The holidays are coming fast and for most of us, they present unavoidable challenges no matter what phase of the low-carb ketogenic journeys we’re in. They are the #1 cause of people abandoning their diets and undoing all their hard work. We all know about the big holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas, but things really kick off during Halloween.
Over the years, I’ve seen so many start the holiday struggles with Halloween because the candy is everywhere and if you have kids and they trick or treat, there can be big bowls of candy sitting around for weeks. This can be a challenge for anyone, but especially for people just starting their journey, or for those for whom sweets are still a trigger.
One of the greatest tools we use in the clinic is the Swiss Cheese Model of defense. As I was thinking of how to write this blog post to maximize helping people stay on track this holiday season, I couldn’t think of a better way to cover all bases than the Swiss Cheese Model.
First off, we need to understand the factors that make the holidays such a dangerous time for those of us following a low carb keto lifestyle, or any diet for that matter. We are surrounded by family, friends, and loved ones, and even though it’s a joyful time, the holidays can be a trap.
Typically, every food in our life we couldn’t restrict in the past is in our face multiple times in just a few months. Think of Halloween (candy), Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s. Not only are we faced with having our family’s famous comfort foods like grandma’s famous cherry pie and mom’s carrot cake staring at us and calling our name for hours, but we also have to deal with peer pressure from family and friends trying to guilt us into eating something bad to make them comfortable.
Another thing that can derail us during the holidays is stress. Holidays can be very stressful with all the traveling and planning in those couple months. We all know stress alone is enough to drive us to eat. We often are also off work more so there is more time at home, which can lead to grazing and eating out of boredom. Also, some of the places we visit during the holidays can be comforting or even stressful places from our childhood that can cause us to let our guard down a little. Combine, peer pressure, comfort, stress, and boredom, and we have a situation where all your problem foods of the past are in one room, and it’s easy to get sidetracked. So now that we are aware, what’s next?
Preparing is probably one of the most important defenses in any situation, but more so for the holidays.
The great thing about the holidays is we know when they are and where we’re going,. That is a huge advantage for preparation. Also, traditionally most holiday dinners include a good amount of meats like turkey, ham, pork, rib roast, as well as vegetables, cheese and deviled eggs. To be sure, don’t be shy. Ask the host of where you’re visiting questions like “What is everyone bringing food-wise?” “Can I bring anything?” That way you know what acceptable foods will be available in advance, and you can bring something to complement it. If you’re not comfortable asking the host, or they are not exactly sure what people are bringing or what is being served, then you can still prepare. You can simply bring a couple of dishes yourself and know you have options, or you can also eat before you go,
I know that may sound a little different, but if you fill up before you go you are going to fare much better in a situation with no food options than trying to white knuckle your way through it. Another option is to offer to host at your house. This guarantees you have a safe food environment and you are in total control.
Lastly, for preparation, there are two things I would suggest:
First is making a keto dessert to serve. Unfortunately, I have never seen a holiday gathering not have multiple trigger sweets staring me down. Sometimes you can eat all the protein and fat in the place, yet the sight and smell of a favorite dessert will tempt you. Bringing your own can keep that from happening. I also find most people really enjoy the keto desserts and ask for the recipe, Sometimes it’s even a good conversation starter.
Second, I would steer clear from alcohol. For many, it drives us to eat more and it can lower our defenses, This can be bad when we are already under stress, in a dangerous food environment, and possibly facing peer pressure.
Self-advocacy is something a lot of people have a hard time doing, Unfortunately, during these holiday gatherings the people we love the most can be the worst for trying to sabotage our efforts, I would suggest being honest and upfront before the holidays to family and friends that you have changed to a healthier lifestyle and you no longer eat certain things.
You would be surprised how supportive some will be and even go out of their way to make you something special, but this is not always the case. You will possibly hear all kinds of rude things from the people you love and respect, like “You’re getting too skinny, have some cake”, “Have you been sick?”, “You have been so good, one piece of pie won’t hurt”, You ever going to eat real food again?”
You have to stay strong and remember your why’s and why making this change was so important to you. Reflect on all the hard work you have done and how far you have come, and ask yourself if it’s worth undoing or suffering a setback just to appease others. You decided to put yourself first and the people trying to push you don’t have to deal with the negative consequences of you eating junk, They don’t have to deal with your health issues either. A lot of people do this because I feel they don’t like changes in others, and it makes them uncomfortable, or they are insecure with themselves,
Hopefully, you have a great support system and don’t have to deal with this type of thing, but if you do then you have to find your voice and self-advocate. There are many polite things you can say like “I had to do this to avoid medication”, “My doctor recommended I lose weight to get healthier”, “I needed to make a change in the foods I was eating”, “I found my body doesn’t agree with these foods”, or anything it takes to get people off your back.
