Six strategies to avoid weight gain now and in the new year

A man who really loves to eat (but also exercise) explains how to avoid food triggers and emotional eating this holiday season


I have a tendency to go a little wild during the holiday season. I also spend a lot of time in January doing laundry to wash my workout gear because I’m burning off all those extra calories I took in. It’s this annual thing I do. I don’t recommend it.

You may not want to gain the extra pounds in the first place and I can attest the first couple of weeks of the new year are pretty intense. So, if you’d like to learn to control your eating during the holidays, and the rest of the year, I spoke with an expert to get the facts.

Dr. Margaret Yúfera-Leitch is a specialist in the psychology of appetite. Her work draws on the field of addictive behaviour and cognitive neuroscience. I asked her to explain the types of things that affect eating behaviour and her response was, “Absolutely everything!”

“Eating is integral to our survival,” she told me. “So controlling the desire to overeat is going to pose a real challenge. From the food itself (i.e. macronutrient content/palatability) to moods, to the way the product is sold (packaging, current diet fads), making a conscious effort to eat less than we desire is a constant battle. Originally, food provided energy to help us survive. Now, we are in a situation where we have to curb a survival instinct.”

Curbing a survival instinct doesn’t sound like much fun, but Dr. Yúfera-Leitch does have some advice on how to counter the way food stimulates those reward centres in our brains. “Finding other activities that exploit a sense of pleasure (beyond eating) is key. Whether it is scrapbooking, writing, curling, or listening to music, you need a big list of things beyond eating to fill up your day if you are a size that makes you unhappy.”

She and I both also advocate exercise. Not only does it burn calories, but it releases a lot of the same happy endorphins a trip to Dairy Queen does. With less guilt. And less flab.

Emotional Eating
Dr. Yúfera-Leitch believes that most of our eating is emotional.

“If you differentiate between eating for physiological need versus emotional eating (pleasure-motivated eating) we see that we are incredibly vulnerable to food cues, packaging, health fads, and moods. None of these aforementioned factors is related to physiologically driven hunger. It takes a lot of self-awareness and understanding of what your trigger items, foods, places, and feelings are.”

Six Strategies for the Holidays
Our expert has these strategies to plan around holiday eating pitfalls, and asserts this applies to every day of the year:

1. If you are a binge eater, the holidays are horrific. You will be confronted by food cues and food stimuli almost constantly. Find someone to speak with before, and during the times when cravings hit. Get busy or get out of the house, anything. Do an activity that curbs overeating.

2. Politely refuse food gifts, or get rid of them immediately. The box of chocolates that you decided to “save” over the weekend has a way of managing to get eaten, so donate it to the food bank. Also, instead of giving food gifts and doing holiday baking, engage your creativity in other ways. Pottery, painting, Christmas tree decorating, soup-kitchen volunteering: there are many things to do over the holidays that do not involve food directly.

3. Ask yourself what is more important: being lean (and perhaps feeling a greater sense of self-satisfaction) or 45 seconds of blissful pleasure with the peanut brittle? Determine if this is something you need, or simply want.

4. Have a “safety” food. Find something that has a low energy density (that is high in either fibre or protein, but low in fat), and is also pleasant to eat. Make sure you have enough of these types of foods to eat when cravings for junk food kick in.

5. “Everything in moderation” is a terrible motto for the holidays. Choose three items during the holidays in which you will indulge. Be very specific. “Cookies” is not specific enough (gingerbread men with icing on the edges may do the trick). Choose items that are as low calorie as possible.

6. Vigorous exercise is an excellent way to stimulate those feel-good endorphins that are felt when we eat delicious foods. It also burns calories instead of adding them.

Although I do go a little crazy during the holidays, I’ve got my own safety foods that I always have on hand. If you’d like to know what they are, please send me an email.

James S. Fell, MBA, is a certified strength and conditioning specialist and healthy living consulting in Calgary, AB. Visit or email him at