Avoiding holiday weight gain may sound as feasible as Santa fitting down billions of chimneys on Christmas Eve, but we promise there are logical strategies to stay on track. Many of us experience weight gain during the festive winter months, but packing on a few pounds in December is far from inevitable.
Don’t get us wrong: The holiday season is all about celebrating, togetherness, and indulging—in moderation. So pass the eggnog and let’s tackle navigating holiday food spreads, hectic schedules, and sidelined gym routines.
Tips for Eating and Drinking
1. Eat before drinking and celebrating.
Skipping breakfast or lunch in order to “save your appetite” probably isn’t the best weight-maintenance tactic. Neural responses to visual food stimuli after a normal vs. higher protein breakfast in breakfast-skipping teens: a pilot fMRI study. Leidy HJ, Lepping RJ, Savage CR. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 2011, May.;19(10):1930-739X. While the jury’s still out on how important breakfast truly is, not eating until the afternoon may lead to binging later on (read: four slices of pumpkin pie). Breakfast consumption affects appetite, energy intake, and the metabolic and endocrine responses to foods consumed later in the day in male habitual breakfast eaters. Astbury NM, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA. The Journal of nutrition, 2011, May.;141(7):1541-6100. Our advice? Stick to a reasonably sized breakfast with plenty of protein, which will keep you fuller longer and temper the urge to stuff your face later.
2. Pick protein.
Like we just mentioned, protein can help maintain a healthy weight because high-protein diets are associated with greater satiety (bonus benefit: It’s important for healthy muscle growth). Effects of a high protein diet on body weight and comorbidities associated with obesity. Clifton P. The British journal of nutrition, 2012, Dec.;108 Suppl 2():1475-2662. Make sure to serve up some turkey, roasted chicken, or prepare animal-free alternatives like quinoa, lentils, or beans.
3. Bring your own.
4. Eat and chew slowly.
Eating slowly may not be easy when appetizer options are endless, but it pays off to pace yourself. The quicker we eat, the less time the body has to register fullness. Eating slowly increases the postprandial response of the anorexigenic gut hormones, peptide YY and glucagon-like peptide-1. Kokkinos A, le Roux CW, Alexiadou K. The Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism, 2009, Oct.;95(1):1945-7197. Eating slowly led to decreases in energy intake within meals in healthy women. Andrade AM, Greene GW, Melanson KJ. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2008, Jul.;108(7):0002-8223. Weight loss during the intensive intervention phase of the weight-loss maintenance trial. Hollis JF, Gullion CM, Stevens VJ. American journal of preventive medicine, 2008, Sep.;35(2):0749-3797. So slow down and take a second to savor each bite of baked brie or scoop of spiced nuts.
5. Serve meals restaurant-style.
When you sit down for the main event, leave food in the kitchen (away from reach) rather than display a basket full of piping hot rolls, multiple casseroles, and an entire turkey directly on the table. When you’ve cleaned your plate, take a breather, and then decide if you really want seconds. Changing up the environment—in this case, by leaving food near the stove—can help reduce overall food intake. Eating as an automatic behavior. Cohen D, Farley TA. Preventing chronic disease, 2007, Dec.;5(1):1545-1151.
6. Fill up on fiber.
Snacking on vegetables and other high-fiber items like legumes can help keep us fuller, longer (though there’s always space for dessert). Dietary fiber and weight regulation. Howarth NC, Saltzman E, Roberts SB. Nutrition reviews, 2001, Jul.;59(5):0029-6643. Dietary fiber and body weight. Slavin JL. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 2005, Sep.;21(3):0899-9007. Give the vegetable platter a second chance with a healthy, tasty dip.
7. Use smaller plates.
Plate sizes have expanded significantly over the years. The largest Last Supper: depictions of food portions and plate size increased over the millennium. Wansink B, Wansink CS. International journal of obesity (2005), 2010, Mar.;34(5):1476-5497. Whenever possible, choose the smaller salad plate (8-10 inches) instead of a tray-like one (12 inches or more). Using smaller plates can actually make us feel fuller with less food. The brain associates a big white space on the plate with less food (and smaller plates generally require smaller portions). Normative influences on food intake. Herman CP, Polivy J. Physiology & behavior, 2005, Oct.;86(5):0031-9384.
8. Make room for (healthy) fats.
Cutting butter and oil can slash calories (and it’s easy to swap in foods like applesauce, avocado, banana, or flax into holiday baked goods!), but not all fats are bad fats. We need fat in our diets to provide energy and absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, plus fat helps us feel full.
