Posts Tagged ‘Holiday Season’

More Than Temptation, Stress Causes Overeating During the Holidays

November 10th, 2013 at 3:21 pm by timigustafson

That many people’s waistlines expand during the holiday season is a well-established fact. But, as a new study found, the reason why most of us overindulge at this particular time may not be so much the countless opportunities for extra munching but rather the need for extra comfort due to heightened stress.

The study, which was conducted at the University of Konstanz, Germany, showed that participants who had a tendency to reach for food when stressed did not continue to do so after they were more relaxed, even though they were given equal access to the comfort foods they craved when they felt tense.

Other participants had reverse reactions. They ate less or stopped eating altogether in acutely stressful situations and compensated (or often overcompensated) for the deprivation afterwards when the tension ebbed. In either case, eating was connected to their stress experience rather than the availability of food.

Stress eating, or emotional eating as it is sometimes called, is not yet fully understood by scientist. In fact, the expression “stress eating” itself should be a contradiction in terms. Acute stress as a short-term response supposedly blocks the desire for food due to hormone releases in the brain that suppress appetite. But when high stress levels persist, as with chronic stress, cortisol, an appetite-stimulating hormone, secretes in the adrenal glands and remains elevated until the stress period ends, which may be indefinite.

Some foods seem to be more effective for stress relief than others. Comfort foods, which are typically highly processed and filled with fat and sugar, are among the favorite choices of the chronically stressed. These are also the kinds of food that one can easily snack on, often mindlessly.

Overeating, of course, is not the only widespread response to stress. Because of its energy-draining and exhausting effects, both physically and mentally, stress prevents many people from exercising and often from getting enough sleep. Alcohol and/or drug use, not unheard of among stress sufferers, add to the likelihood of unhealthy weight gain and other body dysfunctions.

So, what makes us so much more vulnerable and so inclined to succumb to our cravings during the holiday season? The fact is that this is no holiday at all for most people who find themselves burdened with many additional tasks and obligations while their everyday lives still must go on as usual. Thus, stress sources multiply. That, at least, may be one reason.

Still, whatever we do to cope with those challenges, it is important to understand that we are not helpless when it comes to controlling our impulses. The first step towards making positive changes is to become more aware of our tendencies and then take the necessary steps to counterbalance them.

For example, do you have a sweet tooth? If so, you can limit your access to your favorite treats. Do you easily forego exercising and make excuses for staying sedentary? You can draw up a fitness plan and join in with likeminded people who can hold you to it. Are you chronically sleep-deprived? You can make a point of increasing your sleep time. The list can go on and on.

It would be naïve to think that all this can be accomplished with a quick resolution. Far from it. Instead, I recommend to start with one thing, something concrete you can take on right now without further delay. How about, this holiday season, I give myself the gift of an hour daily to take care of my health and my peace of mind? It doesn’t matter what exactly you choose to do. Read a book, go for a walk, meditate, whatever. Stay with it, and that gift might just keep on giving.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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No Time to Be Sick

November 6th, 2013 at 2:51 pm by timigustafson

It is a well-documented fact that American workers put in longer hours and take less time off than their counterparts in almost any other country in the developed world. Unlike in Europe, for example, where four to six weeks paid vacation time is mandatory, there are no comparable laws in the United States. But in addition to the lack of recreation, most Americans don’t stay home even when they are sick.

According to surveys by Careerbuilder.com, about three in four people come to work while nursing a cold, the flu and something worse. Other statistics indicate the numbers are even higher.

When asked, most of those who decide to toughen it out say they don’t want to fall behind in their workload or be thought of as slackers. Most are also aware that the germs they spread around while sneezing and coughing may infect their coworkers – but still they insist on staying on the job.

It doesn’t help that taking a day off now and then is unaffordable for many Americans. Again, unlike in most European countries, there are no laws here that mandate a minimum amount of paid sick leave.

