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From tips to tough talks, you can stay healthy during a pandemic holiday


If part of your holiday tradition is overindulging in unhealthy foods, leading to weight gain that you don’t want, you’re not alone. And this year, with so many of us working from home since March because of COVID-19, many of us may have gotten a head start.

But it is possible to get on a healthy track before holiday overeating takes control of your waistline. It just may involve looking deeper than an extra piece of pie.  

Keeley Pratt, associate professor of human development and family sciences at Ohio State, specializes in discovering the underlying factors and behaviors that lead to obesity and overeating. Through the pandemic, her team has offered individual consultations and support groups aimed at behavior change through The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.

Pratt explained many of the factors that lead to overeating this time of year and how we can address those issues.

Your research looks at the root causes of obesity and overeating. Do we see any of that manifest this time of year, say at a holiday dinner?

Challenging or impaired family dynamics may actually cause anxiety, and because of that, people may try to cope through food or may just not be mindful about what they’re eating or drinking. This can happen around the Thanksgiving holiday and meals, when family members are thrust together routinely one time per year. We can assume this one with the election — where opinions are heated and things are tense — instead of arguing, people may choose to eat and they may not be really mindful of what they’re eating.

And then for people who may not be able to be around family members because of the pandemic, the guilt they may feel could also cause them to not be mindful about what they’re eating.

Eating and our appetites and our perception of what we need to calm ourselves down are tied not only to what we’re feeling but also to what we feel because of the relationships we’re in. People with the healthiest ways of communicating and supporting one another still may have things to deal with, but they certainly may be better able to prioritize their health behaviors compared to those who literally may just need to survive the family meal.

Why is food such a focal point in our lives and a stress relief?

Part of it gets back to the way our society is built and how routines and patterns have been established. One of the ways people get through stressors is by coping through eating, and eating things that make them feel better initially but not so much in an hour, two hours, a day later.

We see it as a stress response that’s kind of learned over time, but we also see it in patterns that are established within relationships.

For example, kids being taught they don’t get dessert unless they eat their entire plates first. Dessert becomes a prize to be won so it becomes prioritized over time.

Then in terms of how people interact around food that’s deeply ingrained in society and culture, that there are specific foods and ways of eating that are culturally bound and relevant where it may be rude not to participate or eat what you typically would in your family.

For instance, holiday dinners?

Absolutely. It’s hard for one person to change their behavior when they exist in a web of connected relationships that revolve around the routine of specific meals provided and foods consumed.

For people who may not be able to be around family members because of the pandemic, the guilt they may feel could also cause them to not be mindful about what they’re eating.
Keeley Pratt, Ohio State associate professor of human development and family sciences
If you don’t want to go overboard during a big family meal, how do you get family buy-in?

Those are hard conversations to have. If all of the sudden you are being “picky,” that could hurt feelings. We help patients explain to family members, "I love you, and I care about you. I’m thankful you cooked for me, but I’m working on trying to change my health."

It’s about helping family members understand your bigger goals and that what you do every day contributes to that bigger goal.

Along with those conversations, what are some other tips for big meals?

We would never want somebody to lose out on meaningful interactions with family and friends over the holidays. That being said, it’s important to try to develop meaning and relationships independent of food while acknowledging there may be food available.

If you think about potluck or buffet-style meals, there’s usually lots of options you can choose from. So choose the healthier of the two or three options available. Try to have the majority of your plate be vegetables and lean protein.

In future years, if you’re going to multiple Thanksgivings, think about a plan ahead of time, what you’d like to try at each place and stick to that. If you’re going to have one big meal later in the day, eat something that satisfies you ahead of time so you’re not starving when you get to the meal.

And be mindful of your alcohol intake around the holidays. There tends to be a relationship between how much you drink and how much you eat.

Outside of those big meals, how can someone avoid that dietary slide through December?

The best way to stay on track is monitor your behaviors. That looks different for different people.

There are lots of mobile applications like MyFitnessPal where you can document what you’re eating.

The other is weighing yourself every day; just the process of stepping on a scale every day has been shown to be helpful. Some people prefer to do waist measuring instead. But it’s not all about weight. It’s about how you feel. Diaries or journals can be helpful also, keeping track of your energy level and focus throughout the day and from day to day.

What you’re trying to find is a way to be sensitive to the changes that are happening to your body, and over the holidays with so much distraction, possible stress, this can be challenging to prioritize.