Get healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from avocadoes (hello, guacamole), nuts, and olive oil (in baked goods, on veggies, or in homemade dressings). Effects of dietary coconut oil on the biochemical and anthropometric profiles of women presenting abdominal obesity. Assunção ML, Ferreira HS, dos Santos AF. Lipids, 2009, May.;44(7):1558-9307. Bonus: Combining fat with fiber—like dipping veggies in guacamole—has been shown to increase fat’s power to make us feel full.
9. Ditch added sugar.
Holiday cookies, cakes, and pies are nothing short of tempting, but all that added sugar may increase the risk for cardiovascular disease and obesity. Consumption of added sugars and indicators of cardiovascular disease risk among US adolescents. Welsh JA, Sharma A, Cunningham SA. Circulation, 2011, Jan.;123(3):1524-4539. High-fructose corn syrup: everything you wanted to know, but were afraid to ask. Fulgoni V. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2009, Jan.;88(6):1938-3207. Stick to sugar that comes in its natural form (fruits, veggies, and whole grains) and try small tastes of the desserts you’re truly craving rather than loading up a full plate of bland cookies. Sugar-sweetened beverages, weight gain, and incidence of type 2 diabetes in young and middle-aged women. Schulze MB, Manson JE, Ludwig DS. JAMA, 2004, Aug.;292(8):1538-3598.
10. Sneak in the veggies.
Munching on vegetables has long been recognized as a way to protect against obesity. Relationship of fruit and vegetable intake with adiposity: a systematic review. Ledoux TA, Hingle MD, Baranowski T. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 2011, May.;12(5):1467-789X. Mix puréed veggies (like pumpkin) into baked goods or casseroles, or sneak them into pasta or potato dishes. Adding veggies increases fiber, which helps make us fuller. Dietary fibers reduce food intake by satiation without conditioned taste aversion in mice. Rasoamanana R, Even PC, Darcel N. Physiology & behavior, 2012, Dec.;110-111():1873-507X.
11. Just say no.
12. Wait before grabbing seconds.
Like we've mentioned, the quicker we eat a meal, the less time we give our bodies to register fullness. Eating slowly increases the postprandial response of the anorexigenic gut hormones, peptide YY and glucagon-like peptide-1. Kokkinos A, le Roux CW, Alexiadou K. The Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism, 2009, Oct.;95(1):1945-7197. Since it takes about 20 minutes for the brain to get the message that dinner’s been served, it’s best to go for a walk or chat with friends before dishing up seconds.
13. Take it easy on the white stuff.
Simple carbs are often the white stuff—white bread and refined sugars (like those in soda and candy). These foods provide energy, but often lack the same nutrients as complex carbohydrates (which are found in starchy foods, such as legumes, potatos, corn, and whole grains). While some simple carbs can be good for us (a.k.a the kind found in fruit and low fat dairy products), in general, the body breaks down simple carbs more quickly than the complex kind, which creates a spike in blood sugar (insulin) that can leave us feeling hungrier, faster. The role of carbohydrates in insulin resistance. Bessesen DH. The Journal of nutrition, 2001, Nov.;131(10):0022-3166. Stick to whole grains (whole-grain bread, brown rice, or quinoa) and stay full on healthy proteins (like we mentioned previously).
14. Invest in some toss-away tupperware.
Before guests leave you with half-full platters of food, have some Tupperware at the ready. Load up containers for friends and family to hand out as they leave. Bonus points for getting containers that are holiday-themed or for adding a festive bow to your parting gift.
15. Freeze it.
If you end up with loads of leftovers on your kitchen counter, pack up the extras and store them in the freezer for a later date. Studies show that when food is out of sight, you’ll be less likely to reach for a second helping. 'I just can't help myself': effects of food-cue exposure in overweight and lean individuals. Ferriday D, Brunstrom JM. International journal of obesity (2005), 2010, Jun.;35(1):1476-5497. Do distant foods decrease intake? The effect of food accessibility on consumption. Maas J, de Ridder DT, de Vet E. Psychology & health, 2011, Jun.;27 Suppl 2():1476-8321.
16. Turn off the tube.
Though turning off the TV during any football game or family movie might feel like a sin, eating while watching television is linked to poor food choices and overeating. Mediators of longitudinal associations between television viewing and eating behaviours in adolescents. Pearson N, Ball K, Crawford D. The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 2011, Mar.;8():1479-5868. Plus, getting sucked into It's a Wonderful Life or Elf may bring on mindless eating, since it can be easy to lose track of just how many chocolates or candies you've had. And it’s not just the mindlessness of watching television that’ll get us. Commercials for unhealthy foods and drinks may increase our desire for low-nutrient junk, fast food, and sugary beverages.
