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How assigning a price tag to holiday foods can prevent weight gain

That tray of Christmas cookies stimulates the same part of your brain as sex and gambling. Here's a trick to regain control.
Image: 'Tis the season to be tempted by holiday treats
'Tis the season to be tempted by holiday treats (and see a few extra pounds pop up on the scale).Marie C. Fields / Shutterstock

‘Tis the season to be tempted by holiday treats. Between the endless rounds of Christmas cookies at the office, calorie-laden hors d'oeuvres served at holiday parties and of course, the abundance of food at your family get-togethers (where you're probably heading home with leftovers), ringing in the New Year a few pounds heavier can feel inevitable. The only problem being, those few pounds that we put on so easily during the month of December tend to stick with us for an average of five months afterward — according to a recent study done by The New England Journal of Medicine.

Gaining holiday weight and struggling to lose it used to be my holiday tradition. But after cleaning up my diet and making a few big changes, I started to be more mindful of the decisions I was making. Which comes in handy when you're trying to cultivate the willpower to resist trays of delicious free food being passed under your nose (literally) all season long. Here's a look at what happens to our brains when we're offered free holiday treats, and what you can do to keep your diet in check.

This Is Your Brain On Holiday Treats

What goes on behind the scenes when we spot a tray of holiday cookies in the office kitchen? As it turns out, there's some science behind why Santa is willing to work for cookies. "When a person sees, smells or imagines a pleasurable treat, the reward center of the brain is stimulated," explains Dr. Renee Carr, Psy.D, a clinical psychologist. "Electrical stimulation of the ventral tegmental area triggers the release of dopamine in the nucleus accumbens. The dopamine increases your cravings. Once you indulge, serotonin is released which gives the sensation of pleasure. The crave-and-pleasure association is the foundation for addiction, sex, gambling and other sources of pleasure-based behavior."

If seeing and smelling all of those delicious holiday foods weren't tempting enough, Dr. Susan Albers, a psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic, says the fact that they're free makes them even harder to pass up. "The notion of 'free' is hard for many people to beat," she says. "We love a good deal — and there is no better deal than free holiday food. We live in a culture that loves receiving something for nothing. Not only do you enjoy the food, but there is a little rush of feeling like you are getting away with something or it feels like a gift."

Worried about holiday weight gain? Try This Trick

Losing weight (and keeping it off) forced me to cultivate a decision-making process around when to give in to temptation, and how often. For me, asking myself the question, 'If it weren't in front of me right now, would I go out and actually purchase this?' put a stop on my gut reaction to eat whatever free food was offered to me. According to Albers, being mindful of what you're eating and why is the antidote to holiday overeating. "When you eat mindfully, you can still have holiday treats but you stop the knee-jerk reaction to dive into all the treats and consciously think through your options," she says. "You don't let your subconscious desires rule. When you are mindful, you don't fill up your plate willy nilly. Instead, you respond consciously and carefully to your cravings."

Assigning a dollar amount to what's sitting in front of me has helped prioritize the food that I really want to eat versus what I'm just saying yes to because it's there.

Assigning a dollar amount — and the time and effort it would be worth to actually go out and get an item —to what's sitting in front of me for free has helped me navigate holiday party food; prioritizing the food that I really want to eat versus what I'm just saying yes to because it's there. "It starts with tuning into your reaction to holiday foods — being conscious of why you want what you want," says Albers. "For example, maybe you take a mental note that pecan pie is a must have because it brings back memories of your grandmother's homemade pies."

Overall, having a plan of action as to what you're going to turn down and what you're going to indulge in has a big impact on holiday overeating. "Someone who has practiced saying no to holiday treats is more likely able to do it," says Albers. "If you have made a firm and clear resolution to not eat too much before you get to the holiday festivities, it's much easier to walk away. It's people who have not thought it through or are on the fence about what to eat that are easily influenced when someone offers them food. People who have rehearsed the words 'no thank you' in their head ahead of time are likely to fair better."


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