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(I should probably title this one "How, when & how often to splurge during the holidays so you don't feel gross and big everyday, and like a complete failure in January...that's probably more accurate.)
I like to sum up eating for a trim and fit body very simply: eat your PRO’s. It’s important that you fall into a regular rhythm of eating meals that consist mostly of lean PROtein and lots of fresh PROduce. Healthy fats and whole grains are important as well, but if you can make the bulk of your diet protein and produce, you will feel so much leaner and stronger. I guarantee it. (Read all about the healthy eating habits here.)
Of course, if you follow these nutritious guidelines, it eliminates a lot of the so-called “fun foods”. Delicious pasta dishes, beer and wine, chips and dip, desserts, lattes, soda, fancy pastries and breads, and any other crave-able foods are out. Bummer. Often, when you begin a healthy eating regimen, all you can think about is when you’ll get to eat the “fun food” again. “When can I cheat?”
And the holidays are the worst for this attitude. We're constantly surrounded by treats and sweets, far more than any other time of the year. It's so hard!
The most important thing with creating a healthy eating lifestyle is that you do your best to re-engineer your brain so you’re not craving these foods all the time. If all you can think about is diving into a big bowl of ice cream or chowing down on a bag of chips, it’s gonna be a giant uphill battle to your body composition goals! Get your mind off of it.
You need to redirect your focus when the cravings begin. Go for a walk, play a quick game on your phone, do 10 push-ups, strike up a (text) conversation with a friend. And stop watching those cooking shows and looking at recipes on Pinterest! Generally, cravings have nothing to do with physical needs for nourishment.
Also, the more lean protein and fresh produce you eat, the more your brain will crave these foods instead. It’s a great place to be. I know that if I go more than a day without some giant servings of leafy greens I start to get a little desperate and feel gross. You need to get here, too.
But you have to splurge
It’s nearly impossible and not necessarily healthy (mentally) to never again eat foods that deviate from nutritious guidelines. Most people are aware of the phrase “cheat meals”…essentially full meals or just instances that you cheat, or don’t stick to the rules. (I prefer to call them "splurges". Cheating has the connotation that you're doing something bad.)
It’s important to splurge. The reason is mostly psychological. I believe we were created to enjoy and delight in the many amazing flavors of food that surround us. I always picture heaven as a huge Christmas dinner with the most amazing foods, and the emotions and feelings that come with dining with friends and family. Nothing better than that! But, when we obsessively restrict what we can eat for a long period of time, the pressure builds and the cravings become so strong that we end up completely binge eating. Been there, done that?
We need a "pressure release valve".
You will be much more successful with your long-term fitness goals if you allow yourself to eat foods and drink beverages that deviate from the guidelines in a controlled manner. This releases any built up pressure to "avoid", and keeps you grounded.
But, you need a plan. Most people don't have a splurge plan at all, and tend to just eat or not eat when the mood strikes. However, with a plan, you can encounter tricky situations like the baking extravaganza on Saturday or the office party Friday night.
Here are some simple guidelines for splurging:
- Understand that "splurging" is anything that deviates from eating healthy and nutritious. Having a cookie is just as much of a cheat meal as having a burger and fries, even though the calories are vastly different. The point is to keep unhealthy foods (no matter the quantity) in a completely separate category in your mind. You need to be at a place where you don’t want to nibble on candy or chips all day long. Remember, it’s not about the calories. It may take some brain re-wiring to internalize this. We think we're doing ourselves a favor by splurging on "low fat dip" or "sugar free brownies". Nope.
- Missing or skipping a meal is also “splurging”. It’s very important, especially in the beginning when you’re learning to eat better, that you eat on a regular basis. When you skip a meal, you’re missing an opportunity for your body to be fed with good nutrients. Again, remember, it’s not about the calories. We tend to think skipping a meal is not as bad as eating a bad meal. It is, when you’re learning to eat right. If you skip a meal this time of year, your hunger and cravings really rear their ugly heads, so food temptations get much bigger.
- I suggest choosing several full meals throughout the week in which to deviate from your healthy habits. I'll be completely honest with you, in order to see body composition changes, you must make sure these meals don’t total more than 10% of your weekly meals. So, for someone eating 4 times per day, 7 days a week, that’s only about 3 meals per week. Not very many! A chart to keep track may be helpful. All the rest of your meals should be heavy with protein, produce and healthy fats.
- During the holiday, maintenance may be a better goal. There are so many fun things to enjoy this time of year, and I'll admit, it's not very practical to shoot for fat loss right now. And maintaining is far better than backsliding, which is what most of us do this time of year. You can easily maintain your current weight and body composition with about 7 splurges total per week (about one per day). Anything more than that will probably tip you in the other direction.
- If you know when your trickiest moments will be, plan your splurges for those moments. We always have a Christmas Eve shindig with extended family and Scott's mom always bring delicious baked goods. I know that I'll want some, so I'll plan to splurge then. Which means I'll need to order a salad with some sort of protein on it when we go out to dinner tonight. See how that works? You have to think ahead to the moments that mean the most to you, and save your splurges for then.
- To make sure that your splurge meals don’t completely undo all your hard work from the rest of the week, watch your portion sizes. Practice eating less of something that’s not as good for you. Instead of eating a full burger and plate of fries, eat half the burger and only a handful of fries or a side salad. Instead of eating 3 or 4 cookies, have just one cookie and stop long enough to really taste it. So if you’re choosing to eat something that isn’t a part of your guidelines, simply eat less.
- When splurging, drink more water than you normally would. Typically, foods and drinks that we splurge on are higher in sugar, sodium and fat. Drinking a lot of water will help stave off some of that bloated feeling you get when you eat unhealthy.
- Don’t let your splurges derail you from your forward progress toward your goals. This is key. This is the mindset of “well, I already ate a piece of pie, so I might as well eat the whole thing.” When you have a splurge meal, the very next meal that you eat should be perfect. If you have pancakes and sausage for breakfast, make sure it’s a grilled chicken salad for lunch. Don’t lose your focus.
- Finally, stay mindful. So much of our splurging this time of year consists of mindless munching as parties, and even at home. Pay attention to what you're doing! Think about the foods that are going into your mouth, have a plan with what goes on your plate, and slow down while you eat. Pause and really savor the splurge foods, letting the full enjoyment soak in. Often, we'll eat two or three helpings of something before we're satisfied, when one helping was truly enough.
Decide what you'd like to achieve this holiday season. Do you actually want to make forward progress toward your physical goals? Then makes sure your splurges are no more than 3-4 meals per week. If maintenance sounds like a better goal right now, then simply enjoy one thing in moderation every day, but no more than 7 total splurges for the whole week. But no matter what, don’t overeat and stuff yourself, drink lots of water, stay mindful, and get right back on track at the very next meal.
With these strategies, you will be able to fully enjoy the season without overdoing it. I promise!
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