#4 Community and Support
This a great defense to have in place in any situation, but can be a particularly useful one during the holidays and emergencies. When beginning a low carb. keto lifestyle, it’s very important to create a community support system made up of people such as family members, friends, coworkers, healthcare teams, and social media groups. This creates a group of people you can turn to when things get tough.
A supportive or encouraging text, phone call, or message is sometimes all you need to avoid a bad situation, Maybe they can offer advice that helps get you through. These helpful people are at your fingertips and can be contacted quickly. Most people you will have in your support circle have probably been in your shoes and are more than willing to answer your call or text on a holiday, We all know these situations are tough and how important it is to have support quickly.
Another tip is to seek out other family members that will be at the same place that are also eating healthier. You can lean on each other for support during the gathering.
Lastly, maybe have an exit strategy planned in case things get too out of hand. Have an excuse ready to use to escape the situation, I don’t normally recommend this because you want to celebrate with family and friends, but for people still not comfortable with self-advocacy or who just like to avoid confrontation, this is an option.
Have some people in your support system on standby and let them know about your situation so you know you have someone ready to answer that call or text if you need them.
#5 Impulse Control
Impulse control is tightly tied to defenses #2 (Preparation) and #4 (Community and Support.)
Impulse Control is doing the best you can in the situation you are in, and this is why in the preparation defense I suggested you bring your own dish and dessert because impulse control alone is not enough when you are facing stress, peer pressure and a house full of trigger foods.
You better have a low carb way out because willpower in these situations has a very low success rate. So, what exactly do we mean when we say a low-carb out? First, you must understand humans are the only animals on earth expected not to eat constantly when food is put in front of them. Take dogs, for example. If you fill up their bowl they will eat until the food is gone. Fill it up as soon as they’re done and they will eat again. This pattern will repeat until they get sick. We are not wired much differently, and when all this food is in our face the entire day, we like to use a saying in Dr. Tro’s clinic, “binge low carb, and live to fight another day”. What does that mean? Well, if you’re at a holiday dinner and you find your cravings out of control, then don’t limit the number of low carb options you eat. Eat all the beef, turkey, ham, low carb fruits and vegetables, deviled eggs, cheese, cold cuts and low carb desserts until your brain shuts off. Is this going to be a weight-loss strategy? No, but you will win on the back end by not spiking your blood glucose and losing those appetite-suppressing ketone levels you have been working so hard building up. Also you won’t have to deal with the aftermath of water gain which can be discouraging to see on the scale, feeling like trash and bloating until you have been back on track.
Going off track on the holidays can be dangerous since there are so many in a short period of time, I have seen some people slip up on Halloween candy and continue to slide because before they have a chance to get themselves back together Thanksgiving and Christmas are here quickly and by then I see people just give up and tell themselves they might as wait] until New Years. Unfortunately, I see all too often these 2-3 month stretches go well beyond New Years.
Sometimes despite our best efforts, our defenses can get blown through. It happens to just about all of us at some point in our journey, but it does not have to be considered a failure.
When we fall, we need to forgive ourselves and get back on track as soon as possible. Getting back on track can be as fast as starting the next meal. Just because we fall doesn’t mean we should abandon the entire day, week, month or beyond. You didn’t get to where you are by eating one low-carb meal, so you won’t undo all your success by making one bad choice.
Let’s turn a fall into a win. First, we need to re-examine our defenses and figure out how we blew through each one individually to end up where we did, then we need to ask, “Where was I when this happened?”, “When did this happen?”, “Why did this happen?”, “What kinds of foods did we crave and go for?”
Once we have the answers to these questions we can easily figure out which defenses need improvement. Maybe we find out it was a certain food that set us off and we can prepare a low carb replacement for next time. Maybe we figure out we didn’t eat enough that day and when hunger hit we were unprepared, Perhaps it was a place where there were no options and we didn’t give ourself an out.
We can use all this information to strengthen these defenses and make sure they are stronger for the next time we are facing a similar situation. This is definitely a learning process and sometimes we fall many times before our defenses are strong enough and nearly foolproof. Learning from a mistake and using it as knowledge to prepare against future mistakes is a superpower and a way to make the worst situation a win. I would consider looking at these defenses and figuring out how to apply them to your life. Focus on which ones you are weakest at, and add build them up first.
Hope this helps you not only with the holidays but also in everyday life.