Far too many Americans look at the holidays as one big "all you can eat" contest with every intention of turning things around come January 2. However, research shows most holiday pounds tend to stay right where they are. While many of us make light of the nationwide pig-out between Halloween and New Year's, health experts say it's no laughing matter because it can feed a sugar addiction with lasting health consequences.
Studies show the average American gains between two and ten pounds during the holiday season, with already overweight people gaining the most. Research neuroscientist Dr. Nicole Avena, author of Why Diets Fail, told CBN News the main reason so many of us gain too much weight during the holidays is that we literally become addicted to the ingredients in today's holiday fare.
Sugar Addiction Can Kill
She says certain foods can hijack the mind much like alcohol, drugs and nicotine can.
"It's not our moral failing because we don't have the willpower or we can't control ourselves," she said, "Sometimes it's the food in our environment that is hurting us."
She says research studies suggest the most addictive foods are those that are highly processed.
"Foods you're going to find on the shelf in the grocery store that are going to last a couple of months, foods that have more than five ingredients, that are going to contain chemicals and other things and preservatives in them," she explained.
After a two-month feeding frenzy, come January it's really hard to stick with a New Year's resolution to lose weight.
"What happens is a few days into it they start to feel a headache and lethargic and they start to feel irritable. That's sugar withdrawal," she said, "The majority of diets that end on January fifth or sixth are because people are experiencing that sugar withdrawal."
This pattern can lead to heart disease, cancer, even Alzheimer's.
"When people are consuming these foods over the course of a lifetime," Dr. Avena said, "They can gunk-up the works in many ways and that helps decrease our cognitive functioning and reduce our ability to think clearly. And this gets more and more apparent as people get older."
Six Tips to Help You Win the Battle of the Bulge
The good news is we can dodge the sugar addiction far too many Americans fall into thanks to common-sense tips that are proven to work.
1. Fill-Up on the Good Stuff: Don't let yourself get ravenous, because that's when we discard self-control. For example, eat a salad full of fresh vegetables before you head out to that holiday gathering. Always carry healthy snacks like nuts, fresh fruit or a hard-boiled egg with you to eat when you're faced with temptation, such as when someone puts a mound of fattening snacks in the office break room. Likewise, drink lots of water throughout the day to help you feel full. Believe it or not, sometimes when we think we're hungry, we're actually thirsty!
2. Stick to this Party Strategy: Many hosts are delighted to have help with the food (or even ask for it). Dr. Avena says, "If you're invited to a holiday event you don't have to bring a dessert. You can bring something healthy that you want to eat so that that way if everyone is putting out their items on the table you'll know that there's at least one thing that's healthy." She suggests a roasted vegetable tray or a platter of raw vegetables with hummus dip.
Eat just one moderate plate of food, then physically remove yourself from the food table or kitchen for the rest of the party. This way you're less likely to go back for more.
Make a friend! Research shows we tend to eat less while talking to someone new.
Don't leave with food. Kindly decline your host's attempts to give you left-over party food to take home.
3. Stick to this Restaurant Strategy: Most restaurant entrées are far too large and contain an average of 1,000 calories! Dr. Avena recommends when you place your order, ask your waiter for half now and the other half for later. "We have this psychological desire to eat what's in front of us and it's very difficult to shut that off. So I say, 'nip it in the bud.' Ask the server to wrap up half the portion right from the get-go"
Instead of ordering an entrée, just get an appetizer and a side salad.
During the holidays, especially if your group is large, it can take a long time before you are seated and get your food. Therefore, eat a little something healthy beforehand so you don't become ravenous and lose control (see tip #1).
4. Don't Give-In to Pressure: The last thing we want to do is disappoint people. Sometimes these well-meaning loved ones pressure us into eating unhealthy foods when we'd rather not. The good news we can still preserve the relationship and our waistline by developing a tactful response ahead of time. Preparing a cheerful "No, thank you," or "The dish looks great but I'm full," is a polite way to say no and can be very engaging during a holiday gathering without being overbearing or insulting.
5. Replace Holiday Classics with Healthy Alternatives: "It's all about the swaps," said Dr. Avena. "We don't want to deprive ourselves of anything especially around the holidays, so it's really about figuring out what it is you like and then coming up with a healthier alternative." Some swaps include:
- Peppermint tea instead of peppermint candy
- Dark chocolate instead of fudge
- Apple slices topped with yogurt and granola instead of cookies
- Halved dates filled with almond butter sprinkled with cinnamon instead of caramel treats
- 1 1/2 cups of unsweetened almond milk and 1 TBSP unsweetened cocoa powder instead of hot chocolate
- Frozen grapes instead of candy
6. De-Stress: Research shows stress causes an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. Not getting enough sleep does, too. When cortisol goes up, so does our craving for sweets. Therefore, to keep that stress hormone in balance, make sure to get plenty of sleep and manage stress with exercise, prayer and keeping the holidays as simple as possible.