Most of us know somebody who defies the common belief that it’s impossible to eat just one potato chip. Maybe your cousin Toby takes only a single bite of pumpkin pie at Thanksgiving dinner. Maybe you saw Jessica from accounting eat just four M&Ms at the company holiday party and spend the rest of the event munching on raw carrots.
These types of people, explains Dr. Susan Peirce Thompson, New York Times best-selling author and founder of Bright Line Eating, fall on the low end of the “Susceptibility Scale” when it comes to a compulsion to consume unhealthy foods.
The truth is, however, that the “Tobys” and “Jessicas” of the world are anomalies. According to research outlined in Dr. Thompson’s book, many people are not programmed to resist the addictive properties of certain foods. What’s more, a full 1 in 3 Americans qualify as what Thompson calls “full-blown addicts” when it comes to sugar-laden foods.
“Your approach to holiday eating really needs to be framed within an understanding of what kind of brain you have,” says Thompson — essentially, where you fall on the Susceptibility Scale. Bright Line Eating offers a quick quiz that can help you determine this in about thirty seconds.
Attempts at moderation really only work for people on the low end of this scale — about a third of the population, says Thompson. For the remaining two-thirds of people in the medium-to-high range, the “just one” mindset when it comes to a slice of pizza or a Christmas cookie is akin to trying to smoke just one cigarette after six months of cold turkey.
That is to say, it’s often a slippery slope.
Bright Line Eating is a program devised by Dr. Thompson, who conquered her own food addiction 14 years ago, dropping from obese to a size four in six months. Her lasting success, she said, puts her in about the top 1% of successful weight-loss maintainers.
“Our society has an abysmal track record when it comes to weight loss,” she explains. Dr. Thompson places blame for this at the feet of fallacies like the “moderation approach.” The Bright Line system, however, is unambiguous about what you can and cannot eat. It outlines boundaries (or “Bight Lines”) that you simply do not cross, regardless of special occasion or time of year. The primary ingredients to avoid are added sugars and flour of any kind.
On a holiday table, Thompson said, beware of culprits like honey-baked ham that are often loaded with sugar. Zero-calorie artificial sweeteners are no-no’s, too, as are fruit juices and dried fruits (though consuming fresh, whole fruit is absolutely fine). Salt and a little bit of fat are actually encouraged.
To ensure that Bright Liners are getting enough of the good stuff, the program recommends weighing veggies and proteins on a digital food scale. Not that portions are small. In fact, people are often surprised at the beginning by how large they are. But it’s essential to have that sensation of fullness three times a day to keep the metabolism revved. In response to those inclined to call measuring food “extreme,” Thompson counters with a few disturbing statistics based on her extensive research: “Sixty-three percent of us are dying early from the food we’re putting into our mouths,” she says. “80,000 people this year are going to walk into a leg amputation because of diabetes. That’s extreme.”
The program offers a 14-Day Food Freedom Challenge as well as The Bright Line Eating Boot Camp, which has seen high rates of success. “Our boot campers lose as much during the holidays as they do in the spring, summer, or any other time of year — 17 pounds on average, during the 8-week online program” says Thompson. “This goes to show that it really doesn’t matter what time of year it is, when you’re committed to a plan that works.”
Dr. Thompson explains that, to Bright Liners, Thanksgiving is “just another Thursday.” This year, for example, Bright Liners all across America loaded their plates with a little turkey, winter squash, green beans, and a big salad. And the next day, they felt great, instead of lethargic and bloated.
“When you stop eating sugar and flour, your sense of taste wakes up to the flavor of whole, real foods,” she says. “Each day strengthens your resolve; it really is doable one day at a time.”
In addition to learning your individual susceptibility level, there are a few steps you can take to begin establishing this resolve and fend off the sugar plum fairy this season. Below are five actions Dr. Thompson suggests Bright Liners add to their willpower arsenal:
1. Establish a support system. “Bookend” social engagements with text messages to a supportive friend or family member. Write something like, “I’m heading to this party, and I’m not eating off my food plan. I’ll text you when I’m out.” Then, message again once you successfully make it through the event. “It’s helpful when you know you’re accountable to someone,” Thompson explains.
2. Have your “phrase” ready. Whether you’re planning to launch into a diatribe about your weight loss journey or simply offer a quick excuse (e.g. “I’ve got food sensitivities, and I’m not currently eating flour”), it’s important to have a go-to line when you’re offered that pan of lasagna at Christmas dinner. “Whatever your level of comfort for disclosure, you need to have your canned phrase at the ready,” she says. “Otherwise, you’re going to be wobbly in that social situation.”
3. Use prayer or meditation. Sometimes, practicing a couple minutes of deep breathing is all it takes to fend off sudden cravings.
4. Turn the conversation to gratitude. A “gratitude list” can help bolster your willpower, too. “This is really appropriate at holiday time,” Dr. Thompson points out. “You can just say, ‘I’d love to hear the three best things from everyone’s year.’ That’s a great conversation-starter.”
5. Find ways to be of service. At holiday party time, ask the host or hostess how you can help out. “Ask if you can chip in, fill glasses, clear plates, play with the kids, go sit and talk with the person looking isolated and alone,” Thompson suggests. This is one way to take your mind off the cookies in the corner.
Dr. Thompson also makes a game out of holiday parties in order to direct herself away from temptation. She tries to meet five new people at every social gathering, and she quizzes herself on their names, jobs, etc. after the fact.
“I make the party about what it’s supposed to be about: human connection, gratitude and celebration,” she says. “In our society, for too long, we have accepted food as a proxy for genuine connection.”
But, she says, true connection isn’t about breaking bread; it’s about eye contact, laughter, hugs, and sharing stories and experiences together. “When we decide that we’re not going to overindulge on food, it creates a space that we can fill with what the holidays were meant to be about in the first place.”
Susan Peirce Thompson, Ph.D. is an Adjunct Associate Professor of Brain and Cognitive Sciences at the University of Rochester, and author of the New York Times Best-Selling book, Bright Line Eating.