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Socializing on a diet: strategies for the silly season

The festive season is around the corner. While that means family, fun and sun, it can also mean anxiety and stress around food and exercise for some. It’s very common for people to come out of the holidays feeling guilty about how they behaved and where they have ended up with their diet, physique or health. Having a plan on the front end that is reasonable and easy to stick to can help prevent New Years’ Day regret.

Consider whether this is a good time of year to be dieting. It can be tricky to create and maintain a deficit with a busier-than-usual social life, and it’s perfectly okay to decide that the holiday period is best kept in maintenance mode (recalling that maintenance mode is not the same as a no-restraint free-for-all). Deciding ahead of time to operate at maintenance is probably less strenuous than having good intentions to carry on a deficit/diet and failing due to social pressures.

Practicing flexible restraint is generally more successful than rigid restraint and is associated with better outcomes for dieters. Rigid restraint is the construction of hard rules that can’t be broken, and when broken this is perceived as a failure. Rigid restraint includes sticking to a firm calorie or macro target, but could also include rules like “no chocolate” or “no carbs after 5pm”. Rigid restraint is associated with body image distress, disordered eating, and negative psychological outcomes. Flexible restraint is the opposite: it allows for flexibility in food selection and accepts that perfectionism isn’t helpful for reaching dietary goals. Being able to deviate from a diet plan but still maintain the principles underpinning it is a skill, but ultimately building that skill results in better progress long term and enhanced wellbeing.

There are several strategies that may help you execute flexible restraint. Almost all these strategies primarily work by putting an extra step between desire (or exposure to a tempting food or drink) and decision (your choice to eat or not eat the food). Slowing down these decisions by putting a cognitive framework in the middle helps you make more objective and less reactive decisions. This can help keep an even keel during the holidays without going overboard, and reduce the potential for nagging guilt if things don’t go as planned.

Here are some flexible restraint-adjacent strategies that may help you make better decisions when faced with tempting food and drink:

  1. Consider your future self. Before you make a food or drink decision, ask yourself whether you’ll be happy about that decision 12 hours from now. Will you feel guilty, or will you reflect that you made a balanced decision that enhanced your experience? Would you still feel the same way 12 days from now? 12 weeks from now? Putting yourself in the shoes of your future self can help put a clearer lens on the decision - perhaps you can enjoy a slice of pizza rather than the whole thing, and you’ll feel engaged in the moment without tomorrow’s disappointment.

  2. Pre-plan your portions. A margarita night with the girls or beers with the boys can easily turn into a high-calorie event if your go-to answer for the next round is “yes”. Thinking ahead about portions of favourite foods and drinks and setting yourself an upper limit can help you engage as much as you feel will be enjoyable without going overboard.

  3. Set some intentions ahead of time in alignment with what a social event means to you. Before you go, decide what your nutritional approach will be. That could be, “my birthday party is a let-my-hair down event and I’m going to embrace all the fun without worrying about my diet”, or, “this office Christmas party doesn’t really bring me joy so I’m going to practice more restraint than usual”. Even a cursory level of precontemplation can add a layer of awareness to food and drink decisions.

  4. Don’t waste calories on people you don’t like. As a follow-on to #3 above, don’t feel you have to exercise the same level of restraint with all people. It’s okay for some social situations to be (quietly) of higher value to you than others, and choosing not to blow your calories out on an occasion that is less meaningful to you than others can leave room to allow you to relax more on those that are more meaningful. Consider the degree to which the food will significantly enhance your experience, whether this event is important to you, and use that information to decide ahead what degree of flexibility you need for this occasion.

  5. Make a checklist. Decide some “bare minimums” for yourself for a social occasion. For example, commit to hitting your 5-a-day fruit and vegetable target. This will require you to find some plants at whatever occasion you’re at and fill up on some fiber. Other checklist items could be selecting a lean protein, having just one plate of food, passing up the appetizers or sticking to lower-calorie beverages only.

  6. Stick to your healthy plate model. Build your plate wisely by filling half of it with veggies, one-quarter with lean protein, and one-quarter with carbohydrates. That could look like one burger with lots of salad on the side, a couple of sausages with a couple of potatoes and half a plate of lightly-dressed coleslaw, or adding extra veggies to beef out a plate of noodles.

  7. Slow down your eating. Focus on using the time to socialize and don’t rush the meal. Chew thoroughly, eat slowly, and pay attention to your food to enhance satiety.

  8. Say no, but better. Providing a reason for why you’re turning something down only opens up the avenue for people to provide a counterpoint. “No, I’m trying to be good/healthy/diet-friendly” is less effective than “no, thank you”. I’m sure we’ve all been told to “relax” or “just one won’t hurt”. I suspect there are two drivers for this: one is the perception that you can’t possibly be enjoying yourself without a cupcake or drink in hand, which is silly because ultimately you decide what allows you to enjoy a situation. The second is projection, or people feeling that you are signaling to them that you are somehow above them or more disciplined than them, highlighting their ‘weakness’, which is likely not your intent. Leaving the door shut for criticism and questioning is a simpler approach and requires you just to say “no” more firmly.

Unfortunately, using the above methods still requires effort and presence of mind. This often disappoints people as they are hoping for silver bullets that allow them to eat or drink whatever they want without consequence, especially this time of year. This is why I think it’s worth questioning whether it’s a good idea to carry on a diet during the holidays: those extra calories afforded by coming out of a deficit can help reduce stress about dieting during this time. But if want to continue a cut or simply raise your awareness to keep your calories from overshooting maintenance, hopefully some of these strategies can help. You might have less to “make up for” in the new year.


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