Trays of cookies and tins of assorted popcorn at work. Holiday parties laden with sugary desserts. Family gatherings with tables overloaded with turkey or ham, all kinds of potatoes, and buttery rolls. There’s no way around it: The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s pose all kinds of challenges for anyone trying to maintain a healthy weight.
Actually, studies show that most adults don’t gain as much weight as you might think during the holidays.
The average weight gain during this time period is anywhere from 0.8 pounds to just under 2 pounds, according to a research review published in the Journal of Obesity.
Where that can start to become a problem is when that extra pound or two sticks around after the holidays, and is on repeat year after year. A pound every December can turn into 10 pounds in a decade.
“Studies have also found that people who are already overweight and obese gain more weight than those who are at a healthy weight, and when considering average weight gain over a year, holiday weight is the major contributor to annual excess weight gain,” says Vanessa King, MS, a registered dietitian nutritionist and spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics.
So how can you continue to enjoy your holiday traditions, including the ones involving food, without feeling guilty or putting on unhealthy weight?
“What’s important is our mindset,” King says. “We don’t want our goal of healthy eating to mask disordered eating habits, such as cutting out food groups or feeling shame around weight gain.”
“Life is short and we need to enjoy it,” says Grace Derocha, MBA, a registered dietitian and Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics spokesperson. “Food is more than fuel and calories, especially during this time of year. It’s tradition, it’s memories, it’s culture, it’s social connection, it’s family, it’s love. Rather than viewing holiday eating through a lens of denial and saying ‘No,’ I suggest focusing on being present to enjoy what you’re doing, including what you are eating, while trying to make the best choices you can.”
Don’t skip meals. If you know you have a big dinner event with lots of tempting food coming up, it might seem like a good idea to skip lunch and “make more room” for the evening’s treats. Don’t do it! “That throws your body into starvation mode,” Derocha says. “Your hunger and satisfaction cues are thrown off, and your body holds onto the calories. You want to teach your body to be its best self, and skipping meals is not the way to do that.”
Practice mindfulness at parties and family dinners. “If you stay in the kitchen or near the buffet table, it can be easy to keep taking bites or serving seconds,” King says. “Move your chats out of the kitchen and away from the table. If mealtime is over and food is still on the table, package up the leftovers right away to freeze or send home.”
Heed your body’s hunger cues. “Having that understanding of ‘Am I hungry, or am I satisfied?’ is a big part of the battle,” Derocha says. “You can enjoy a sampling of the buffet table, but that doesn’t mean that you have to eat the entire tray of cheesy potatoes. Listen when your body tells you it’s had enough.”
Choose healthier options whenever you can. That doesn’t mean skipping the pumpkin pie or the buttery mashed potatoes if you love them. But aim for most of your meal to be healthy. “Think of choosing vegetables and more raw, grilled, and baked versions of dishes and less of the gravy and heavy sauces,” King says. “Opt for leaner meats and proteins that are broiled, baked, and grilled vs. fried or breaded.”
Make allowances for favorites. Are there foods that you know are your family traditions, or the “once a year” specialties that you don’t have very often? “You should get to enjoy that without guilt or shame or fear of weight gain,” Derocha says.
Bring snacks when you travel. Traveling can disrupt healthy eating, with temptations to grab nutritionally disastrous (and expensive!) snacks in airports and at highway rest stops.
Get enough sleep. “This can be particularly challenging during the holidays, but less sleep means less energy, and that means that we are more likely to turn to more comforting and less nutrient-dense foods,” King says.
Move your body. When it’s cold outside and days are shorter, the urge to hibernate can be strong. “You don’t have to go to your workout class like you normally do, but even little things like extra laps if you’re doing holiday shopping at the mall, or going for an outdoor walk after a heavy lunch, can be helpful,” Derocha says. “Walking outside when it’s crisp and cold can feel nice. Nature is also a de-stressor, and stress can contribute to weight gain.”
Think long-term. Being mindful about holiday eating can help keep any short-term weight gain under control, but remember to keep things in perspective. “When it comes to our weight or anything around our health, we can overestimate what’s going to happen in a short period of 6 weeks and underestimate the power of committing to a long-term healthy lifestyle,” King says.