Are you disappointed that once again, despite your best intentions during the holidays, you have gained a few pounds? You have followed these recommendations found in popular nutrition article. 

  • avoid overindulging in rich foods
  • stay away from the buffet table
  • eat a small snack before each event
  • drink lots of water

Yet, it all seems to have been in vain.

Do not despair. We know that the holiday season, although full of fun and reconnecting with family and friends, is also one of the most stressful times of the year. And it’s no wonder. We are trying to pack more socializing, cooking and shopping into an already busy schedule. Not to mention the strain that these activities can put on the family budget. New research shows that stress can cause changes in how our bodies use food and can affect the foods we crave.

Short-term stress

Short-term stress can be beneficial or even life-saving when it triggers our brains to release hormones that decrease our appetite. Once the stress is over, however, our hormone levels and appetite return to normal.

Chronic stress

Stress only becomes a problem when it persists and the adrenal glands release a hormone called cortisol. Cortisol increases appetite and the motivation to eat, which makes it tougher to resist those tempting high-calorie foods. What seems even more unfair is that you burnfewer calories when stressed.

Food cravings

Researchers have also found that ongoing stress increases your cravings for foods high in sugar and fat, the type of foods you are surrounded by during the holiday season. When you think about what has been happening in your body, it’s no wonder you are a few pounds heavier.

Five small changes that will make a big difference

1.     Change how you feel: Researchers have found that eating more vegetables and fruiteach day can actually make you feel happier. The difference can be felt within 24 hours. This is probably the best thing you can do to lose those pounds. Not only will you be eating fewer calories and getting more nutrients, your improved sense of well-being will help you manage your cravings and stick to your healthy eating plan.

2.     Practice mindful eating:Mindful eating helps you become aware of your eating habits and what might be sabotaging your ability to reach your healthy eating goals. By being aware, you can pause before you overindulge, and assess whether you are physically hungry or eating to cope with negative emotions such as boredom, anger or stress.

3.     Eat breakfast: I know you’ve heard this before many times, but it actually works!  Eating breakfast replenishes your body with energy and nutrients after a night of fasting and helps you start your day in a positive way. It will you make feel more energetic and ready to cope with the challenges of the day.

4.     Eat carbohydrates: Studies show that people under stress have lower levels of serotonin, a chemical in the brain that is important for sleep, memory and feeling calm and relaxed. Research has shown that when people under stress eat a diet high in carbohydrates, they have higher levels of serotonin and lower levels of stress hormones. People also feel less depressed and more mentally alert. Include healthy carbohydrate-containing foods such as whole grains, sweet potatoes, legumes and vegetables and fruit at every meal and snack.

5.     Keep it simple:This is something that I was forced to learn last year when I broke my foot in the first week of December. No longer could I decorate every square inch of the house, bake everyone’s favourite foods and give perfectly wrapped home-made gifts. And you know what happened? Nothing. Christmas still happened, we all enjoyed the family time and I was relaxed and not stressed. It went so well, I cut back the same way this year! You may be surprised at how simplifying Christmas reduces your stress.

Post-holiday weight gain will likely affect each one of us at one time or another. Eating well is important during this time, but managing your stress is equally important. And, if you do gain a few pounds, go easy on yourself and get back on track as soon as possible!

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Lee Finell, RD

Registered Dietitian

Lee (MHSA, RD) is a registered dietitian and Program Manager at Dairy Farmers of Canada. She writes articles and develops programs and resources that help Albertans translate the science of nutrition into healthy food choices.

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