How to Eat Intelligently (and Enjoyably) Over the Holidays

The author of the new book “Eat Q” opens about mastering eating issues.

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Does the thought of saying yes to the many temptations you're likely to encounter this holiday season and suffering the consequences (like having your clothes feel tighter, feeling puffier or feeling more lethargic and less motivated to move) make you break into a sweat? Don't let it! To help you help yourself, check out Susan Albers' new book, "Eat Q: Unclock the Power of Emotional Intelligence." In it, Albers – a licensed clinical psychologist at the Cleveland Clinic Family Health Center – outlines a dynamic plan to help you master your eating issues, not only during the holidays, but throughout the year.

[, {database=usnews(usnews/delegate/solr, usnews/delegate/mysql), status=null, id=00000143-e634-de47-a9cf-fefc459f0000, typeId=00000142-9226-d1f0-a5c6-b2f75ff00005, simpleValues={alignment=left,record={_ref=00000142-9263-d33c-abc6-ff77dfb8000f,_type=00000142-9226-d1f0-a5c6-b2f75ff60014},_id=00000143-e634-de47-a9cf-fefc459f0000,_type=00000142-9226-d1f0-a5c6-b2f75ff00005}, extras={}, errors=null}, ]I had the pleasure of interviewing Albers via email. Below you'll find some of the interview highlights, along with her sensible tips to help us all get through the holidays with our diets – and minds – intact. Her responses have been edited.

In "Eat Q," you say that people's decisions about what to eat don't often match the way they wish they ate. Why do you think that's true?

I wrote "Eat Q" specifically for people who say, "I know a lot about nutrition and I want to change, but I can't seem to make this happen. I don't choose the healthy options – even when they are available." If this sounds familiar, don't worry. I hear this statement a lot in my office at the Cleveland Clinic. My motto is, "Change feelings first, then food." Too often, we try to reverse this and our efforts fall flat! It can be so frustrating. In the gap between intention to change and action is often an emotion – stress, anxiety, fear, anger and so on. Even happy feelings can derail your efforts. For many, celebration equals food. In "Eat Q," I talk about five specific barriers – stress, social eating, pleasure eating, dieting and distress. These topics bring up a lot of emotion and can stubbornly stand in the way of action. For example, I have a client who experiences pressure and guilt when she doesn't conform to the way her friends eat, particularly at parties. She also has trouble saying "no" to food pushers, and her worries that she will be judged or criticized sabotage her best efforts and intentions to eat healthier. My advice is to remember that change isn't a one-time phenomenon. Your intention to change is a great start! "Eat Q" will help you pinpoint the specific feelings that routinely trip you up and strategically strategize around them. A recent study found that 26 percent of overeating unhealthy snacks is due to emotions – feeling bored, stressed and anxious. Just imagine what would happen if you ended emotionally-driven eating. For many of my clients, this leads to significant improvements in the quality of their food choices and a reduction of weight – without dieting or eating a single carrot stick.

[Read: Stressed Out? Try Mindfulness Meditation.]

How do you think having so many food choices – especially over the holidays – affects what and how much we eat?

Research out of Cornell University indicates we make, on average, more than 250 food decisions on any given day. On the holidays, this number skyrockets – from sugar cookies brought in by clients to pecan pie made by a neighbor. The number of choices you have to make can be exhausting! It's no surprise that people tend to get overloaded by decisions and give up quickly. During the holidays, I recommend trying to keep food decisions simple and straightforward: Stick to no more than four foods on one plate, for example. Also, remember that you make the best decisions in the morning. Try to map out a strategy early in the day, or lay out your plans for dinner at breakfast. Also, have a "healthy default" option in place. This is something that you "fall back on" when you're too overloaded to make just one more decision. Keep all the supplies in the refrigerator or make this your "go to" option at parties. In "Eat Q," I provide many techniques to help people make the best decisions possible when stressed or emotional – and to make emotions work for rather than against you.

Do you think that some people eat simply out of sheer habit rather than making a conscious decision then and there when they actually eat?

