10 Tips to Deal with Holiday Weight Gain

So after my little exposé on Sol Orwell telling outright lies about me a few weeks back, I wanted to run a piece I’ve been running since 2008.  It’s a bit late but there are still 3 problem weeks left until New Year’s.  I won’t put anything else up, this will give me time to work on the book before having to deal with new content.  So without further adeiu, I give you the annual running of 10 Tips to Deal with Holiday Weight Gain.  Enjoy!

For the body obsessed or even normal dieters, the holiday period from around October through to January can be a true minefield. Between the specific holidays of Halloween (mercifully passed), Thanksgiving and Christmas, along with endless goody baskets and parties, folks run into problems maintaining the habits they try to follow the rest of the year.

A lot of strategies exist to deal with this time, especially among the body obsessed, although I’d consider few of them particularly healthy from a mental or psychological standpoint.  One is to become a social pariah. Can’t control your food at parties? Simply skip all of them. While this might avoid food issues, it’s also a way to make your friends and co-workers think you’re an anti-social asshole.  Which is fine, I guess, if you are an anti-social asshole.  But it won’t do much for your inter-work relationships.

Another common one is to take the needed meal or food (e.g. turkey, broccoli, plain sweet potato) with you in a Tupperware bowl. I’ve heard of folks doing this at Thanksgiving dinner, usually so that they can sit and look down upon their family members with an air of superiority. “Oh, I can’t believe you’d eat that, that’s why you’re fat.” Newsflash folks, not only are we talking about a borderline eating disorder at this point (see also: orthorexia/Chris Shugart), that kind of insanity just makes your family uncomfortable. So don’t do it.  Better to stay home than be an asshole.

Of course, at the other extreme are the dis-inhibited eaters who just go completely crazy and eat everything in sight, gaining a considerable amount of weight and fat in the three months of holidays. It can happen and I’m not saying that it can’t. Of course, if you’re a bodybuilder or powerlifter, you can just say “I’m bulking” as you shovel down the third piece of cake but I’ll assume that you actually want to keep a lid on weight/fat gains during this time period. Balance please.


A Dog Trainers Thoughts on Behavior Change

The post I’m going to make today is something I’ve not only wanted to put down for a while but was originally written for a monster book on fat loss that I started last year (which is 95% done and from which the women’s book sprang).  Since that book focuses on fat loss, most of the language deals with that topic.  But it would generally apply to behavior change overall.  I’ve changed some of the text and verbiage for various reasons.


An older idea of human behavior (called behaviorism) suggests that we do things either to obtain reward (things feel good) or avoid punishment (things feel bad). While there is obviously more to it than that in humans, there is no doubt that these types of pathways play a role in human behavior.  Humans tend to do things that feel good/reward them (like eating) and avoid things that feel bad/punish them.  In fact, we are fairly hardwired (deriving pleasure) to engage in activities that make us feel good or reward us (like eating, sex, etc) since those are important beahviors to keep us alive.

It’s not coincidence that most of the “bad” behaviors that people engage in, sex, gambling, smoking, drinking, drugs or overeating tasty high-sugar/high-fat foods drive the reward system in the first place. We do them because they are fun, feel good, make us feel better (at least temporarily), etc.  If we didn’t, we wouldn’t do them.  Which raises a reverse question, why do some people engage in what seem like miserable activities (such as intense painful exercise training or restricting themselves from tasty foods) and that I’ll come back to.

Technically you can addict or mis-use any of the above and more. There are sex addicts, gambling addicts, drug addicts, alcoholics and I talked about the concept of food or eating addiction earlier in this book. It’s clear that some people are more or less predisposed to become addicted to anything, there is a clear genetic component and it probably resides in the reward system and the same system may be involved in food intake and obesity


The Full Diet Break

Over the weekend I did a podcast for Patrick Ward and Keat’s Snidemans Reality Based Fitness site and one of the topics came up had to do with flexible dieting and the full diet break.  This is something that I wrote about in both A Guide to Flexible Dieting and The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook but it occurred to me that there really wasn’t any information about it on the main site.

So that’s the topic of today’s article:: The Full Diet Break.  What it is and why and how (to a limited degree), to do it.


What is a Full Diet Break?

Whenever I bring up this topic, I tend to get sort of confused looks from people; what do you mean I’m supposed to take a break from my diet?  As I opined on the podcast, I have no idea if this is just an idea endemic to America (where we suffer from a long-history of a Puritan work ethic) or is just common to dieters but most people who are trying to lose weight or fat seem to feel that the key to success is to be as miserable as possible for as long as possible. While this certainly isn’t the only reason diets fail, I don’t think it helps.

This was actually a big part of the reason that I originally wrote A Guide to Flexible Dieting as there is a good bit of research (comparing rigid and flexible dieters) showing that people who are more flexible in their eating patterns are more successful in the long-term, showing less binge eating habits and weighing less.