17. Chew gum.
Studies have conflicting results on whether chewing gum will actually help curb your appetite and lead to weight loss in the long run. Acute and chronic effects of gum chewing on food reinforcement and energy intake. Swoboda C, Temple JL. Eating behaviors, 2013, Feb.;14(2):1873-7358. Short-term effects of chewing gum on snack intake and appetite. Hetherington MM, Boyland E. Appetite, 2006, Nov.;48(3):0195-6663. However, in the short-term, chewing can keep you busy when socializing amongst a sea of hor d’ouevres or when you're full but still eyeing a second plate of dessert. Effects of chewing gum on short-term appetite regulation in moderately restrained eaters. Hetherington MM, Regan MF. Appetite, 2011, Jun.;57(2):1095-8304.
18. Turn your back on temptation.
The closer we are situated to food that’s in our line of vision, the more we’ll actually consume. The office candy dish: proximity's influence on estimated and actual consumption. Wansink B, Painter JE, Lee YK. International journal of obesity (2005), 2006, Dec.;30(5):0307-0565. A simple fix? Face away from the dessert spread to listen to cues from your gut rather than your eyes.
19. Beware of booze.
Not only does alcohol add unnecessary calories to your diet, but getting boozy has another effect on us, too. Drinking too much in the presence of champagne, eggnog, wine, and beer can make us lose our inhibitions around food and start eating irresponsibly. Take it easy with the bubbly before you start saying things like, "Eh, what's one more cookie?"
20. Cave in to cravings.
Finally, a suggestion we can all get behind. It’s smart to acknowledge a few cravings instead of pushing them away completely. Caving to a craving—as long as it’s in moderation—can curb the desire to go at it like a kid in a candy store.
Forbidding a specific food or food group during the holiday season may only make it more attractive. Still want more of that apple pie after a couple of bites? Try thinking of your favorite holiday activity, like opening presents, watching Christmas movies, or playing in the snow. Research shows that daydreaming about pleasant activities or distracting yourself with just about any activity can reduce the intensity of food cravings. Replacing craving imagery with alternative pleasant imagery reduces craving intensity. Knäuper B, Pillay R, Lacaille J. Appetite, 2011, May.;57(1):1095-8304.
21. Choose tall and thin.
When you’ve got a hankering for some seasonal eggnog, reach for a tall, thin glass, not a short squatty one. Research shows people pour less liquid into tall glasses than into their vertically challenged counterparts. With a taller glass, you’re likely to down less in one sitting (which is especially helpful when drinking booze).
22. Gulp H2O
Drinking water helps people feel full, and as a result consume fewer calories. Drinking water is associated with weight loss in overweight dieting women independent of diet and activity. Stookey JD, Constant F, Popkin BM. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 2008, Sep.;16(11):1930-7381. Rather than guzzling calorie- and sugar-laden sodas and juices (which are associated with increased body fat and blood pressure) treat yourself to a glass of wine with dinner and keep your allegiance to water for the rest of the day. Effects on uric acid, body mass index and blood pressure in adolescents of consuming beverages sweetened with high-fructose corn syrup. Lin WT, Huang HL, Huang MC. International journal of obesity (2005), 2012, Aug.;37(4):1476-5497.
Tips for Moving and Mindset
Emotional eating to make ourselves feel better when we’re sad or anxious can interfere with weight loss goals. But meditation—using techniques like muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and mindfulness—can help binge eaters become aware of how they turn to food to deal with emotions. Does emotional eating interfere with success in attempts at weight control? Blair AJ, Lewis VJ, Booth DA. Appetite, 1991, Feb.;15(2):0195-6663. This is especially important at parties where there’s a ton of food on display. Evidence and potential mechanisms for mindfulness practices and energy psychology for obesity and binge-eating disorder. Sojcher R, Gould Fogerite S, Perlman A. Explore (New York, N.Y.), 2013, Jan.;8(5):1878-7541.
