By Dr Bunmi Aboaba, Food Addiction Coach
Christmas is a favourite time of the year for many people. But for some, it’s the time of the year when it’s easiest to give in to temptation. Overeating can cause diabetes, arthritis, chronic inflammation, fibromyalgia and mental health problems and this is adding to the pressure on the NHS. Our overall relationship with food needs to be addressed and the annual rollercoaster of bingeing and dieting (AKA Christmas) is just around the corner. It’s a cycle of broken resolutions that cause emotional suffering. So, wouldn’t it be great if this year was different. By adopting a few of the following strategies we can switch to a healthy relationship with our food this Christmas and also set in place some long-term health goals too.
Most people have a strong psychological connection with food that often starts in childhood and can be both positive and negative. Sugar is a common reward. When I beat alcohol addiction, I found myself eating biscuits and a tub of ice-cream every night until I quickly realised that I had just replaced one addiction with another. With addiction comes denial and it’s hard to stop if you are loving the intoxicant so much. When I detoxed from sugar, I suffered massive withdrawal symptoms including brain fog, night sweats and mood swings. Be aware that anything ultra-processed and with additives will enhance dopamine, the neurotransmitter that creates pleasure in the brain, and that’s when the rewards system goes into overdrive. To be safe, give those foods a wide berth.
Don’t buy more than you need
It sounds obvious, but all those adverts on TV and in magazines are drawing us in to the idea of the ‘perfect’ Christmas and what the ‘perfect’ Christmas dinner will look like. These are the foods people love. It enforces the image of the ‘perfect life.’ According to advertisers the best Christmas can only be achieved with an abundance of high calorific, sweet, sticky food. Don’t be swayed, and in the light of the current HGV crisis which could affect supplies to shops, we also need to think about the next family that need to shop. It’s the best reason not to stockpile this year.
Pause. Take a breath.
Before you reach for something ask yourself:
Is this life-enhancing?
Is it nutritious?
What am I really going to enjoy about eating this?
Learn to train your impulsive brain by pausing between your first and second thought. You might think ‘I really want that chocolate mousse’ but if your second thought is ‘I know I won’t be able to stop if I start’ then take a moment to breathe and observe your body. Have a little pause, consider the relationship you have with that food. Usually that’s all it takes to swerve a temptation. A slight pause slows down the impulse part of the brain.
Don’t keep trigger foods within eyesight
Work out what you love whether its the texture, creaminess or crunchiness. You know your own triggers. Fructose combined with fats and carbohydrates are the most explosive. Acknowledge your weaknesses. When you know what sets off your desire to eat, ideally don’t have it in the house. However, it’s Christmas, and even if you don’t cave in to buying things you know you shouldn’t, someone may buy them for you. If you do fall foul of temptation, adopt the out of sight, out of mind mantra. Keep them out of your eyeline and not piled up on the kitchen worktop where you will be tempted to reach out on impulse.
Go for a walk after Christmas lunch rather than slumping on the sofa eating chocolates. Try to replace food and maybe some mealtimes with non-food hobbies and positive strategies such as meditation. We still have caveman brains programmed to chase and hunt down things to eat. It’s the feast or famine mentality, so we need distractions. Keep a gratitude journal. Overeating can be triggered by emotions, especially when we are feeling sad. Making a list of the good things in your life will keep your spirits high.
Seek out friends who will support you. Peer pressure and boredom require resilience. Stay away from the things that you know you find hard to resist. Team up with someone who knows your situation and will support you. If you don’t trust yourself not to pile up your plate at the buffet, send a friend who knows what you like. You won’t end up with more than you need, and you are unlikely to then get up for more.
Thirst is often mistaken for hunger. Drink plenty of water. Reaching for a glass of water every time you think you are hungry will help you differentiate between hunger and thirst.
Get plenty of sleep and fresh air
Self-care, whether it’s a lovely walk in the park or a bubble bath can really help to change your relationship with food. When you feel good about yourself, you care about what you put in your body.
Give yourself permission to have one or two treats and then stop
Tell yourself you will have one helping if it is something you really want – but stick to it. You do need to be able to trust yourself though to just have a taste of what you want and then to move on. If you are not sure, stay clear of the temptation.
Eat something first to keep the cravings at bay
Have an intention in advance. If you are going to an event or know you will be having a big meal, eat something small and healthy beforehand to take the edge off your appetite. That way you won’t be tempted to go crazy with helpings and portions.
Try to avoid stress
Easier said than done. Christmas can be very stressful, and stress can affect and change the brain drastically. To save yourself a whole lot of woes, some forward planning is required. Decide in advance where you will be for Christmas and who you will be with. Don’t walk blindly into situations where you know you will be propelled into reaching for food just to get you through the occasion.
Give it away
If you do find you have a surplus of biscuits and chocolates on Boxing Day don’t feel compelled to polish them off well into the New Year. There are plenty of food banks that will welcome food donations. Remember, it’s the season of goodwill.
Think back to the last festive season. Did you spend January desperately trying to shed the pounds? Remember the deprivation and the starvation? Remember the disappointment of jumping on and off those scales and the feeling of despondency as the weight refused to budge?
Ask yourself if you want to go through that again? If the answer is a resounding NO, then adopting a more holistic approach to what you buy and what you eat can be the gamechanger this year that will help you to avoid that never-ending cycle of diets, poor body image and low self-worth, long after the party is over.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Dr Bunmi Aboaba is a Food Addiction Coach and leading authority on food addiction, helping clients achieve a healthy relationship with food to meet long-term health goals. Dr Bunmi’s work covers the full spectrum of disordered eating, including overeating, compulsive eating, emotional eating, and other associated patterns. Dr Bunmi is creator of the R4 Method, a Food Addiction Certification to support nutritionists, nurses, teachers, health and fitness professionals, dieticians and medical clinicians to help their clients achieve long-lasting results. Dr Bunmi will be running 7-day self-care retreats for clients suffering from food addiction in 2022, and is author of Craving Freedom, a new book for those wanting to build a healthy relationship with food (published 1st Dec).