10 TIPS TO AVOID HOLIDAY WEIGHT GAIN
The holidays are a time of feasting and festivities, errands and events, hosting and party-hopping. Too often, health and fitness take a backseat during this busy season, but there is a practical approach to balance it all. Holiday weight gain isn’t as catastrophic as you might think – in fact, a recent study found the average American only gains one pound between mid-November and mid-January!1 However, the study goes on to explain that while healthy people tend to maintain weight during the holidays, those who struggle with weight gain much more, and have trouble getting it off later.
My goal in writing this article is not to ruin the fun of the season, but rather equip you to enjoy the holidays with a balanced, healthy, and stress-free approach. Below are ten helpful tips that I have helped me with my own fitness journey as well as hundreds of clients that I’ve coached over the years.
TIP #1: Maintain healthy eating habits
It’s easy to fall out of a healthy routine when life gets hectic. Don’t let this be you! If prepping your meals for the week in advance keeps you on track, carve out time to meal prep during the holidays. You can even include healthier versions of your seasonal favorites and leave room for those special outings. Remember, it’s what you do most of the time that matters. If you’re eating four balanced meals with a sensible dinner and dessert out, that’s much better than eating random crap all day.
Likewise, if you feel best starting the day with an egg white omelette, a big salad at lunch, and protein bars and fruit as snacks, stick to what has worked! Whatever you do, eat real food throughout the day, such as lean meats, fish and seafood, eggs, beans, whole grains, veggies, fruit and nuts (in controlled portions). If you’re nibbling on processed junk all day, nothing substantial or nutritious, you’re more prone to overeat or binge at night. No time to cook? Most fast food chains now offer nutritious options like egg white wraps, salads, or grilled chicken sandwiches with fruit or a side salad.
Finally, if you track macros or count calories to keep you accountable to your goals, continue doing so during the holiday season (though I don’t recommend tracking the actual holiday). For more intuitive eating, listen to your hunger cues, and choose foods that make you feel energized and satisfied!
TIP #2: Set reasonable limits
Let’s be real – you can only juggle so many social engagements, responsibilities, and expectations before that healthy routine starts to unravel. If you feel like you’re losing grip, maybe it’s time to peel back a little. Prioritize your to-do list and schedule time to exercise and prep healthy meals amongst it all. Accept that some less important things may not get done (and that’s okay)!
Set reasonable limits on indulgences, too. Anxious about that annual cookie exchange? Limit yourself to three small cookies or a couple larger ones at the actual event, then ration out the cookies you bring home over the following week. Or if you think you’ll be too tempted, don’t bring any cookies home! Overwhelmed by that holiday potluck? Fill one plate with a sampling of everything that looks especially good, including dessert, and maybe don’t go back for seconds! This will prevent you from over-indulging and feeling guilty or sick later on. Have a cocktail party to attend? Allow yourself two to three alcoholic drinks, with water in between to avoid getting tipsy and eating everything in sight. If the munchies ensue, reach for appetizers with vegetables, protein or fruit. Avoid high-calorie fried items or the “empty carb” variety, which will only leave you wanting more.
TIP #3: Don’t host hungry or show up starving
If you’re hosting, you may be tempted to skip a real meal in favor of grazing as you prepare, or you might avoid eating until the guests leave to ensure everyone gets enough. However, this can lead to stuffing your face with all the leftovers! To avoid a post-party pig out, make yourself a nutritious meal before the party starts, and munch on veggies or fresh fruit while you cook (too much “taste-testing” can really add up).
Going to someone else’s party? You might be tempted to eat very little leading up to the party – maybe to look slim in that cocktail dress or to allow more room to indulge at the event. However, this strategy almost always backfires! If you’re ravenous upon arrival, you’ll eat whatever crosses your path with little thought of portion control or nutrition. Have something satisfying beforehand, like a protein smoothie or a salad with protein, and you’ll be less voracious, more cheery.
TIP #4: Eat filling foods first
Worried about over-eating at holiday gatherings? Fill up on protein and fiber first, both of which help suppress appetite.2,3 Good protein sources include lean deli meats, deviled eggs, cocktail shrimp, chicken kabobs, or roast turkey or ham. Vegans would be wise to bring their own protein-rich appetizer, like oven-roasted chickpeas or a quinoa and black bean salad.
