We’re charging full steam ahead into the holiday season. And between family dinners, festive libations, and indulging in comfort food to deal with holiday stress, it’s easy to overdo it this time of year.
But worrying about your food choices can add to your anxiety — as if you needed extra stress during this already-hectic season. And over time, all that stress can mess with your body and may actually contribute to weight gain.
Here’s why: When you’re dealing with chronic stress, your body releases the stress hormone cortisol. Not only can cortisol increase fat storage, but research suggests it may also make you more likely to consume more calories.
So while it’s a good idea to follow a few simple strategies to avoid completely derailing your healthy goals over the holidays, it’s also important not to obsess over every bite of peppermint bark.
Here are three reasons why you should stress less about the occasional holiday indulgence.
1. One Big Meal Can’t Undo All Your Hard Work
Worried about how many calories are in your grandma’s sugar cookies? Feeling guilty because you grabbed seconds of your aunt’s sweet potato casserole? Cut yourself some slack on special occasions.
“The occasional feast isn’t going to sabotage your progress toward your fitness or weight-loss goals,” says Trevor Thieme, CSCS, executive director of fitness and nutrition content at Beachbody.
True, research suggests holiday weight gain is fairly common — but the typical holiday weight gain is around 0.4 to 0.9 kilograms (about a pound or two). Tighten up your nutrition, stick to your usual workout routine, and you should be able to get back on track pretty quickly.
2. Your Willpower Needs an Occasional Rest Day
“Willpower is like a muscle that can become fatigued over time,” says Krista Maguire, RD, senior nutrition manager at Beachbody.
The more mental energy you spend on trying to avoid certain foods, the more you’ll end up craving those “forbidden” foods. But allowing yourself to say yes to a favorite treat now and then can give that “willpower muscle” a much-needed chance to recover.
So go ahead and enjoy bit of stuffing or mac ‘n cheese at a family dinner — but Maguire advises really tuning in to a mindful eating practice to fully savor and appreciate each bite.
3. Treats Make Your Diet Doable
Could you really stick to a diet that rules out hot cocoa forever? Probably not. For a healthy eating plan to work, it needs to be sustainable.
As long as you’re not eating mashed potatoes and gravy and pecan pie and eggnog every day, don’t worry about enjoying them at one holiday dinner. The occasional cheat meal or mindful indulgence can keep you from feeling deprived or getting frustrated and giving up.
“When you do indulge, you should do it consciously, mindfully, and enjoy it thoroughly,” says Michele Promaulayko, author of Sugar Free 3.
So instead of swearing off sweets and comfort foods completely over the holidays, focus on savoring a few bites of your favorite foods (and maybe a hot toddy too). Then just get back on your healthy-living game tomorrow.