Why the holidays throw us off track and why they don't have to

Adam Bataineh, MD

Longevity MD

Reviewer

The holidays are a great example of the dilemma of self-regulation. This dilemma arises when there is a conflict between our current desire (to eat a delicious pie for example) and our long term desires to keep fit and healthy. If every day environment is one of abundance of food temptations, the holidays are ten-fold that. Most of us plan to combat these temptations by attempting to control our impulses. Yet we mostly fail.

In this festive special post I’m breaking down holiday temptations in the hope of helping us navigate the upcoming period with more clarity and a better understanding of what we can do . One of the main tenets of cognitive behavioural therapy is to understand why we do what we do. This actually helps us consciously notice our impulses and have better control over them.


What are impulses and how are they controlled?

Impulses are an automatic reaction and approach towards attractive objects such as highly palatable foods. An interesting framework for understanding why we sometimes fail at restraining our impulses is called the hot/cool-system or the know/go system. It frames self control as a balance between a cool “know” system which is controlled by the rational or cognitive parts of our brain and an emotional hot system or the “go” system. The cool system is slow, strategic and long-term oriented and is the driver of self-regulation whereas the hot system is driven by emotions and is the basis of our impulses. But it’s not always as straightforward as that.

The same reasoning faculties that act to restrain our impulses often trick us into following the desire of the desire-driven, emotional systems. This phenomenon is called motivated reasoning. Psychology literature is rife with evidence that people are more likely to arrive at conclusions that they emotionally want to arrive at. Our brains literally prioritise lines of reasoning that are more likely to arrive at a preconceived conclusion. We’ve all been there, going through mental gymnastics to justify why we actually should be eating that extra piece of pie, or holding onto an obscure research headline that justifies poor dietary choices. I’ve definitely read somewhere that chocolate is actually good for us right?


Should I prepare for the holidays by fasting or portion restriction?

There are two main strategies for the holidays: time restriction (by fasting) or portion restriction. Here’s why fasting (or over-restricting food intake) in the days leading up to a holiday is probably not the best strategy. Impulses can be worse after periods of restriction. This does not mean it’s not a reasonable strategy for some. However, dietary literature has many examples of the paradoxical effect of restricting food intake.

A study of sixty-eight females split them into two groups: a temptation group who were asked to abstain from a certain snack for 24 hours while being exposed to it and a control group who were under no restrictions. After being given free access to the snack, the temptation group exhibited a backfire effect where they ate significantly more than the control group. This was particularly true in a sub-group of participants who were low in inhibition.These participants scored high on a specific screening questionnaire designed to identify types of people who are more or less likely to be restrained eaters. The same dynamic is often seen in “weekday dieting” where individuals restrict intake during the week but indulge in unhealthy eating habits during the weekend. This is why focusing on sustainable habits for the long-term is so crucial for any dietary strategy.


What is most suitable for you?

The first thing you should do is know yourself better. Ask: what kind of eater you are based on your previous behaviour? Are you comfortable restraining food intake without having a rebound effect? Do you often over-eat over the weekend? This can give you a guide to whether you should time restrict or portion restrict. 

If fasting is not something you practice often and are comfortable with, you might be better off focusing more on a more flexible approach where you allow yourself to indulge in small proportions over the period of the holidays. If you are used to intermittent fasting with no problem, fasting can be a great way to restrict food intake when we know we’re in for a big meal.


Final thought

Whatever you end up doing, try not to fail with abandon. I love this concept I came across on a blog post. It describes when people set themselves a target, miss it by a little, and then abandon restraints all together. It turns out that, guess what? It’s okay to miss our target by a little, enjoy the moment and move on! 



https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/08870446.2018.1508683

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/18342989/

https://royalsocietypublishing.org/doi/10.1098/rsos.190624

https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/22796949/

https://www.sciencedirect.com/science/article/pii/S0195666308000688

November 26, 2021
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