And while that idea might seem contradictory given the other book I mentioned The Rapid Fat Loss Handbook, I’d only note that that book incorporates many of the flexible dieting principles anyhow.  But I’m getting off topic.


Rigid and Flexible Dieting

With the holidays looming, and all of the food and candy that that entails, I wanted to write a quick article post about a topic that I consider very important. In fact, it’s so important to the goal of long-term body composition changes that I wrote an entire book (A Guide to Flexible Dieting) about it.

Over the years, I’ve seen a particular pattern that is pretty endemic among the body obsessed: that is what dietary behavior researchers would call rigid dieting patterns (restrained dieting might be a little more accurate here but I don’t want to get into the distinction that deeply).

Rigid dieters are the folks who are, to some degree or another, always controlling their overall food intake. They never relax, they never allow themselves to ‘cheat’ (a term I dislike for various reasons). And, sort of like the type of athlete I talked about in Goal vs. Process Oriented Athletes: Part 1 before, they often see better short-term results.

The problem is that, if something happens and they go off their diet for whatever reason, they end up going completely off their diet. Contest bodybuilders have some of the worst problems with this, 12-16 weeks of total deprivation leads into a 4-6 week food orgy where weight and fat are both regained rapidly, no training is done, etc. The cycle repeats annually.

In research, extremely rigid dieters are often heavier (mainly because of the cheats and binges they undergo when they break their diets) and often have poorer long-term success than what are called flexible dieters.

Flexible dieters allow for, well, flexibility in their lives. They realize that a little bit of something that isn’t ‘on their diet’ is no big deal in the big scheme of things, they often weigh less, etc. In my experience, while the short-term results may not be as great, the long-term results are usually better.


Dieting Psychology Versus Dieting Physiology

Over the next series of articles, I want to look at both physiological and psychological reasons that diets can fail.

But before doing that I need to make something very clear: the distinction I’m making between psychology and physiology is simply for convenience, it’s not one that really truly exists.

That is to say, psychology impacts on physiology and physiology impacts on psychology and the days of pretending the body and mind are separate non-interacting entities are long, long gone. Again, I’ll make the separation primarily for reasons of convenience, it will save me some needless complexity in the upcoming discussion. Just keep in mind that it’s an artificial and non-existent separation in reality.

Modern science, for example the field of psychoneuroimmunology, recognizes that the brain and body are in a constant state of interaction and involvement with one another. This is sort of the basis for the idea that you can think yourself sick, or for the idea that people with a more positive attitude are more likely to survive certain diseases (such as cancer). Your thought processes can impact on such workings of your body as immune function.

Put more simply, how you think affects how your body works and how your body works can affect how you think or feel.

Incidentally, for anybody who is interested in this topic, I would highly, highly, highly recommend almost any of the books by science writer Robert Sapolsky, especially his book Why Zebras Don’t Get Ulcers where this topic is discussed in some detail (primarily wrt: cortisol and stress). This is literally one of my top-5 books ever and I cannot recommend it too highly.

Anyhow, while you’re sitting there reading this, I want you to start thinking about something that really makes you angry. Taxes, gas prices, my inability to blog consistently, take your pick. Really get a good anger going. Now stop for a second and pay attention to your body: odds are that your heart rate is up, if we measured blood pressure it would be increased too, you might be breathing a little bit harder, you get the idea. The mere act of thinking about something that upset you had a strong physiological effect throughout your body.

Here’s another example in the reverse direction: everybody knows how they get really lethargic and lazy when they are sick with something like the flu or a bad cold or what have you. It’s as if when you are sick your body is deliberately trying to get you to lay around all day and rest. This turns out to basically be the case.

When you are sick, your body releases short-lived chemicals called cytokines, some of which are inflammatory. Inflammatory cytokines, in addition to making you feel like warmed over crap when you have the flu or something, they also directly impact on the brain and your motivation to move around.

I’d note that a similar mechanism has been suggested as a primary cause of overtraining; called the cytokine hypothesis of overtraining I think it ties together a lot of conflicting and contradictory data on the topic. It explains changes in performance along with behavior and ties together the previous held (but wrong idea) of local versus central overtraining. It turns out that they are the same thing and local effects (tissue damage) is causing central effects (behavior and motivation changes).

Essentially constant/chronic/excessive inflammation locally (in the muscles you’re training) causes an increase in inflammatory cytokines and this is responsible for the lack of motivation to train and lethargy that often sets in. Essentially, your body (your muscles) are trying to ‘tell’ your brain to give it a rest and take some down-time. Of course, humans, being the stubborn folks that we are, often choose to ignore or over-ride these signals.

This has a lot of relevance to the issue of dieting failure which is what I’ll be talking about next.