Employers, of course, are keenly aware that workers who show up ill can do more harm than good, not only because the viruses they carry are contagious, but also because they are likely less focused and productive than normally. In other words, it affects businesses’ bottom line, probably more so than if people stayed at home. Luckily, in this day and age, many of us can do at least some of their work remotely and don’t have to be physically present in their workplaces.

Either way, as this year’s cold and flu season approaches, it may be a good idea to make some plans for how to cope with the inevitable before it strikes.

Your first step should be getting a flu shot. It may not protect you against every strand that’s out there, but it increases your chances to escape some.

Second, you are well advised to wash your hands every time you leave common areas like conference rooms or cafeterias, or touch items like door handles, staircase railings or elevator buttons. Thorough washing and sanitizing of hands after bathroom visits should go without saying.

Unfortunately, you won’t be able to eliminate all germ threats and can only minimize the risk of getting infected so much. Still, it makes sense to take as many precautions as you can think of. However, you don’t want to become paralyzed with fear and develop paranoid behavior (Melvin Udall, the obsessive-compulsive character portrayed by Jack Nicholson in the movie “As Good As It Gets” comes to mind).

Your best weapon, besides vaccination, is to strengthen your immune system as much as possible. Especially in the winter months, it is important to eat healthily and get lots of vitamins from fruits and vegetables. Go outdoors and exercise, even if the weather is less than inviting. An enclosed gym may provide many more health hazards than cold but fresh air. Make sure you get enough sleep, since tiredness and exhaustion make you more vulnerable to infections. Manage your stress as well as you can.

Should you still fall ill despite of your best efforts, see what can be negotiated in terms of staying at home and, if necessary, doing some work over the phone and via email. Your boss and colleagues should thank you for your wise decision.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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The Holiday Season, A Time for Emotional Eating

October 30th, 2013 at 7:07 am by timigustafson

As the holidays are nearing, even those among us who mostly manage to stay in shape have to wonder how they can prevent serious damage to their waistline this time of the year. It’s no secret: from Thanksgiving (or earlier) through New Year’s Day, we all indulge in lots of parties, festive meals, and treats all abound. The aftermath, of course, is filled with regrets and renewed vows never to succumb to such temptations again – a.k.a. resolution season. But as many know from experience, those efforts will likely be just as futile next time around as they were in the past. So is there no escape from this vicious cycle?

Holiday bingeing is hard to avoid, not only because of the many opportunities (and excuses) to indulge more than usual, but also because the holidays are a rather emotional time. It may be meant to be a joyous season, however, it also brings negative emotions such as anxiety, depression and loneliness closer to the surface and makes them even harder to bear. Add the extra stress that holiday preparations inevitably produce, and you have the perfect set of conditions where emotional eating can thrive.

Not all indulgence is automatically dysfunctional, of course. In some ways, we as humans are genetically programmed to overdo it now and then. Our forbearers of hundreds of years ago had little choice but to eat as much and as fast as they could on the rare occasions when food was plentiful, to be followed by periods of near starvation. But those times are long gone and, for most of us, every day is a feast by comparison. Combined with our predominantly sedentary lifestyle, the negative consequences of our now considered “normal” food consumption should not surprise anyone.

But there is a much darker side to overeating when it becomes compulsive. Only recently, binge-eating disorder (BED) has been recognized as a medical condition. It is now defined as “a serious mental illness in which emotions and thinking patterns cause a person to adopt harmful eating habits, such as overeating or starvation. Often, these habits are a way of coping with depression, stress, or anxiety.” BED differs from other eating disorders like bulimia or anorexia, as it does not typically include purging (mostly by vomiting or using laxatives) to avoid weight gain. But like those other behaviors, BED is often rooted in serious emotional conflicts.

Not everyone who engages in emotional eating will lose control and end up self-destructing. But if the underlying causes remain unaddressed and untreated, dysfunctional behavior may become harder and harder to overcome.

Emotional eating is eating for reasons other than physical hunger, explains Jane Jakubczak, a Registered Dietitian at the University of Maryland. Studies have shown that 75 percent of overeating, that is eating without being hungry, is caused by emotions. So dealing with emotions appropriately is most important, she says.

