I distinctly remember how the Sunday after Thanksgiving used to feel for me for years. I was filled with remorse and guilt, in addition to feeling physically unwell, due to excessive amounts of alcohol and processed foods for days on end. To be clear, there is nothing wrong with having a bit more booze and/or food than usual around the holidays, but I was taking it to a new level. I would polish off several chocolate chip cookies per day, have a large bowl of ice cream at night, eat huge servings of leftovers that I wasn’t remotely hungry for, and tack on whatever other foods were on my “bad” list of foods. This was on top of getting drunk every night and drinking for most of the day. The worst part of this cycle was the feeling that I couldn’t control it. I would anticipate how I was going to feel by the end of the weekend and felt defeated before the holiday had even started. Helpless is the best word to describe how I felt.
The weeks following Thanksgiving were then filled with excessive restriction in an effort to combat my binge-like behavior. I was swinging from one end of the spectrum of extremes to the other; failing to realize the causal relationship between the two. Now I know better. I know that attempting to combat a few days or even weeks of overdoing it by overly restricting will just cause the vicious cycle to continue. While I am now able to navigate the holidays without overdoing it, I still indulge more than usual (wine is typically my choice over holiday foods). And I occasionally feel the pangs of desire to subsequently restrict as penance for this behavior. But please take it from me when I tell you that this is the wrong approach. Your relationship with food and your body will only diminish as a result, and you won’t make any physical progress either. A better approach is to jump right back into our healthy and balanced lifestyles while being mindful of our individual responses to these situations, in addition to a few short-term strategies to assist with feeling great again.
Everyone reacts differently to overindulgence on a physical level and we typically fall into one of two categories:
- Becoming a sugar demon (or other intense craving): For some, a few days of indulging in sugar, alcohol, or other processed foods prompts further intense cravings for these. Given that these products are manufactured with this response in mind (i.e. they have a high reward value), this is not an indication of failure or lack of discipline, so please don’t perceive this behavior through a moral lens. It’s simply a physical response that many of us experience. Are natural, whole foods now unappetizing to you? Are you constantly thinking of when you can have said processed food/drink next? If so, your body and mind have likely been roped into this cycle, and you will need to practice more awareness than usual until these cravings dissipate. Call these cravings out and acknowledge their existence. From here, you can implement more tactical strategies, like grocery shopping and only purchase whole, natural foods, or if your lifestyle primarily consists of takeout, then only purchase meals that consist of whole foods. You will need to make it as easy as possible to make the more nutrient dense choice.
- Note: Don’t vow to never have a certain food again as a result of overindulging, as this will only lead to a negative relationship with food and you won’t trust yourself around it. Simply prioritize natural, whole foods for most of your meals (as I hope you’re doing regularly) and these cravings will begin to diminish.
- Wanting nothing to do with processed foods or alcohol: I tend to fall into this camp, while many of my family members fall into the previous category. My body is sensitive to alcohol and processed foods, so it doesn’t take much to make me feel unwell. As I prefer to feel great, I will naturally gravitate towards whole foods and tend to avoid the processed foods and booze for a few days until my body is back to feeling like normal. Admittedly, experiencing this reaction is much easier than the former, as it simply requires listening to our bodies and acting accordingly.
Aside from bringing awareness to our individual responses to overindulgence, I use a few easy strategies that assist with getting our bodies back to their balanced baselines.
- Prioritize sleep: For those of us who experience terrible sleep as a result of too much booze or processed foods, we need to do our bodies a favor and assist with the recovery process. Poor sleep also increases the hormone responsible for increased hunger and decreases our satiety hormone, so hitting the hay early will lend itself to making better choices too.
- Stay hydrated: dehydration due to alcohol, travel, or sugar leads to low energy, poor sleep, and contributes to cravings. There is no need to overdo it with this; simply get back into your usual water habits and be mindful of your thirst.
- Pay attention to carbohydrate consumption: carbohydrates hold more water in our bodies than protein and fat do, and this contributes to the post-holiday bloat many of us experience. Even one day of fewer carbohydrates will aid with ridding our bodies of this excess water. Note: I do NOT recommend “no” carbs here, and this is not an excuse to restrict. If you anticipate this will prompt obsessive behaviors, then skip this one. I simply don’t have carbohydrates with one or two of my meals for one day only, and I then immediately return to my usual balanced meals.
- Get a workout in as soon as possible: This isn’t a form of punishment AT ALL. It may feel more difficult than usual, but I often find that I have some of my best workouts due to the extra fuel. Sweating and getting our heart rates up helps our bodies and minds recalibrate, it demonstrates to our brains that we’re back into our healthy routines, and it’s also an opportunity to use the extra fuel to our advantage.
o Performing glycolytic activity (those that utilize glycogen from carbohydrates as the primary fuel source) will further contribute to decreasing excess water in the body. Examples include heavy weightlifting, sprints, and HIIT.
The most important aspect of implementing these strategies is our mindset. We’re not practicing these strategies out of guilt or self-hatred. Rather, we’re doing them because we care about our bodies and minds, and we want to get back to feeling our best. Here’s to feeling back on top on no time!