What if you've identified your red flags, but you don't heed them? Bohner uses a quick test to put things in perspective. "I use a scale of zero to 10, with zero being starving and 10 really stuffed. I write down how I felt when I started eating and when I finished." When she goes over seven, she knows she was eating to meet emotional needs rather than actual hunger. "There's no reason to eat until you're stuffed," she adds.
Whatever method you choose, it's best to take stock and be honest with yourself. If your goal is to exercise three times a week, how many sessions do you miss before you admit you are slipping? Going to an event without a plan is also a signal that you're not focusing on your eating.
Besides the red flags, it's important to understand other, more subtle tricks you use to justify an overindulgence. "We all tell ourselves stories that are the same, time after time, like 'if I overeat Friday or Saturday, I'll be extra good Monday morning,'" Bartlett says. "Other familiar half-truths are: 'I've eaten an extra thousand calories so I'll do an extra session at the gym,' or 'I'll eat what I want tonight and worry about it tomorrow.'"
Still, lapses are inevitable no matter how well prepared you are. And when you slip, you become vulnerable to a common pitfall abandoning your entire plan until after the holidays because you made one mistake. It's far better to forgive yourself and move on. "Recognize what's going on, stop it and get back on track quickly," says Bartlett. "I tell people to put things in perspective and remind them that overeating on one occasion is not what causes weight gain; it's consistently eating too much."
Taking this into account, the group members did a lot of planning for "the day after." When someone slipped up at a party, they mapped out what to eat at their next meal, checking calorie and fat intake. Surprisingly, even when someone breezed through a party, she often needed a strategy to get through the next few days.
"It's easy to underestimate how difficult it will be to avoid overeating at a party, either as a reward or because you've been stimulated and you're biologically hungry. And psychologically you're tired, so you may not be as good at recognizing the danger signs," Bartlett maintains.
The holiday season can be stressful. You may be feeling financially pinched or extra tired from lack of sleep. And extended visits with your family are not always tension-free. To avoid getting trapped into using eating as an emotional crutch, devise strategies for basic self-preservation. "Focus on what you absolutely need so you don't get caught in a whirlwind," suggests Bartlett. This may mean having time alone, getting enough sleep, having your family help out with shopping or food preparation, or hiring extra help to clean.
Because you may feel under a lot of stress, it's easy to overeat at home too. Here, it pays to challenge some of your basic assumptions. For instance, just because you've always done it, do you have to bake six dozen sugar cookies this year? If you have them around the house, you'll eat them. Bake fewer or give some away.
Several group members found themselves in a quandary about what to serve at their parties, worrying that their guests would only enjoy rich foods and eggnog. But it's perfectly acceptable to modify recipes, using lower-fat options, or to offer a variety of choices.
"When I have a party, I can control the kinds of foods offered," says Barchowsky. "Obviously, I'm not going to invite my friends over and give them only low-fat, low-calorie foods. I'll serve cookies too." And share the wealth: Give calorie-laden leftovers to guests as they leave, instead of packing them into the refrigerator, where they'll be tough to resist.
Exercise, Exercise, Exercise
Every week, try to have as many "normal" days when you eat healthy foods and exercise as possible. While a workout can't compensate for overeating, it does help stabilize weight and gives you a psychological boost too. Of course, it's frequently the first thing to be eliminated from a busy schedule. "Write your exercise time in your weekly planner and consider it as absolute," says Bartlett, who also suggests tapping into what may be a hidden resource, namely, your family.
If you have a weight problem, family members may not know how to help. It's up to you to figure out your vulnerabilities and strengths and communicate them.
Weight specialist Susan Bartlett suggests the following ways to keep your caloric count in check at a big event:
Don't arrive hungry; eat something before you go.
Pass up peanuts, pretzels, chips, and other everyday snacks. Spend your calories on the special treats you really want.
Wear a form-fitting outfit, with a belt if possible.
Make socializing, rather than food, the focus of the event.
Keep your portions in check to keep calories under control.
Plan how much alcohol you'll drink. It loosens your inhibitions and contributes to calorie consumption.
Don't stand near the buffet table. In fact, keep your back to it, so you won't even see it!
Make a deal with yourself that you will learn something new about someone you don't know at the party.
Wear a special piece of jewelry a sparkly bangle or big ring as a visible reminder to yourself to eat in moderation.
Practice saying "no, thank you." It's okay to turn down invitations or tell a pushy host you don't want seconds.