So it would make sense to think that because the holidays not only stir up both positive and negative emotions and give us also good excuses to feed them (literally and figuratively), we are more at risk than at any other time to fall into the well-known traps.

Fortunately, it doesn’t have to be this way. Learning what triggers your emotional responses is key to avoid them from happening. There are many ways this can be achieved. For example, if being around food and treats is too tempting, try to avoid being in their presence as best as you can. There are many ways to get into the holiday spirit without surrounding yourself with edibles. Resist buying urges. Ask to have food platters or candy jars placed in parts of your office space where you can’t see or smell them. Busy yourself with thoughts other than about food. Instead of partaking in every lunch or dinner party you are invited to, suggest some alternative events like going on a ski trip or some other outdoor activity. For those eating events you cannot escape from, make a plan how to navigate them, including how much you will allow yourself to eat no matter how often you are urged to dig in.

Most importantly, feed your emotions with what they really need: fun, laughter, companionship, compassion… You can never overindulge in these.

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Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog and at amazon.com.  For more articles on nutrition, health and lifestyle, visit her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.” (www.timigustafson.com).

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Emotional Eating, a Common Phenomenon During the Holidays

December 19th, 2012 at 3:36 pm by timigustafson

In all likelihood, many Americans will gain some weight over the holidays. It may only come to a few pounds, but statistics show that even small nudges on the scale can stubbornly persist and add up over time. The annual spike may not surprise anyone, but if partying and celebrating almost inevitably lead to overindulging, there are also other elements at play that make it harder to resist temptation this time of the year. One of them is stress.

Whether you look forward to the holiday season or dread it, either way it’s an emotionally charged time. Choosing gifts, preparing festive meals, attending family events and office parties can give cause for joy or misgivings. Feelings of loneliness and isolation can become more intense for those who feel left out.

“Many people use eating as a way to cope with difficult emotions, not only bad ones, but also happiness, excitement and celebration,” says Alexis Conason, Psy.D., a psychologist at the New York Obesity Research Center, in an interview with the Huffington Post.

To handle their emotions better, some people find their greatest comfort in food. Food can have, among other things, a numbing effect. Emotional eaters, she says, often eat to cushion themselves against the challenges they’re facing. Especially when food is as plentiful as it typically is during the holidays, these responses are easily triggered and overeating occurs as a result.

Emotional eating is commonly identified as a behavior pattern where food is used for other purposes than just stilling hunger – such as to deal with stressful situations or as a means for reward. Unlike physical hunger, which increases gradually, the emotional need for food can emerge suddenly, demanding instant attention. It cannot easily be stilled by filling one’s stomach because the emptiness it is based on may persist beyond the physical satisfaction. Additionally, emotional eating can leave a person even more distressed by triggering feelings of guilt and shame in the wake of the eating event.

Not all emotional eating leads to compulsive disorders like binge eating or bulimia nervosa. But the risk of developing dysfunctional behaviors over time is greater when emotional eating is misunderstood or unnecessarily demonized, according Dr. Pavel Somov, a psychologist and author of “Eating the Moment.” When it results in mindless overeating, it can be both psychologically and physically unhealthy, he says.

To prevent such consequences, it is important to identify the sources that trigger certain emotional responses. The next step is to find alternative solutions when negative emotions strike. If the natural tendency is to reach for comfort food, it may be helpful not to keep certain items around the house or the office. The harder it is to get to a juicy burger, a sugary donut or a bag of candy, the better the chances will be to overcome sudden cravings. Sometimes, this will take a bit of strategic thinking, but it’s doable, even during the holidays, and over time it will get easier to avoid the traps that worked all too well in the past.

Of course, these can only serve as intermediate measures. The ultimate goal is to find the source of the inner void and fill it with something that isn’t food but is truly satisfying.

If you enjoyed this article, you may also enjoy reading “Emotional Eating – A Widespread but Poorly Understood Health Problem.”

