Holiday Tough Love for Clients

Help clients reframe and rethink the holidays instead of just get through them. Have a conversation and find out what your clients are thinking about regarding the holidays. They might be anxious, feeling guilty about food, feeling family pressure, etc. Use these ideas to help navigate them to a different mindset.

Thanksgiving Feast

The holidays are about family and friends, not food.

While there may be certain dishes or baked goods that friends and family members make only once a year, that doesn’t mean you have eat ALL of it.  The holidays are a time of showing love and gratitude toward the people in your life. People will often show love with food, and the special dishes they make evoke feelings of warmth and happiness.

The food is a symbol of these feelings of caring and affection. The time, energy, and care our loved ones put into creating these once-a-year dishes are the root of these feelings that these foods give us. Thank your loved ones for all the time, energy, and care they put into crafting these dishes. Thank them for all the years they’ve made it. And thank them for creating something that brings you comfort year after year.

Remove the morality from food.

Part of the reason so many people resolve to go on a diet in the new year is because they have a recency bias regarding their eating habits. During the holidays, it’s common for clients to “be bad” and eat significantly more calories from dessert-type food. This mentality of “being bad” over the holidays and resolving to “be good” starting January 1st is another way the cycle of yo-yo dieting can be ingrained in our clients’ thinking.

No food is “good” or “bad” by itself.  To quote Robb Wolf’s book on the neuroregulation of appetite Wired to Eat:

What I’m trying to get across to you is dead simple:

  1. You cannot ‘cheat’ with food.
  2. You ‘eat’ food.
  3. There are consequences to what we put down our pie hole.
  4. That’s it.”

This topic of moralizing food choices deserves more time than can be given here, but the bottom line is that certain foods affect your body certain ways. It’s neither good nor bad. It simply is.

If I increase the number of calories I consume for a month without increasing my caloric expenditure, what will happen? As long as my body continues to obey the laws of thermodynamics, I will gain weight. And if the sources of those calories are holiday dessert foods, the weight will not likely manifest as bulging biceps.

Understand that all food choices carry objective consequences and that these consequences are independent of what a person believes. Eat the food. Be aware. Don’t moralize.

Exercise free will.

Clients will often say that they “had” to eat something at a holiday party or family gathering that wasn’t in line with the goals they set for themselves. As stated above, there’s no morality tied into these food choices, but we cannot forget that these are choices.  Using phrases like “had to” removes the burden of choice from the action.

As beings with free will, we have choices regarding every single action we take every single day. There may be social, family, and self-imposed expectations of our actions, but these expectations do not dictate our actions. We generally choose to conform to these expectations, but we may also choose to defy them in an effort to achieve a different outcome.

When a client says they “had” to eat something, they are trying to absolve themselves of responsibility regarding their actions, often because they feel guilty about it. Remind them that they are in charge of their lives, and in particular what they eat. They need not feel guilty, but they do need to understand that their use of “had to”, which equates to need rather than want, disempowers them and removes their agency.

This is not a popular or easy thing to accept as these highly palatable foods make our brains go crazy with dopamine, which reinforces these actions because it makes our brain feel good. This biological drive or desire to consume these foods, combined with social pressures, can feel like a need rather than a want.  

It can be a difficult task for clients to accept responsibility for their food choices, especially when their brains and biological drives may be working against them. However, by encouraging them to accept responsibility and act consciously, we actually empower them to be agents of change in their own lives.

Understand and accept the consequences without judgment.

This time of year can be incredibly stressful for our clients.  Managing schedules, buying gifts, visiting relatives, hosting or attending parties, and myriad other obligations during this time of year can leave a person short on energy and time. This stress often leads to overeating and underexercising.

If someone chooses to shift diet and exercise lower on their priority list during the holidays, there’s no morality surrounding that choice, but the consequence of it will probably be increased weight and decreased fitness.  

The most important thing about these actions and outcomes is that the individual is conscious of their decisions, understands what will happen as a consequence of their decisions, and accepts the consequences as natural, logical outcomes of their decisions.

There is no need to moralize an informed choice regarding food or exercise that someone makes for themselves.

Enjoy the holidays.

Support your clients by giving them the freedom and responsibility to make their own choices.  Our job is not to police our clients’ actions, but rather we should view ourselves as teachers.  We can instruct our clients on how best to eat and move so they can achieve their goals as safely and efficiently as possible, but we cannot do the work for them.  Help them to understand that they are the only ones who can put knowledge into action.

The greatest gift you can give your client is the knowledge and belief that they are in control of their own health.  

Learn More About Personal Trainer Certification

About the Author:

David Rodriguez is a graduate of the Personal Trainer Certificate Program at San Diego Mesa College, an NFPT and ACE Certified Personal Trainer, and an ACE Certified Fitness Nutrition Specialist. David was inspired to become a personal trainer after losing more than 100 pounds. Having kept the weight off for over a decade, he uses his story to motivate his clients and demonstrate to them that big changes are possible and sustainable. His training focuses on pain-free movement, helping clients find an individualized nutrition plan, and creating a positive mindset. His favorite pastimes are soccer, weightlifting, hiking, cooking, and his dogs. David lives in San Diego.