts with getting plenty of sleep. Lack of sleep is related to an increase in hunger and appetite, possibly even to obesity! Lack of sleep has also been known to stimulate cravings for high-fat, high-carbohydrate foods, and with all of the holiday treats easily accessible, it's probably not a good combination. It is also important to remember to keep a routine exercise regimen, even if it's moderate activity for 15 minutes a day, as this will help alleviate stress and maintain optimal health. Incorporating yoga and meditation is another wonderful way to help reduce stress and ease anxiety during the holidays.

I truly believe that if we focus on limiting our stress during the holidays, the abundance of sinful treats will not overcome our health. If we are not as stressed, we are less likely to overindulge. When we do treat ourselves, we will enjoy it and not feel guilty. If we approach the holidays with a positive mindset especially around the food we're eating, we will be able to sustain a healthy, guilt-free holiday season.

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