It’s the most wonderful time of the year—unless you’re on a weight-loss journey. In that case, the winter holidays can seem like kryptonite, threatening to derail all of the hard work you’ve put in throughout the year. Even with the best of intentions, the rampant socializing, temptations and food-focused events can freeze your progress.|
While the widespread assumption that most people gain an average of five pounds over the holidays might be exaggerated, studies do show that whatever small amount of weight is put on between Christmas and New Year's is not likely to be shed later in the year, and often leads to incremental weight gain over the next several months.
The key to keeping that extra holiday weight at bay? Recognizing potential pitfalls and then finding smart detours to avoid them—no Grinch required.
Pitfall: Too many alcoholic beverages
While celebratory cocktails are a fixture of most holiday parties, they can quickly toast your winter weight-loss goals. Not only do alcoholic drinks add a large number of liquid calories, they also relax your inhibitions and willpower, making it more difficult to steel your resolve against all of those cakes, cookies and caramels.
Solution: Get in the spirit—without spirits.
You can still participate in the party toast without getting tipsy or experiencing tracker regret. There are plenty of bubbly beverages that don't contain alcohol. Our recommendation is to steer clear of (most of) the spirits in favor of diet-friendly party drinks.
Pitfall: Pressure to eat "bad" foods
When you're surrounded by an abundance of sugary sweets, fatty appetizers and well-meaning enablers pushing plates at you, it's easy to fall into the trap of thinking "I have to eat crappy during the holidays, otherwise people will make weird comments," notes personal trainer Dani Singer. This can result in succumbing to foods with little to no nutritional value for the sake of not hurting a host's feelings or fitting in socially.
Solution: Give the group a heads-up.
Prior to attending a party or event where food is likely to be a focal point, let your family and friends know that you're focusing on your nutrition so they don't sabotage your efforts. "Don't ask them to change the menu for you, but just make them aware," Singer suggests. "They may decide to cook healthier, but if they don't, you can plan around it."
And prepare yourself for some comments or questions about your choices, especially if some attendants are used to indulging with you. Instead of seeing their remarks as a challenge, Singer says to view them as an opportunity to inspire. "Don't get preachy about their choices—just confidently explain yours," he says. "Even if they don't change their own habits, they'll respect yours, but only if you respect yourself."
When attending parties, you can also bring something along that fits with your dietary needs and health goals. "The host(ess) generally appreciates when a guest is thoughtful enough to bring a dish, and this strategy guarantees that you will have at least one healthy thing to eat," says registered dietitian Summer Yule.
Pitfall: Eating away from home more often
Between the office parties, family dinners, gift exchanges and myriad of other holiday-themed get-togethers, your kitchen is likely to be pretty neglected this season. Eating away from home can be stressful when you're trying to lose or maintain weight, but it is possible to indulge in moderation without treating the entire month of December like a food free-for-all.
Solution: Enjoy while making smarter choices.
If you have to eat at a restaurant, Yule suggests trying to choose one that offers lighter meals. She says it's also a good idea to eat a balanced, nutrient-dense breakfast and lunch that contains plenty of filling protein and fiber, which can potentially prevent you from overindulging if you know you will be going to a party or restaurant later.
"If you are at a party, avoid hovering over the snack table and mindlessly grazing," Yule says. "Put what you would like to eat on a small plate and then spend the time socializing instead."
Pitfall: No time to exercise
The holidays have a way of monopolizing your time. The hour you'd normally spend at the gym can easily get sucked up by tree trimming, gift shopping and general merriment making. When it seems impossible to fit in a proper exercise session, you might be tempted to hang up your athletic shoes and wait until New Year's to get a fresh start.
Solution: Squeeze in some holiday exercise hacks.
One thing's for certain: You're probably not logging much couch time during the busy holiday season. Yule points out that physical activity doesn't have to occur on a treadmill—or in athletic apparel—to count as exercise.
"Remember that even things like walking around the mall for holiday shopping counts as physical activity," she says. "Shoveling snow, putting up the Christmas tree, walking the dog—it all counts." She adds that squeezing in some physical activity while getting something else done can be a tremendous time-saver. For instance, Yule used to walk on the treadmill while studying for exams. "There are all kinds of creative ways to fit in some exercise, and they don't have to cost a lot of money or take a lot of time."
