How to keep from holiday overeating

kcarlson@modbee.comDecember 22, 2012 

Some people don't only overeat during the holiday season.

"Unfortunately, we overeat throughout the entire year, not just the holidays," said Claudia Corchado, program manager for the Merced County Central California Regional Obesity Prevention Program.

But, of course, it gets a little worse around Christmas.

"Overeating is part of the holiday," Corchado said.

The holidays, when candy and rich desserts always are within reach, can be a real test for people who are trying to lose weight.

Last year, Emily was faring well with a 12-step food addiction program until the holiday season. The 31-year-old Modesto woman said she fell back into her old habits of indulging.

"I was obsessed with food," said Emily, who gave only her first name to comply with rules of the program called Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous. "Sugar was in my body, so I craved it. It took me four months to get back on track."

People who struggle with overeating say it begins with Halloween candy. Then the next two months are one progressive dinner with stops at a Thanksgiving feast, holiday parties in December and a New Year's Eve bash.

Linda, a Ripon woman in Emily's support group, pointed out that many holidays in American culture revolve around food. She got into the 12-step program because being overweight was ruining her health, she said.

"My thing was, I used to bake for everybody," she said. "That was my show of affection. I would bake the fudge, the cookies. Now, I can't do it. It is too hard for me to stay away from it."

Holiday feasting is a powerful urge, prompting agencies such as the National Institutes of Health to release tips for staying on track with healthy eating, often a concern for people with high blood pressure, diabetes or heart disease.

According to eating disorder experts, family conflicts, loneliness and economic stress during the holidays may lead to overeating in a search for emotional comfort.

Intuitive eating

Signe Darpinian, the co-owner of Meghan's Place Eating Disorder Center in Modesto, said the holidays give rise to emotional eating. Family gatherings easily can stir emotional conflicts, she said, "because these are the people we have the most history with and we are more reactive toward them."

She said the holidays provide access to what dieters regard as forbidden foods -- chocolate, pecan pie, cakes and frosted cookies.

Darpinian counsels her clients to stay in touch with the body's natural ability to know when to eat and when to stop, and to trust their bodies' cues about food choices. She teaches intuitive eating, which uses a scale from 1 to 10 to help clients measure their appetite.

For her clients, a "1" means they are famished, while a "10" is stuffed. Clients learn to trust their taste buds and eat until reaching a "6," a feeling of being satisfied but with room for more.

Darpinian believes it's a mistake for people with evening party plans not to eat that day, to limit calories with the idea that they are going to indulge at the party. "I don't want to arrive overly hungry because then I will overeat," she said.

Trust body's wisdom

It's better to arrive at around a "3," choose the food and treats desired, and enjoy the fare until reaching a "6," she said. Some experts assert that people who eat to ease emotional pain continue after the food no longer tastes good and their bodies feel lousy.

Darpinian tells her clients to trust the body's wisdom and not to berate themselves if they have gone too far.

"If you go a little over a '6,' big deal," she said. "The more you beat yourself up for overeating, the longer it is going to last."

Corchado said her program recommends that people watch the calories they are consuming and to drink a glass of water and give themselves about 10 minutes before considering going for seconds. It takes a while for a person's brain to register the stomach is full, she added.

People should spend more time catching up with family, and remain conscious of what they are eating, Corchado said. She also recommended going for a walk after a big meal instead of sitting on the couch.

People should have a New Year's resolution to live a healthier life, Corchado said.

There are many schools of thought on dieting and losing weight. For adults concerned about high blood pressure or healthy holiday eating, the NIH recommends the Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension diet developed by the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute.

The DASH diet follows guidelines for limiting salt, fats and cholesterol, and emphasizes choosing more fruits, vegetables and low-fat milk products when passing through the serving line.

Those who subscribe to theories that some folks are trapped in food addictions, similar to addictions to alcohol or drugs, said they are determined to abstain from sweets. Modesto-area members of Food Addicts in Recovery Anonymous refuse processed sugar and flour year-round, but don't abstain from parties or enjoying the holidays, they said.

Part of the 12-step program is making three calls a day to fellow group members for support. During the holidays, they are certain to talk about any plans for attending a gathering. On the day of the event, group members are advised to eat the program's three measured meals, which include a balance of meat, vegetables, grains and fruits.

They stick to the vegetable trays and sip diet drinks during the party, Linda said.

During an interview with five self-described "food addicts" last week, Emily said she made it through Halloween and Thanksgiving this year. She said she feels good about her 142-pound body, which is slimmed from a peak of 246 pounds.

"It was not hard this year, because I realized how hard it was during relapse and I don't want to go back to that," Emily said. "When you learn not to focus on food, you focus more on the family. I come from a family where my brothers and sisters are overweight. They asked, 'Don't you miss it?' I said I would rather have size 7 jeans than what you are eating."

The group members said they had spent thousands of dollars on diet programs, with varied results, but did not keep the weight off.

Linda, who once sought help from a psychiatrist for uncontrolled eating, said what's worked for her is the support from people in the group and the spiritual component of the 12-step program.

Linda, 59, said friends and other loved ones are disappointed she's not the consummate baker anymore. But getting rid of 100 pounds and the inflammation caused by being overweight improved her lung condition -- to the amazement of her doctor, she said.

Karen said she started attending the group in October 2007 and learned she would have to do without the traditional sweets.

"It was right before the holidays," she recalled. "I relied heavily on the group and made it through without overeating."

Sun-Star reporter Yesenia Amaro contributed to this report.

Modesto Bee staff writer Ken Carlson can be reached at or (209) 578-2321.

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