One of the best and the worst things about this time of year is the overabundance of culinary temptations. There are Christmas cookies at work, cakes on countertops and boxes of candy arriving in the mail. Indulging, of course, can be fun, delicious and socially and emotionally fulfilling. But frequently overindulging can lead to guilt and the dreaded holiday weight gain.
While managing temptations seems like an individual battle, there are lots of factors involved – including your relationships. As a health psychologist who’s been studying eating behaviors for nearly 20 years, I’ve looked at how romantic partners are relevant to our eating behaviors and body image.
In a recent survey, for example, I asked people to suggest what sort of feedback they’d like their partners to provide them with when it comes to what they eat and how they look. Perhaps not surprisingly, some people suggested they don’t want their significant others to comment on these matters at all. They indicated that they already feel self-conscious about their second helping of dessert or the five pounds they’ve gained in the past year, and they don’t want their partners to make them feel worse by acknowledging any of this. So, unless your partner is starting the conversation, it may be best to keep quiet.
But, if you don’t want to stand by while your partner’s habits deteriorate, Kristin August, a health psychologist at Rutgers University, has some advice. Her research examines how romantic partners can potentially influence the adoption of healthy behaviors. She suggests that if you want to help your partner eat healthfully, you want to do so in a thoughtful way. Let him or her know his or her poor food choices worry you, provide a gentle reminder about the importance of eating healthfully, or even offer to reward your partner for doing so. This approach will not only help your partner eat better, but will also be more likely to leave your partner feeling loved and cared for.
What you don’t want to do is criticize or restrict what he or she eats, which can threaten your significant other’s sense of independence and self-esteem. Saying, “Are you really eating another gingerbread cookie?” may not only be harmful to your partner, but the frequent “nagging” may be burdensome or stressful for you and negatively impact the quality of your relationship. Instead, when your partner does choose the piece of fruit over the piece of chocolate cake, make sure you voice know how much you notice and appreciate that healthy choice.
Other research I’ve conducted (and discuss in my book, “Smart People Don’t Diet”) suggests that it may be most advantageous to approach the adoption of healthy eating and exercise habits as a team effort. Confer with your significant other about your goals. Determine if there are ways to achieve them together. Maybe you’ll get your family a gym membership for Christmas and commit to going together a few times a week. Maybe you’ll just take ice cream off of the grocery list and only go out to dessert once a week (there are advantages to keeping temptation out of the house, but not to eliminating sweets entirely from your life). Maybe you, your partner and the dog would all benefit from more regular walks.
All of these issues tend to come to the fore as we find ourselves tempted by holiday goodies with the prospect of a “fresh start” on January 1 just around the corner. But don’t put too much pressure on yourself: Research suggests that most people don’t gain much more than a pound from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. This shouldn’t offer you a sense of permission to go crazy and finish that entire apple pie sitting on your kitchen counter. But, have a slice with your loved one – and then agree to put it away until the following night!