24. Set realistic goals.
Come New Year’s resolution season, it’s easy to set lofty goals about weight loss (i.e. drop three dress sizes by February!). Weight loss goals and treatment outcomes among overweight men and women enrolled in a weight loss trial. Linde JA, Jeffery RW, Levy RL. International journal of obesity (2005), 2005, Oct.;29(8):0307-0565. Since impractical targets can slow down long-term weight-loss, it’s important to address those goals before making any health and fitness changes. Unrealistic weight-loss goals among obese patients are associated with age and causal attributions. Wamsteker EW, Geenen R, Zelissen PM. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2010, Feb.;109(11):1878-3570. Write down your goals—keep them specific and attainable—and post them somewhere highly visible, like the refrigerator door. If your goal is “stick to two cookies at every holiday party” seeing it periodically may help you commit.
25. Stay positive.
Many of us demonize certain foods and even punish ourselves for indulgences. Instead, positive messages like “I can control my eating” or “I’m proud that I ate responsibly today” can reframe our relationship with food. Research shows positive expectations are associated with weight loss. The effects of outcome expectations and satisfaction on weight loss and maintenance: correlational and experimental analyses--a randomized trial. Finch EA, Linde JA, Jeffery RW. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 2006, Apr.;24(6):0278-6133. Even if it feels a little silly, try telling yourself at least one positive affirmation per day.
The holiday season is full of cheer, but it can also be stressful keeping up with family get-togethers and paying for all those gifts. Unfortunately, a lot of stress can trigger increased eating and cravings, especially for sugary carbohydrates. Relationship between stress, eating behavior, and obesity. Torres SJ, Nowson CA. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 2007, Sep.;23(11-12):0899-9007. If family time (or being away from family during the holidays) has you feeling overwhelmed, try out one of these ways to reduce stress before downing hot chocolate and cookies.
27. Let go of limitations.
28. Get functional.
Functional exercise has been shown to increase strength and balance and reduce risk of injury, all while working multiple muscle groups at the same time. It also means you can squeeze in an effective mid-Christmas-movie-marathon workout in a shorter amount of time. Strength outcomes in fixed versus free-form resistance equipment. Spennewyn KC. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2008, Apr.;22(1):1533-4287. All that movement promotes muscle gain, and over time, that can increase metabolism. Exercise improves fat metabolism in muscle but does not increase 24-h fat oxidation. Melanson EL, MacLean PS, Hill JO. Exercise and sport sciences reviews, 2010, Sep.;37(2):1538-3008.
29. Sleep smart.
Though there’s likely no stopping the urge to wake up early on Christmas morning, getting enough sleep can help shave off some pounds, since sleep loss is linked to changes in appetite. Impact of sleep and sleep loss on glucose homeostasis and appetite regulation. Knutson KL. Sleep medicine clinics, 2007, undefined.;2(2):1556-407X. Getting enough sleep has also been associated with less weight gain. Relationship between sleep quality and quantity and weight loss in women participating in a weight-loss intervention trial. Thomson CA, Morrow KL, Flatt SW. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 2012, Mar.;20(7):1930-739X. Longer sleep duration associates with lower adiposity gain in adult short sleepers. Chaput JP, Després JP, Bouchard C. International journal of obesity (2005), 2011, Jun.;36(5):1476-5497. Practice good sleep hygiene, like turning off electronics in the bedroom and avoiding high-fat foods at night. [Etiology of adult insomnia]. Dollander M. L'Encéphale, 2003, Mar.;28(6 Pt 1):0013-7006. Dubious bargain: trading sleep for Leno and Letterman. Basner M, Dinges DF. Sleep, 2009, Jul.;32(6):0161-8105.
30. Partner up.
Research suggests we perform better on aerobic tasks like running and cycling when exercising with a partner. Aerobic exercise is promoted when individual performance affects the group: a test of the Kohler motivation gain effect. Irwin BC, Scorniaenchi J, Kerr NL. Annals of behavioral medicine : a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, 2013, Feb.;44(2):1532-4796. Two-player partnered exergame for obesity prevention: using discrepancy in players' abilities as a strategy to motivate physical activity. Feltz DL, Irwin B, Kerr N. Journal of diabetes science and technology, 2012, Jul.;6(4):1932-2968. If you’re home for the holidays, call up a friend or family member for a gym date or a home workout with our favorite partner exercises, including medicine ball lunge-to-chest passes, and clapping push-ups.
31. Move it and lose it.
A simple phrase for losing weight is to move more and eat less. The secret here—like we said before—is that moving doesn’t just mean hitting the track or going to the gym. Make a conscious decision to get more steps into the day by taking the stairs or parking the car far away from the grocery store entrance. Before curling up around the fire, round up family members for a hike or snowshoeing session.
Originally published December 2013. Updated November 2015.