Holiday Hangover

Why is it that after a stint of eating poorly (like the holidays) it is so hard to start eating healthy again? I feel so incredibly hungry by just eating healthy. Is it because my stomach has stretched or is it a blood sugar issue?

-Julie
Excellent question that I think many of us struggle with, myself included. Why is it that once the clock strikes midnight and the New Year has begun does hunger seem to be impossible to ward off? You are definitely on to something in your thoughts above!

If you have found yourself indulging in more sweet “simple” carbohydrates and sugars over the holidays and this is not your norm, blood sugar is likely a culprit. When we eat sweet, or simple carbs (chips, crackers, juice, even fruit by itself), our bodies easily digest these foods and turn them into sugar for our body to use as energy. The blood sugar level quickly rises and this sugar quickly enters the cells of our bodies causing a sharp “drop” in blood sugar levels. This drop can cause hunger, sudden loss of energy and feels pretty lousy. Your brain knows what your body “needs” to increase the blood sugar quickly and sends a signal which feels much like a whisper in your ear saying…. “sugar, you know you want it…..it makes you feel so good so quickly” And there you have it, next thing you know, you’re back in the pantry or that forbidden candy jar searching for the next thing to make you “feel better.” The true anatomy of a craving!

There also is some likelihood that your stomach has “stretched.” I’m not certain this physically happens in a short time period like the holidays, but again, our bodies grow accustomed to what we put in them and recognize a change rather quickly. If your belly is not feeling satisfied with its typical diet following a stint of overeating, chances are it has become used to that over-full feeling that most of us would called “stuffed.”

Another thought to consider is whether or not you are truly “hungry” when you return to your more typical eating pattern. Whether it be after a vacation or a holiday, chances are life has returned to “normal.” You might find your life is back to somewhat of a boring routine, or maybe the stress is back. This is when it’s time to focus on recognizing hunger and satiety cues – are you really hungry or are you eating in attempt to satisfy a particular emotion?

I believe one of the most important practices to focus on if you find yourself in this situation, is to slow down and focus on how you are eating, not just what you are eating. Fill your plate with ½ non-starchy veggies, ¼ lean protein, and ¼ high-fiber starch but also slow down, eat at the table and pay attention to how you truly feel when you have finished your meal. Your belly should be 20-80% full throughout the day. Just like you can’t run your car on empty, your body doesn’t do well on empty either and you are likely to truly feel over-hungry. Rather than overfill your tank, stop eating when your belly is about 80% full (the point where you could eat more but know you will then feel stuffed).  Don’t forbid certain foods but eat them mindfully. Choose a nice piece of dark chocolate with a cup of tea in the late afternoon or evening but enjoy it , savor it and ensure your meals are full of quality complex carbs that will not cause that dreaded blood sugar crash. Just as your body adjusted to the holiday diet, you will most certainly adjust to eating more healthy, balanced meals and snacks. Be patient and enjoy getting back on track!