Avoiding Weight Gain During the Holidays
Gaining weight over the holiday season is a common concern for many adults. With all of the holiday parties and treats, increased alcohol consumption, and decreased physical activity it can be easy to gain unwanted weight between November and January. Studies on Western societies have found that the average weight gain among adults during this timeframe is about 1 pound, but this range varies widely, and overweight and obese adults tend to gain even more (Schoeller, 2014). While 1 pound may not seem like a lot, most people do not lose this weight after the holidays and slowly and steadily, year after year, their weight tends to creep higher and higher. While it may seem the cards are stacked against you, holiday weight gain is not inevitable.
Below are my tips to help you enjoy the holiday season and still enjoy some of your favorite food and treats while mitigating weight gain.
- Meal planning & batch cooking – We’ve all heard the old adage “failing to plan means planning to fail.” Planning your meals and snacks for the week ahead is one of the best ways to ensure you have healthy options on hand to nourish you and keep you energized. Every Sunday I like to look at my schedule for the week ahead and plan for and purchase healthy meal and snack options. If I have a particularly busy week and won’t have a lot of time to cook, I plan quick fuss-free meals (crockpot meals, omelettes for dinner, smoothies for breakfast or lunch). I also rely on batch cooking. Even when I’m not crazy busy I often make a double batch of more time consuming meals like soups and chili’s. It’s hardly any more work than making a single batch, and then I can freeze individual portions which can be quickly thawed and reheated for future lunches and dinners.
- Be active – Missing workouts is common during this time of year, and the combination of inactivity and increased food consumption can lead to unwanted weight gain. Some people find that treating their workouts like they would any other meeting and putting it right on their calendar helps them stay committed. On those super busy days when you can’t get to your normal routine doing a few “mini” movement sessions of 10-15 minutes can be effective as well. Heck, even doing just 10 minutes of movement if that is all you have time for in a day is better than doing nothing! Incorporating some fun seasonal activities that the whole family can enjoy is another great way to stay active. You could going for a walk after dinner to admire holiday lights, or go ice skating, snow shoeing, or skiing!
- Don’t show up to holiday gatherings starving – Many people limit their food intake the day of holiday party or big meal in order to “save up” their calories. While it may sound like a good plan, it often backfires and we tend to overeat and make less healthy food choices because we’re so gosh darn hungry! Our body can only process and utilize so much food at once, and if we take in more than we need at any one time (whether it’s carbs, proteins, or fats) it can be turned into fat and stored on our body. A better plan is to eat well balanced meals and snacks during the day leading up to a holiday party/meal so that you don’t overdo it in one meal or evening. A well balanced meal or snack should include all three macronutrients: carbohydrates, proteins, and fats.
- Watch your portion sizes – It can be easy to overindulge and overload your plate with all of the yummy options offered up at parties and gatherings. If you’re at a buffet or family style meal start by perusing all of your options and select the foods you will most enjoy, keeping in mind to balance the meal with carbs, proteins and fats. Prioritize whole foods and options that are the least processed, focusing on veggies for healthy fiber, vitamins, and minerals. Keep these portion sizes in mind when serving yourself:
- Starchy veggies (sweet potatoes, potatoes, winter squash, cooked carrots and beets) 1/2 – 3/4 cup. (A fist is about 1 cup, 1/2 of your fist is about 1/2 a cup)
- Leafy veggies (arugula, collards, dandelion greens, kale, lettuces, spinach, mustard greens etc.) 1/2 cup cooked or 1 cup raw. Enjoy 1-2 cups per meal.
- Crunchy veggies (Brussels sprouts, broccoli, cauliflower, carrots, celery, cucumber, green beans, onions, peppers, radishes, summer squash, turnips) 1/2 cup chopped, cooked or raw. Enjoy 1-2 cups per meal.
- Protein (beef, chicken, pork, turkey, fish etc.) 2 – 4 oz (about the size of a deck of cards or the palm of your hand)
- Healthy fats (coconut oil, lard, tallow, grass fed butter) 1-2 Tbsp (the tip of your thumb is roughly 1 Tbsp).
- Stop eating when you are gently satisfied, or 80% full – Slow down and savor each delicious bite, chewing until you have an almost applesauce consistency before swallowing. It takes about 20 minutes for the brain to register that the stomach is full. These “fullness” signals come from physical reactions (the stomach muscles stretching) as well as chemical reactions (enzymes and hormones being released into digestive tract and blood stream). All of these signals are interpreted by the brain and help control our appetite. When we eat quickly it can be very easy to overeat before these signals reach the brain. Since we can typically feel our stomach becoming fuller as we eat, stopping eating when we are about 80% full can help prevent overeating. This can also prevent that dreaded heartburn that can happen when we overeat.
- Limit liquid calories – Alcohol, soda, hot cocoa and flavored coffees can contribute a significant amount of sugar and empty calories to your diet and cause weight gain. Alcohol consumption is also linked to increased appetite and is a risk factor for weight gain (Yeomans, Caton, & Hetherington, 2003). If you do drink alcohol it is recommended to drink in moderation and limit your intake to 2 drinks or less a day for men and 1 drink or less per day for women. Stick to enjoying alcohol only with food (helps slow absorption), and drink water or seltzer in between drinks. Same thing if you decide to enjoy a soda or special holiday drink – limit it to one and treat it as a special treat. Hot cocoa, an sweetened coffee drinks are sugar and calorie bombs and should be enjoyed only occasionally and not daily or weekly.
- Limit your dessert intake – Sweet treats are everywhere this time of year, and excessive sugar intake can lead to weight gain. Focus on enjoying your favorites in reasonable portions and ditch the rest. Take the time to really savor and enjoy what you do indulge in which may leave you feeling more satisfied and less likely to overdo it.
I hope you find these tips helpful in navigating your diet during the holiday season. Do your best, and remember that one or two holiday meals is not going to impact your health too much. It is what we eat day in and day out that impacts our health the most.
National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (2022). Drinking levels defined. Retrieved from https://www.niaaa.nih.gov/alcohol-health/overview-alcohol-consumption/moderate-binge-drinking.
Schoeller D. A. (2014). The effect of holiday weight gain on body weight. Physiology & behavior, 134, 66–69. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2014.03.018
Yeomans, M. R., Caton, S., & Hetherington, M. M. (2003). Alcohol and food intake. Current opinion in clinical nutrition and metabolic care, 6(6), 639–644. https://doi.org/10.1097/00075197-200311000-00006