Creative Tips to Avoid Holiday Overeating


I don’t have diabetes, but I do have a long and storied history of overeating during the holidays, so much so that I know exactly where the Tums are in every home of practically every single member of my entire extended family.  Just as a diabetic watches food intake, I, too,  must force myself to be aware of what goes into my mouth.  A few years ago, I started to build my own personal list of tips and techniques that I use to survive a time of year when, for me, overeating is all too easy.

This list of tips will give you plenty of ways to resist holiday snacks and food which will ,in turn, help you manage your blood sugar levels. Whether you’re staying with family or in-laws, hosting the holidays at your own home, or even if you’re at a holiday dinner out at a restaurant, these are all easy, helpful suggestions.

This list comes in two parts: Part I contains tips you can apply to prevent subversive overeating–the kind of overeating that occurs gradually, with you hardly even noticing, over the course of an entire day. Part II contains tips designed to help you once you sit down to a specific meal where you think you might be at risk of overeating.

Part I: Managing Food Intake Over the Course of the Day

1. Start The Day With Exercise

One of the best ways to set the right tone when you know you’re going to be surrounded by food all day is to get in some exercise the very first thing in the morning. Any sort of physical activity will do: treat yourself to a brisk walk with family, go for a run, or play some tennis with your nephew.

Why at the beginning of the day? Three reasons: First, when you exercise first thing in the morning, not only do you start the day having burned a few hundred extra calories, but the exercise also helps suppress your appetite. Second, once you get started with the day’s eating, you’ll have less and less inclination to exercise as the day goes on. Third, the extra exercise will put you in a healthy frame of mind and help you resist the high-calorie food you’ll be surrounded by all day long.

2. Allow Yourself Some Treats….

Nobody likes a Grinch. I don’t want to force you, especially during the holiday season, to abstain from all cookies or goodies. So, if you must, go ahead and indulge yourself a little, tiny bit and enjoy a cookie or two.  If you do indulge, be sure to…

3. Alternate With Veggies

Ah, there’s always a catch, isn’t there? After you’ve enjoyed your occasional cookie or other fiendishly carb-dense snack, make your next snack some raw vegetables. Alternate the good with the bad and you’ll be able to have some holiday fun and still save yourself hundreds of calories over the course of a day.

4. Have a Light Lunch

Another idea to save yourself a few hundred calories is to scale back at lunchtime.  During the holidays you’re surrounded by food all day long, and you’re likely to end the day with an enormous dinner. You certainly aren’t going to starve if you have a smaller than usual lunch.

5. Brush Your Teeth

Would you like a powerful, foolproof and easy strategy that will prevent you from eating anything for a minimum of one hour? Just give your teeth a good brushing. There’s no better temporary protection from snacking. Who wants to eat anything when you have a minty-clean mouth?

On any big eating holiday, you can use this technique a couple of times over the course of the day and you’ll be shocked at how much less food you will consume.

6. Keep Track

Another powerful and foolproof strategy (although admittedly one that’s not quite as easy to implement as brushing your teeth), is to keep track of the food you eat in written form. And when I say keep track, I mean literally writing down absolutely everything you eat over the course of the day. And while you’re at it, record your blood glucose numbers, too!

This doesn’t mean you have to show up to Christmas dinner with a pen and notepad like detective Harry Bosch. There are ways to do this with various degrees of discretion. For example, you can quietly retire to your room every hour or so to record the things you’ve eaten over that time.

But the basic concept at work here is this: what gets measured gets controlled. Just the simple act of writing down (and therefore observing) what you’ve eaten over the course of a day will cause you to eat less. This strategy is probably the most labor-intensive on today’s list, but it is also the most powerful and effective.

Part II: Once You’re Seated for Dinner:

7. The Two Glasses of Water Method

Everyone knows the old trick to drink a large glass of water before a meal. Water takes up extra room in your stomach and it contains no calories (actually, cold water contains negative calories, if you want to get all technical-like).

Think of this tip as the water method on steroids. By drinking two glasses of water instead of just one, you will have significantly less room in your stomach for food. You will likely eat much more sparingly. Interestingly, I find that I enjoy my food even more when I apply this tip, despite the fact that I end up eating quite a bit less.

8. Eat Half Portions

I always go back for seconds. There’s something about that second plate of food that adds extra satisfaction to a big holiday meal. But let me tell you about one year when I did something really stupid: thinking I had discovered a way to eat more efficiently, I piled a double portion of food onto my plate, figuring I’d save myself a trip back for seconds.

Well, guess what? I outwitted myself and I still had seconds. And I had to lie totally still the rest of the evening to avoid doing a Mr. Creosote.

What I thought would be a quantum leap in eating efficiency actually taught me a valuable (if counterintuitive) lesson: the truth is it didn’t matter how much I ate on that first trip: my meal wasn’t going to seem complete until I made that second trip for more.