Mindless eating is the term I use to describe the habitual and automatic eating that we all do. It might be eating at the same time each night during your favorite TV show, whether you're hungry or not. During the holidays, it could be mindlessly snacking on holiday treats just because they're there, rather than responding to a rumbling stomach. Making the decision to eat a conscious one is a surprisingly powerful first step and gives you much more control. I tell my clients that it's like mindlessly driving on "autopilot." When mindlessly driving, you no longer have any control over where you're driving or where you'll end up. Waking yourself out of this automatic behavior gives you the option to stop or steer yourself in a different direction than automatically eating the plate of cookies. Once you begin to notice mindless eating, you can't help but give yourself a little mental tap on the shoulder when it starts. It doesn't always stop you, but it does give you the choice to put on the breaks.

[Read: 5 Surprising Benefits of Mindful Eating.]

How does stress – especially over the holidays – impact food-related decisions? 

When stressed, people tend to revert back to their status quo and old habits. In part, it's because the brain can only handle so much. When you're stressed, doing what you've always done is less taxing on the brain. Also, stress pumps cortisol through the body, which makes you crave sugary, salty and fatty food. So, as the credit card bills come rolling in and you get phone calls from your mother asking about your holiday travel plans, you may make a beeline for comfort foods like chocolate and pumpkin pie. During the holidays, it's important to focus on managing stress to defend against a derailed diet. I recommend the ho-ho-ho meditation – take a deep breath from the belly and breath out, saying "ho, ho, ho" like Santa Clause. It may make you laugh a little, which itself reduces cortisol, and it also calms your fight or flight stress response which traditionally leads to comfort eating.

[Read: Try One of These Quirky Stress-Busters.]

What are your tips to help people boost their EQ – even to simply maintain their weight over the holidays?

I like to recommend four tips:

1. E (Eat Mindfully). Use the four "S's" of mindful eating: Sit down. Savor each bite. Slowly chew. And still your mind (take a few centering deep breaths before taking a bite).

2. A (Act Consciously). Use what I call the Marshmallow Method, named after the famous Stanford delay of gratification studies by Walter Mischel, which taught kids that if they waited until a researcher returned they could get two marshmallows instead of one. If you're able to slow down your first response to "I want to eat that," sometimes the craving passes or cools down. Stuff mints into your pocket before you go to a holiday party. Pop one into your mouth. Make a deal with yourself. If you still want the extra piece of pie after the entire mint has dissolved in your mouth, have one. You may be surprised that the urge passes if you wait a few minutes. The mint helps to gauge the time – which at first can feel like an eternity.

3. T (Think Decisively). Eat your favorite foods last. People tend to encode and remember the last thing they eat best. It stays freshest in your mind and makes you more satisfied later. Also, eat with your non-dominant hand at holiday parties. Research indicates that this reduces how much you eat by 30 percent, because it breaks up the automatic hand-to-mouth flow.

4. Q (Quell Cravings). Cool down cravings by "reframing your craving." In the famous marshmallow studies, teaching kids to imagine that marshmallows had the texture of clouds – or to imagine that the marshmallow was just a picture that had a frame around it – helped the kids wait. You can use the same approach. Imagine that your dessert is a different texture or flavor (think of whipped cream like shaving cream, for example, or cold French fries). According to the elaborate intrusion theory, your thoughts can either pump up your desire for good food or cool off your cravings. When you notice yourself daydreaming about candy cane fudge, tea cake cookies or candied sweet potato casserole, steer your thoughts toward a neutral item like a picture on the wall or an object on your desk. For two minutes, take note of the color and shape. This activity blocks the available sensory input that your brain can process – it can only imagine one thing at a time. Don't forget, your mind is one of the very best tools you have for changing intention into action.

[Read: Stop Emotional Eating With These 5 Tips.]

You can join sign up for Albers' free Eat.Q. 10-Day Challenge here.

What helps you eat less and eat better over the holidays?

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback.

Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, is the founder and president of Zied Health Communications, LLC, based in New York City. She's an award-winning registered dietitian and author of three books including Nutrition At Your Fingertips. A graduate of the University of Pennsylvania and New York University, Zied inspires others to make more healthful food choices and find enjoyable ways to "move it or lose it" through writing, public speaking, and media appearances. She writes the twice-weekly blog, The Scoop on Food, for Parents.com, and her new book, Younger Next Week, will be published by Harlequin Non Fiction on December 31, 2013. You can connect with her on Twitter and through her website: www.eli