How to Eat and Stay Healthy this Holiday Season - When it comes to maintaining healthy lifestyles, people tend to fall off the wagon from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day. Then, they set “get in shape” and “lose weight” as New Year’s resolutions. That’s not the best idea, says Charlotte Markey, a Rutgers University-Camden psychologist who teaches a course titled “The Psychology of Eating” and studies eating behaviors, body image, and weight management. Overeating during the holidays, she notes, is not a matter of if, but when. People need to approach their goals in a smarter way.
Rutgers Today spoke with Markey, the author of Smart People Don’t Diet: How the Latest Science Can Help You Lose Weight Permanently, about a more realistic and sustainable strategy to losing weight and living healthier.
Rutgers Today: Why do New Year’s resolutions and “I’ll start on Monday” diets fail?
Markey: It’s easy to say, “I’ll start eating a certain way or exercising more on Monday or on January 1.” We tend to feel better for making a commitment to ourselves to change our diet – in the future.
But when the time for action inevitably comes, we discover that we are not that committed to the change we pledged to make. When we put pressure on ourselves to radically change our behaviors on a predetermined day, we place unrealistic expectations upon ourselves and set ourselves up to fail. Just because we set a date to make a change doesn’t mean that we as people have changed. We will still crave potato chips on Monday and leftover holiday pie on New Year's Day.
Rutgers Today: What is a smarter approach to eating better and exercising more?
Markey: Set small, realistic and achievable goals: Save sweets for after dinner and consume them in moderate proportions; have cocktails only on weekends; take several 15-minute walks per week. These little changes can really add up and are more likely to become sustainable habits.
Rutgers Today: What roles do stress and depression play in eating behaviors?
Markey: Most of us experience stress related to the holidays, but everyone responds to stress and depression in different ways. Some people eat more, some eat less and some can’t eat at all. In anticipation of what can be a challenging month for health behaviors, people can be proactive and work in some fun and relaxing activities, such as walks with friends or getting together with others for common activities such as present wrapping.
That said, if emotions and mental health issues are contributing to bad eating habits throughout the year, you should consult a mental health professional who specializes in body image or weight management.
Rutgers Today: Why should people focus on their eating behaviors and physical activity rather than on the goal of simply losing weight?
Markey: People typically achieve their objectives more effectively when they focus on “approach goals,” which are things they should do, instead of “avoidance goals,” which are things they want to avoid. So, instead of telling yourself “Don’t eat carbs, don’t go out to dinner, don’t have that second glass of wine,” say “I’ll try to eat four fruits and vegetables every day, do something active daily, manage my stress and go to bed earlier to get more sleep.”
Rutgers Today: How does planning help a person stay committed to goals?
Markey: Planning can help you avoid the many convenient, but negative, influences, like take-out and TV dinners or a comfortable couch. Plan a few days to a week in advance what days you will have time to exercise and shop for ingredients for healthy meals that you can make – even with a busy schedule.
Rutgers Today: How can your romantic partner positively affect your healthy living goals?
Markey: A romantic partner can be a great source of support and may even be willing to make changes with you. Why not make it a team effort? You can eat off of smaller plates to help control your portions, agree to eat out only once per week, buy bikes and start riding together on the weekends or take a walk after dinner instead of watching TV. You also can praise each other. No one is going to be motivated to eat better or jog more often when they feel so down on themselves that they don’t even want to lace up their jogging shoes.
Even talking to our partners about our bodies has the potential to improve how we feel about ourselves. In a recent study I did at Rutgers, we asked men and women to talk about their bodies and weight with their partners. Most of the 288 participants reported having healthier body ideals after they talked with their partners. We are often our own worst critics, and partners do not often see the faults that we see in ourselves. Our romantic partners are attracted to us as we are. Talking with them helps us to understand that we need to strive for a healthy body, not an emaciated ideal that we may have initially favored. After all, your ultimate goal is to be healthy and feel good about yourself – no matter your weight.