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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A Season to Slow Down

December 16th, 2012 at 2:57 pm by timigustafson

In principle, I guess, one can get addicted to anything. I’m not just talking about drugs, alcohol, caffeine, nicotine or food. People can develop addictions to other people, their work, shopping, television or the Internet. The latter seem especially prone to cause addictive behavior. In this past year, the media outlets of every kind have been selling us “the news” like junk food, thereby creating yet another addiction. “News junkies suffer from withdrawal symptoms after the election,” I read the other day in the paper. I wonder why?

Certain addictions are hard to avoid in our culture where more is always considered better. We take it for granted to think of progress exclusively in terms of “growth.” So we find ourselves in a never-ending chase of things that supposedly make our lives more comfortable and more exciting. We live in larger homes, drive bigger and faster cars and surround ourselves with more possessions than any generation before us – and yet, there remains this nagging feeling that we don’t have enough to be content.

Inevitably, our relentless “pursuit of happiness” comes at a steep price. It’s called stress. True, most people suffer from stress and anxiety at one time or another. That’s life, some would say. Yet, what we are seeing today seems somewhat different. More and more people exhaust themselves, just by trying to keep up. They are reaching the end of their rope. Doctors and psychologists have already come up with new terminology to describe the stress symptoms they find in their patients with increasing frequency, using terms such as “time stress,” “chronic overscheduling” or “time poverty.”

To be sure, having goals and ambitions does not automatically make anyone sick. There is such a thing as “good stress” where people can thrive on a certain amount of pressure and even derive pleasure from it. But being constantly pressed for time without relief is not healthy, no matter how we may rationalize it. In fact, the idea that a “normal” life has to be filled with constant activity is a concept that should not remain unquestioned. Why should it be “the norm” that we always work harder, earn more money, buy more stuff, increase our standard of living? Why is having the newest and the latest to be considered a must? Why can’t we imagine living without gadgets that did not even exist a little while ago? Why don’t we ever feel that we have accomplished enough and that we can enjoy what we already have?

The Holiday Season is supposedly a time when we stop the rat race and focus on family, friends and all the good things that really matter in life. Of course, most of us end up doing the exact same thing as last year and the year before. We get caught up in the Holiday rush, no matter how much we wish it was different this time.

There are better ways to deal with our perpetual time crunch – there must be! Merely wishing life was different is not enough. All lifestyle changes, great and small, require will power and determination. Here are a few ideas that may help things along:

First: Let’s establish some rules. No matter how much pressure we may receive from the outside, let’s not forget that we are responsible for the ways we spend our time. Only we can find ways to organize our time better and use it more wisely. Instead of running around like crazy trying to put out fires all day, let’s set up a healthier routine and stick to it.

Second: Let’s set priorities. Let’s ask ourselves what value we get in return for our time and effort. Is our only reward more money to buy more stuff? So what if we don’t have all the latest fads? Those will be outdated and obsolete tomorrow. Instead, let’s focus, perhaps with a sense of gratitude, on what we already have – and not just in material terms.

Third: Let’s include regular down-time in our schedules, so we can recover and recharge our batteries. There are benefits in doing nothing once in a while. Allowing ourselves to slow down should not make us feel guilty. So, let’s switch off the cell phone, get off the Internet, stop listening to the News. Instead, let’s go for long walks, find a quiet place where we can spend time alone, meditate or write a journal – these are the gifts we can give to ourselves that will make for a truly Happy Holiday Season.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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Don’t Let Holiday Stress Wear You Out

November 28th, 2012 at 1:17 pm by timigustafson

It’s supposed to be the “most wonderful time of the year.” But for many Americans the holiday season brings considerable stress, anxiety and even depression. What should be an opportunity to slow down, take a vacation, focus on family and friends, often turns into an annually reoccurring hassle that is more of a burden than a relief.

It’s no wonder that so many people have a sense of dread rather than excitement about the holidays and find themselves completely frazzled by the time it’s over, says Elisabeth Scott, a stress management expert at about.com. According to a poll she conducted, 80 percent of respondents said they were more stressed during the holidays than they would like to be.