Your best bet for fiber is going to be fruits and veggies. I’m telling you – hang out by the fruit and veggie trays and you’ll find it much easier to exercise self-control when it’s time for the main meal! For dessert, have a “sample” of everything that sounds good, but limit the total portion to whatever fits on a small appetizer plate or cocktail napkin. You might even share dessert with your close friends and family so you don’t have to eat a whole serving!
Limit high fat foods like wings, salami, sausage, bacon, cheese, chips and nachos, guacamole, creamy dips, and fried items – they’re fine in moderation, but have a lot more calories per serving.
TIP #5: Heed your “fullness factor”
When it comes to finding balance during the holiday season, your biggest breakthrough might be heeding your “fullness factor.” Instead of counting calories or tracking macros, eat slowly and mindfully, thoroughly experiencing and enjoying the food you’re eating. It’s been said that it takes 20-30 minutes for your brain to register feelings of fullness after eating, so eating more slowly could reduce the likelihood of over-eating.4 Try to chew each bite ten times and take frequent breaks to socialize and drink water, rather than quickly gobbling your food.
The goal is to feel satisfied, not stuffed or sick. If you’re debating whether to have another serving, ask yourself, “Will eating more add to my satisfaction level or just make me uncomfortable?” If you ate slowly and truly enjoyed the first serving, you’re less likely to feel unsatisfied and want seconds.
TIP #6: Turn your focus from food
Are the holidays centered around food for you? There are plenty of fun activities you can enjoy with family and friends that don’t involve sitting around eating. Try ice skating, sledding, making a snowman, skiing, snowboarding, or snow shoeing. You may be surprised how much more fun you have! Even if you would rather relax by the fire or play board games, it’s important to fully immerse yourself in the experience and take your mind off eating.
I also discourage counting calories or tracking macros on the actual holiday. You should be interacting with loved ones, not glued to your diet tracker! Logging every morsel can be a huge source of anxiety, especially if you’re agonizing over how many calories are in Auntie’s casserole or panicing because you’re over your macros for the day. In my experience, the more you think about food, the more you’ll want to eat.
While counting calories or tracking macros is a great way to stay accountable to your goals, one day isn’t going to ruin all the progress you made the other six days, especially if you make sensible choices and listen to your fullness factor.
TIP #7: Drink plenty of water
People often confuse thirst with hunger, which is why failing to hydrate can lead to excessive eating and weight gain. Drinking more water may help you reduce calorie intake and maintain weight,5,6 especially if you’re replacing sweetened beverages with water.7 Water also helps your kidneys eliminate toxins and boosts metabolic rate. As a matter of fact, drinking just 16 ounces of water can increase metabolic rate as much as 30% for up to two hours after drinking!8
The best way to drink more water is to make it readily available. Bring a water bottle everywhere you go and refill it as soon as you run out. You can even carry around a full gallon (bodybuilder-style) and aim to finish it end of day. A good rule is to drink 12 ounces of water with every meal or snack. If you’re just not a fan of water, try squeezing fresh citrus juice into your water, infusing fruit or cucumber, or even adding an all-natural, low-sugar flavor packet (like TrueLemon).
TIP #8: Exercise most days of the week
Exercise burns calories and increases resting metabolic rate,9 thus reducing the likelihood of weight gain over the holiday season. Exercise also boosts mood, decreases feelings of stress, and alleviates anxiety,10 which could help you avoid emotional eating. You may not be able to hit the gym six times a week, but you can fit in some sort of physical activity each day, whether it’s walking the mall, doing an ab workout before bed, or fitting in a morning jog (indoors or out).
Keep in mind, you can’t out-exercise a poor diet! Multiple studies show that exercise does not prevent weight gain apart from calorie balance and a nutritious diet.11
TIP #9: Ditch the “now or never” mentality
With so many limited-edition and seasonal foods, you may feel pressured to get your fill before the holidays are over. However, not all of the limited-edition offerings are what they’re cracked up to be; and if they are, they’ll be back next year. Ditch the “now or never” mentality!