Pitfall: No time to cook
Along with cutting into your gym time, the winter holidays can bring your best of cooking intentions to a standstill. When you're scrambling to knock out your shopping list and get the house ready for out-of-town guests, how are you supposed to plan and prep healthy meals?
Solution: Cook up some food prep hacks.
With some smart planning, you can make sure your oven doesn't get neglected for the rest of the year. Yule suggests sticking with simple, no-cook meals, such as a rotisserie chicken with bagged salad and whole grain dinner rolls. Another idea is to batch-cook multiple meals every time you prepare something, then freeze the leftovers so you always have a quick reheatable option on hand during busy holiday weeks.
And if you usually host or attend a Christmas cookie swap, Yule suggests floating the idea of a DIY dinner swap instead, where each person takes a turn making a healthy meal for the other families in the group. "This idea works best in circles where no one has major dietary restrictions or food allergies," she points out.
Pitfall: More treats coming home
As SparkCoach Jen points out, many of the most "dangerous" holiday temptations happen right in your own home. "This could be candy your kids bring home from holiday parties at school, the pie your co-worker baked for your family 'just to be nice' or the cookies your real estate agent left on your doorstep as a thank you gift," she says. "Despite your best efforts, treats end up at home much more frequently during the holidays."
Solution: Have a plan for handling treats at home.
Some of Coach Jen's ideas include letting your kids save a few pieces of candy and taking the rest to the office to share or taking the pie and other items that can be donated to your local homeless shelter. You might also bring a box of cookies over to a neighbor to spread the holiday cheer. "Re-gift items in a way that spreads happiness but also helps you stay on track during the holiday season," Coach Jen suggests.
Pitfall: Stress/lack of sleep
Whether it's hitting the stores at the crack of dawn or staying up late to wrap gifts, the holidays have a way of disrupting your regular sleep cycle. Throw in a few extra social obligations, some family drama and a dwindling bank account, and you've got the unwanted gift of good old-fashioned seasonal stress.
Solution: Give yourself permission to say "no."
"It's absolutely okay to give yourself permission to say 'no' to certain events or parties to help reduce your amount of stress this holiday season," Yule says. "Pick only the events that you would most like to attend and say 'yes' to those."
It's also important to carve out some downtime for yourself during the holiday season, especially if you are more introverted and find all of the activity exhausting, she adds.
Pitfall: Too much downtime
If you're one of the lucky ones who aren't saddled with social obligations, and you find yourself with some time off work, you might find yourself tempted to snack out of boredom, which can easily lead to weight gain. "While free time gets perceived as relaxing, it can actually make us feel more anxious, which can lead to bad eating habits," says registered dietitian Ilana Muhlstein.
Solution: Stay busy during your days off work.
If you know that you have some time off coming up, plan activities that make you feel productive, so you aren’t rummaging through the pantry for a lack of something to do. This would be a great time to finally purge and organize that jam-packed pantry or refrigerator, clean out a closet or indulge in a fun winter activity, like ice-skating, sledding or holiday lights sightseeing.
Pitfall: Viewing the holidays as a battle
Many of us regard the period from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day as one long stretch of holiday temptation, giving ourselves implicit "permission" to make poor choices—because, hey, it's just that time of year. "We promise ourselves we'll 'be good' starting January 2—but if you are not able to make good choices now, how will that change on a certain date?" asks health coach Liza Baker.
Solution: Change your mindset about the holidays.
Baker coaches her clients to refrain from viewing this time of year as a battle or struggle, which makes it sound heavy and punishing. "In reality, it's only a battle if you treat it like one," she says.
"You have the chance to make choices every day, whether it's a holiday or not: to eat nutritious food or junk, to work out or not, to spend time with people or not. Simply using the words 'I choose to' in place of 'I have to' can make a world of difference in terms of your energy, moving you from being a passive victim into being an active participant in your health."
As Baker points out, there are really only a few days that are actual holidays during these couple of months: Thanksgiving, Christmas/Hanukkah and New Year's Day. If you can make better food and lifestyle choices 80 to 90 percent of the time, she says there's no reason not to indulge a little—in moderation—on those days.