“All of the baking and entertaining, shopping, wrapping, relatives we don’t often see (sometimes for good reason), and holiday cards can add up to a schedule packed with extra activity and responsibility. Pair that with high expectations that most of us carry for the season, as well as the debt that often lasts for months afterwards, and you have a recipe for stress,” says Scott.

Stress is also one of the reasons why so many people get sick around the holidays. It’s not just flu season that catches up with you, it’s also that the heightened stress weakens your immune system and makes you more vulnerable to viruses and bacteria. Studies have shown that when test participants were subjected to elevated stress levels, their bodies almost stopped producing infection-fighting antibodies and their natural defenses went down.

Stress can make you more susceptible to illnesses from colds and flu to chronic diseases such as diabetes and heart disease, according to WebMD. Studies found that chronic stress can ‘age’ the immune system and potentially increase the risk of any number of serious health conditions, including cancer.

It doesn’t have to be this way. “This year can be different,” says Scott. “Try a combination of cutting back on activities, taking shortcuts, and adjusting your own expectations for the season. You can enjoy the holidays to the fullest without maxing out your energy, schedule and credit cards.”

Most importantly, you need to take care of your health, if you want to make it through the holidays in one piece. That starts with sound eating habits, regular exercise and getting enough rest.

Stress increases your need for nutrients because stress makes it more difficult for the body to digest properly, says Cindy Heroux, a registered dietitian and author of “The Manual That Should Have Come With Your Body” (Speaking of Wellness, 2003). “The more malnourished you become, the more severely stress will impact both your body and your mind,” she warns.

To prevent that from happening, health experts recommend eating plenty of antioxidants from fruits and vegetables to keep so-called “free radicals” at bay. Free radicals are reactive biological compounds that can damage DNA and suppress the immune system and are associated with many diseases. It is believed that stress plays a significant role in the increasing presence of these compounds.

Exercise, of course, is a great way to find relief from stress. “Exercise can decrease stress hormones like cortisol and increase endorphins, your body’s feel-good chemicals, giving your mood a natural boost. [It] can take your mind off your problems and either redirect it on the activity at hand or get you into a zen-like state,” says Scott.

In addition to following a balanced diet and exercise regimen, you also must set time aside for rest and relaxation. If necessary, you have to say ‘no’ and cut back on preparations or activities if they overwhelm you. “You don’t need to try every activity offered, go to every party thrown, or do everything the ‘Martha Stewart’ way in order to make your holiday special,” says Scott. Don’t become so busy that you no longer enjoy what is supposed to be fun and give you pleasure. Stick to what’s important to you, the things you would really miss if they weren’t included, and don’t measure yourself by other people’s expectations. After all, it should be a wonderful time for you, too.

Timi Gustafson R.D. is a registered dietitian, newspaper columnist, blogger and author of the book “The Healthy Diner – How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun”®, which is available on her blog, “Food and Health with Timi Gustafson R.D.”, and at amazon.com. You can follow Timi on Twitter and on Facebook.

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About timigustafson

About Timi Gustafson, R.D. As a clinical dietitian, health counselor, book author, syndicated newspaper columnist and, as of late, blogger, she has been able to reach millions of people, addressing their concerns about issues of health, lifestyle and nutrition. As Co-founder and Director of Nutrition Services for Cyberdiet.com (now Mediconsult.com), she created the first nutrition-related interactive website on the Internet in 1995. Many of the features you find on her blog, www.timigustafson.com, are based on the pioneering work of those days. Today, her goals remain the same: Helping people to achieve optimal health of body and mind. She received a Bachelor of Science degree in Clinical Nutrition and Dietetics from San José State University in California and completed a Clinical Dietetic Internship at the University of California Medical Center in San Francisco. She is a registered dietitian and Fellow of the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, an active member of the Washington State Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, a member of the Diabetes Care and Education, Dietitians in Business and Communications, Healthy Aging, Sports, Cardiovascular and Wellness Nutrition, and the Vegetarian Nutrition Practice Groups. For more information about Timi Gustafson R.D. please visit: www.timigustafson.com

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