The next time you sit down to a huge holiday meal, use this counterintuitive logic to your advantage. For your first plate of food, eat a half portion of everything. If somehow you manage to avoid making a second trip for more, congratulations! But even if you still serve yourself that seemingly inevitable second plate, you’ve still only eaten two half-portions of food, which is just another way of saying one regular portion. At holiday mealtime, that’s still a big victory.

9. Wait to Go Back For Seconds

Most people know that our stomachs tell our brains “I’m full!” with about a 20-25 minute lag. The reason it’s so easy to overeat is simply because Mr. Brain doesn’t think to tell Mr. Hand to stop ramming food into Mr. Mouth until it’s much too late.

But we can turn this staggeringly unhelpful evolutionary trait to our advantage by combining the half portion method (tip #8) with a 15 minute delay. At your next holiday dinner, try eating a half portion for your first plate of food, and then wait 15 minutes before you go back for more. That oh-so-brief 15 minute lag, combined with the time you spent eating your first plate of food, should get your brain on the same page as your stomach. Result? You’ll probably take much smaller portions for your second plate of food. Oh, and you’ll score a rare victory over human evolution, too.

10. Alternate Bites of Food with Drinks of Water

Remember our tip #3 above, which recommended you alternate treats with healthy veggies over the course of the day? This tip is similar, but it’s designed for the dinner table. It’s easy to do: alternate every bite of food (and I mean every bite) with a swallow of water. Just put your fork in one hand and your glass of water in your other hand and take turns.

This technique aids in digestion, and it causes you to eat much more slowly. Your brain will catch up to your stomach and get the “I’m full!” signal before you’ve eaten too much, yet you won’t really experience any feelings of deprivation or hunger. You’ll be amazed at how much less you will eat over the course of a full meal using this strategy.

11. Don’t Clear Your Plate

One of the less-than-helpful traditions dating from the Great Depression is a maxim usually told to us by our parents: clean your plate. Well, guess what? The rules have changed. You don’t have to obey your parents, and it’s not the Depression anymore (although, now that I think about it, what if history repeats itself and it is the Depression again?).

Uh, in any event, I give you permission to leave food on your plate this holiday season. This tip works particularly well with holiday dinners out, since you can take that extra food home and save yourself from cooking another meal later in the week.

12. Cut Back on Your Alcohol Intake

Alcohol may be the cause of, and the solution to, many of life’s problems, but it can present particular difficulties at your holiday dinner table. Few foods are more disturbingly efficient at delivering excess calories into your body. And because alcohol is absorbed through your stomach, it only fills you up temporarily, thus letting you continue to drink and thereby ingest still more calories.  And don’t forget that alcohol can influence your diabetes medication and your blood sugar levels.  If you do decide to drink, drink with caution.  At your next holiday dinner, drink extra water instead of extra glasses of wine, and take a pass on the before-dinner cocktail or the after-dinner liqueur. Note: Do not follow this rule when staying with annoying relatives or in-laws.

13. Talk

Here’s a radical tip for the next time you’re sitting down at a big family dinner. Instead of concentrating on your food, why not ignore your food and concentrate on the family and friends around you? Have a few bites, but then put down your knife and fork and just talk. Ask a few questions of the relatives sitting closest to you, and get them talking, too.

If you ask the right questions and get a really good conversation going, 20 minutes can go by in a flash. And of course another wonderful thing happens during those 20 minutes: your brain “catches up” to your stomach and figures out that you’re full! Voila, you’ve just avoided overeating at dinner, and you’ve had an enjoyable time conversing with your family. I can’t think of a better way to spend the holidays.

*These are “tips” only and not medical advice.  Please consult your doctor if you have questions about adjusting your diet and/or medication during the holiday season.

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Dan @ Casual Kitchen
12 years ago

Good points Deborah!  I’m sure everyone will find something useful and useless in this post, mainly because everyone has different dietary needs and preferences. Regarding a light lunch, I only recommend it if it actually helps you reduce your caloric intake over the day.  Most of us are literally *surrounded* by food all day long during the holidays, so this is a technique that can save hundreds of calories.  However, if it merely ends up making you ravenous at dinner time, you can certainly feel free to ignore that particular tip.

Thanks for reading!

Deborah Kanter
12 years ago

Good ideas, but I would add a few ideas. Start the day with your regular healthy breakfast. When I stay with relatives, I often bring along my go-to cereal in a little tupperware. I would advise against a light lunch, because this suggests that you plan to overindulge later. A normal lunch will keep you from being ravenous at the start of the holiday meal. Try to keep those carbs spread out throughout the day! If you plan to enjoy a dessert, plan ahead: what is the one dessert you really want? Then have a small portion . . .… Read more »

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