Have Your Healthiest and Happiest Holidays
Will Willpower or Communities Get Us Through December?
December is here, which means some of our favorite winter holidays are just around the corner! It’s time for snow, hot chocolate, and spending time with family and friends. This is also a hectic month, though: we’re often scrambling to put up decorations, plan family gatherings, plan friend gatherings, shop for gifts and tie up loose ends before vacations and year’s end. The holidays already feel like they revolve around food. When we add the stress of December, we may just say ‘screw it’ then stuff our faces with cookies. If you feel like you just barely made it through Thanksgiving, don’t panic.
Remember: everything fits into the plan! Enjoy the holidays and do what you need to do to feel like you’ve actually celebrated. Don’t let guilt keep you from indulging a little if it’s not Hanukkah without latkes or Christmas without gingerbread. With that being said, we want to be careful that our days of celebration don’t snowball into every day becoming a holiday.
Pro Tip: Plan the day after the holiday so you’re right back to your typical routine.
When we think of how we can stay on track with our health goals, willpower might be our go-to answer. Believe it or not, willpower is a myth! Well…not entirely. But it is a finite resource. Relying on willpower to restrain yourself from eating the entire dessert table likely won’t power you through. It’s not sufficient for us to rely on, especially for long-term goals, and especially at the end of a long day.
Pro Tip: The most powerful use of willpower is using it to create habits and routines.
Think of willpower as a refillable cup. Certain things deplete its contents, like stress, multitasking, lack of sleep, or not keeping commitments. A cup with less water means less ability to restrain ourselves. The catch is, even things we don’t realize drink from our willpower cup. It could be when you’re walking (or driving) down the street seeing an ad for Dunkin Donuts. Or when you smell delicious food frying as you pass a restaurant. Choosing not to go into those places depletes our willpower. Yes, even the small choices we don’t even realize we’re making drink from our cup! Additionally, having to make end-of-year business decisions (or frankly, any decision) drinks from our willpower cup. That’s because it’s all one cup for everything in our lives! For many, there’s a temptation to eat less at other times in an effort to make room for extra indulgences (especially this time of year). Funny enough, low blood sugar also diminishes your cup of willpower! The resulting leptin and ghrelin imbalance (which are the hormones that control satiety and hunger) and low blood sugar will deplete your willpower. So try not to cut calories or eliminate whole food groups. The decision fatigue of having to say no an extra 100 times each day and low blood sugar can make us more likely to make counterproductive choices.
Pro Tip: Minimizing the number of decisions you have to make helps preserve willpower for the moments you really need it.
But there’s good news! Remember, that cup can be replenished. People who are most successful in leveraging willpower use it to create habits and routines rather than to test their wits at a holiday party. They don’t have to drain their cup for every situation. They play offense rather than defense, which means they arrange their lives to minimize emergency situations. Habits and routines account for most situations and minimize the number of decisions we have to make. It creates a system where we don’t have to use willpower for every moment and leaves some in the cup for those moments of stress and cravings.
Pro Tip: Getting enough sleep and eating a nutritious breakfast will start every day with a full cup of willpower thanks to blood sugar stabilization.
To refill our cup, we can start by choosing to live a more balanced lifestyle. This includes proper rest each night, proper nutrition throughout each day, regular activity and, of course, working on our stress. Managing our stress well is crucial to self-control. So if you know that uncle you invite to dinner will cause a scene, get good rest the night before, make sure you’re not starving at dinner time, get some exercise that day and you’ll improve your capacity to handle whatever’s thrown your way (dinner rolls from the family food fight?).
Pro Tip: Maintaining most pieces of your usual routine around the holidays (like your workouts, breakfast, water, etc.) will make it easier to maintain your habits and get back to normal after the holidays.
What if we still struggle with over-indulging? The answer may lie within the communities of people around us. When we get together with friends or family during the holiday, there may be that unspoken (or spoken!) pressure to have three plates of food along with them. We want to still enjoy a meal and holiday with our loved ones, but it can be hard when they don’t respect your wellness goals or your boundaries. So how do we navigate this annual dilemma?
Choosing who we enroll in our journey, who we share our victories with, and who we see on occasion can make all the difference! Decide with whom you will share your health goals. Choose those who will be supportive and non-sabotaging. Not all of your family needs to know. Not everyone is capable of this role and that’s OK! This is all about what works for you and your goals.
Pro Tip: We don’t have to disown our aunt just because she’ll insist we have another serving, even if we’ve already said no. If she’s the type to become more insistent when she knows we’re trying to change our lifestyle, don’t feel obligated to tell her about your weight loss goal. Just tell her that you’re full!
Support from people who are on a similar path is incredibly helpful. It reminds us we’re not alone; we can do it. We can borrow each other’s strength, commitment, and energy when needed and share ours with others as well. You might meet this crew at the gym or it could be the people following the same program as you. These people understand the journey, the struggles, and the triumphs more than most. They can encourage you, even if they don’t necessarily “know” you the same way our childhood friends do. Supportive communities are similar to habits and routines and thus, when appropriately in place, require less willpower. But if they’re subtle saboteurs, we’ll have to strengthen our willpower and be sure to refill the cup ahead of the event.
Pro Tip: Having someone to text for encouragement after getting through a family dinner (…or in the middle of it!) can help refill your cup of willpower! It’s almost like borrowing from their cup!
Focusing on experiences can also help. Everyone may be turning to food to satiate their boredom or because that’s the activity of holidays. If it feels like your gatherings always center around food, create a new social activity for the holiday that everyone can enjoy! It just might create incredible memories and new traditions as well.
Pro Tip: Turn a non-food-related activity into a special tradition! After eating or between meals, take a walk outside to look at decorations or play in the snow with kids.
Our takeaways? You don’t need to white-knuckle your way through the holidays. Willpower can provide us with the motivation to start or get us to the first milestone of a long-term goal, but it is not sustainable or infinitely reliable. Instead, create habits and routines that conserve willpower and refill its cup. Identify the supportive people around you. Avoid subtle saboteurs and cultivate a caring community that will encourage you throughout the holiday season. Let’s celebrate and be merry without regrets. Here’s to your happiest and healthiest holidays!