The holiday season can be a stressful time to adhere to a regular diet schedule. There are holiday parties, travel, an abundance of holiday goodies lying around the house, and there is more time spent indoors and less time exercising.
Holiday Weight Gain
It might be for these reasons that many news outlets and popular media platforms make a massive deal over holiday weight gain. While it is true that holiday weight gain does indeed happen, the magnitude of it is about one pound on average (1). However, the interesting aspect of holiday weight gain is that it does not appear to go away after the holidays, which means that the small increase may not seem significant in the acute sense, but over time this could add up.
The small but persistent increase in body weight over the holidays means that a few smart strategies employed over the holiday season are likely to be enough to help sustain your body weight throughout the holiday season.
There is no universal set of principles for how to eat during the holiday season, as all diets and nutrition plans are contextual. A healthy approach to eating during the holidays is an approach that fits your goals and your current plan.
Examples of a Healthy Approach to Eating
If you are trying to lose weight during the holidays, you should be aware of your calorie intake around the entire holiday season. You should have some idea of how many calories you are going to consume at your big holiday meals and parties and sort of "budget" for them. This may look like having slightly lower calorie days leading into the holiday parties and minimizing excess calories (opting for mostly lean protein and vegetables) during the party. You may want to track your intake closely to understand your calorie intake around the holidays.
In another example, you might just be trying to maintain your weight. If this is the case, then there may be some easier approaches for the holiday season. Just practice portion control during the big meals and maybe increase your exercise around the holidays. You may not need to carefully track calories as a day or two over calories, probably won't change your results.
It is essential to understand that there is no singular way to tackle the holiday season healthily. Most of the approaches you use are context-dependent and will be determined by your overall goals. That being said, losing or maintaining weight over the holiday season is an essential goal for many people, and they want to do that in a healthy, sustainable way. Here are four ways to have a healthy approach to eating during the holiday season.
1. Set up your environment for success
Most of the holidays involve parties, gatherings, presents, and meals that get us out of our typical environment and put us into situations that change our eating behaviors.
It has been well documented that the food environment can have a substantial impact on someone's eating behaviors and weight gain. For example, having more fruits and vegetables in the home is associated with a lower daily calorie intake (2). You can employ some smart strategies during the holidays to ensure that your environment is set up for success.
Try and keep your household as normal as possible.
Try and limit the amount of holiday treats you keep in your house and stick with a regular grocery shopping list and meal pattern that you are used to.
Be mindful of your holiday parties and how you approach them.
When you go to them, are you standing extremely close to the all-you-can-eat buffet or the kitchen counter where the food is within arm’s length? Consider your immediate environment and proximity to calorie-dense foods. This does not mean you should never spend time in the kitchen, but be mindful of how this influences your eating behaviors.
If you are traveling for the holidays, consider bringing some staple snacks with you.
Not only will this keep you in a good routine and following solid, healthy eating habits, but it will also help you maintain some normalcy during travels as well.
2. Consider alcohol intake
Alcohol intake can be particularly challenging to navigate during the holiday season. First, alcohol contains relatively empty calories, in that they are not overly filling and provide no real nutrition for your body. These calories are often on top of your usual daily calorie allotment. Second, as you consume alcohol, your inhibitions are reduced, and you tend to consume more calories from food as well. Consuming alcohol increases your appetite and your total caloric consumption (3). Lastly, many alcoholic drinks contain a substantial amount of calories, especially holiday drinks. For example, one cup of eggnog has about 500 calories, and one hot buttered rum has about 350-400 calories. Therefore, the calories from a few drinks can add up quickly. More straightforward drinks that include fewer ingredients are often lower-calorie drink options. Sticking to things like a gin and tonic, vodka and soda, a light beer, or some variation of drinks like these can reduce the calories you consume from drinking at social gatherings. As such, being mindful of alcohol intake and limiting it can make a significant impact on your total caloric consumption.
3. You can have your favorite things, but maybe you shouldn't have everything.
There is a saying, “you can’t have your cake and eat it too," which means that you can't have everything. This applies to the holidays as well. One of the most exciting things we have learned in the last few decades of nutrition science research is that the human body is incredibly robust, and a healthy approach to eating can be achieved through a wide range of methods. We have also learned that you can eat most of the foods you enjoy, as long as you control the amount and don't overeat. This means that you can indulge in some of your favorite foods during the holidays, but that you will need to control the portion sizes of those foods, and you probably can’t have everything that you want at each meal.
If you enjoy the prime rib at Christmas dinner, eat a little extra prime rib. If the pumpkin pie is more your style than have an extra slice of pumpkin pie. If you just crave the sweet potato casserole, then get a second serving of the sweet potato casserole. If the cheese plate appetizer is the thing you look forward to all year, then function as your fromagerie this year. If you can't choose a favorite, enjoy all of these things in smaller portion sizes.
4. Be mindful, but don't be worried.
In reality, the holidays are a very brief period over an entire year, and while they can lead to weight gain that may never leave, they are not the most crucial aspect of your health and fitness throughout your life. It is essential to be mindful of your food choices, but if you can manage to keep things relatively balanced and be aware that the choices you are making are mostly in line with your goals, then you can navigate the holidays with ease.
Understand that the holidays are an opportunity to enjoy festivities with family and friends. A celebration is definitely in order, and in many cases, it’s a healthy part of your health and fitness journey. Being mindful of your nutrition choices during these periods is also important, and balancing the social and health aspects can be easily achieved if you stick to these principles.