That said, if you’re dying to try the latest holiday Oreo flavor, go for it! Just limit yourself to one serving per day to allow room for more nutritious foods. The rule I give my clients is less than 20% of daily calories should come from junk food or “treats.” Tempted to eat all the cookies in one sitting? Set aside one or two to enjoy now and hide the rest (out of sight, out of mind). Enjoy your treat slowly and mindfully, relishing each bite. If you’re craving more, tell yourself you can have more tomorrow. Then, distract yourself with something else – the more you think about food, the more you’ll want to eat.
There is absolutely nothing wrong with fitting seasonal treats into your daily calories or macros. You can totally enjoy a peppermint mocha and still work towards your fitness goals. It’s all about balance! At some point, eating more doesn’t add to the enjoyment or experience of that food, it’s just leaves you feeling yucky.
TIP #10: Do your best and forget the rest
So… you messed up and ate way too much of Grandma’s famous fudge? Simply move on and try to exercise better self-control and mindfulness going forward. The worst thing you can do is beat yourself up and dwell on feelings of failure, guilt and discouragement. Besides ruining your time, entertaining such negativity could make you give up on your healthy efforts altogether! Instead, realize that no one is perfect. The best thing you do is let go of your slip-up and keep trying your best.
I hope you’ve found this article both informative and easy to apply. If you have questions, feel free to leave a comment below!
No part of this article may be reproduced, copied, modified or adapted, without written permission from Sarah Wilkins. Violation is subject to prosecution by copyright law, and punishable by up to 5 years in Federal prison and a fine up to $250,000.
- Schoeller, Dale A. “The Effect of Holiday Weight Gain on Body Weight.” Physiology & Behavior, vol. 134, 2014, pp. 66–69., doi:10.1016/j.physbeh.2014.03.018.
- Guyenet, Stephan J., and Michael W. Schwartz. “Regulation of Food Intake, Energy Balance, and Body Fat Mass: Implications for the Pathogenesis and Treatment of Obesity.” The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology and Metabolism 97.3 (2012): 745–755. PMC. Web. 29 July 2016.
- Weigle, D. S., P. A. Breen, C. C. Matthys, H. S. Callahan, K. E. Meeuws, V. R. Burden, and J. Q. Purnell. “A High-protein Diet Induces Sustained Reductions in Appetite, Ad Libitum Caloric Intake, and Body Weight despite Compensatory Changes in Diurnal Plasma Leptin and Ghrelin Concentrations.” National Center for Biotechnology Information. U.S. National Library of Medicine, July 2005. Web. 16 July 2016.
- Els Bilman, Ellen van Kleef & Hans van Trijp (2017) External cues challenging the internal appetite control system—Overview and practical implications, Critical Reviews in Food Science and Nutrition, 57:13, 2825-2834, DOI: 1080/10408398.2015.1073140
- Davy, Brenda M et al. “Water consumption reduces energy intake at a breakfast meal in obese older adults” Journal of the American Dietetic Association vol. 108,7 (2008): 1236-9.
- Dennis, Elizabeth A et al. “Water consumption increases weight loss during a hypocaloric diet intervention in middle-aged and older adults” Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.) vol. 18,2 (2009): 300-7.
- Daniels, Melissa C and Barry M Popkin. “Impact of water intake on energy intake and weight status: a systematic review” Nutrition reviews vol. 68,9 (2010): 505-21.
- Michael Boschmann, Jochen Steiniger, Gabriele Franke, Andreas L. Birkenfeld, Friedrich C. Luft, Jens Jordan; Water Drinking Induces Thermogenesis through Osmosensitive Mechanisms, The Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, Volume 92, Issue 8, 1 August 2007, Pages 3334–3337, https://doi.org/10.1210/jc.2006-1438
- Gim, Mi-Na and Jung-Hyun Choi. “The effects of weekly exercise time on VO2max and resting metabolic rate in normal adults” Journal of physical therapy science vol. 28,4 (2016): 1359-63.
- Anderson, Elizabeth and Geetha Shivakumar. “Effects of exercise and physical activity on anxiety” Frontiers in psychiatry vol. 4 27. 23 Apr. 2013, doi:10.3389/fpsyt.2013.00027
- Swift, Damon L et al. “The role of exercise and physical activity in weight loss and maintenance” Progress in cardiovascular diseases vol. 56,4 (2013): 441-7.
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