Despite our best intentions, it seems almost impossible not to gain weight and fall out of shape during the last two months of the year. It isn’t just the pigging-out that begins at Halloween parties and continues through family get-togethers celebrating Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah, or Kwanzaa before the New Year’s blow-out that makes some of us feel relentlessly bloated. There are also the seemingly endless holiday parties connected to our work or social groups. The combined effect of all this short-term high-caloric food and alcohol consumption forces us to make frantic diet and fitness resolutions on December 31.
The good news is that most people actually gain less weight during late fall/early winter than they think. According to a 2016 Cornell University study of more than 3,000 people published in the New England Journal of Medicine, the average American’s weight increases by 0.2% over Thanksgiving and 0.4% over Christmas, amounting to around one pound gained per holiday season for the average person. Researchers found that the participants’ weight actually began to rise throughout October and November, and peaked 10 days after Christmas. The change wasn’t large, but it was significant: On average, people’s weight increased about 1.3 pounds during the period between Christmas season and New Year’s Day. The bad news is that the study showed that the extra pounds you put on between Halloween and Christmas can take more than five months to lose.
Holiday season binging is a reality for almost everybody (including this dietitian). It’s important to remember that a couple of big holiday meals are not going to make or break your health. So rather than drive ourselves crazy trying to lose weight at the beginning of the new year, we can go into the holiday season equipped with strategies to help us maintain our current weight.
Nutrition tips for the holiday season aren’t all that different from the advice I would urge anyone to follow year-round. But they become even more pertinent during this time of year, when food is the centerpiece of our many holiday gatherings and celebrations. The most important thing to remember is portion control, a concept with which many people struggle on a daily basis. It can be an exceptionally daunting strategy during the holidays when it seems like food is literally everywhere. Here are a few healthy-eating tips to follow while also trying to enjoy your holiday festivities:
• Plate-only eating: While at holiday parties, try to avoid grazing. We’ve all been there – standing by the food table, mindlessly noshing on cheese and crackers. Instead, grab a plate, fill it, and walk away. With the snack table out of view and out of reach, you might find that you’re better in tune with your body’s hunger and satiety cues.
• Indulge in the stuff that matters: The holidays are a time to treat yourself, so go ahead and indulge in the foods that are particular to the end-of-year holidays – your sister’s pumpkin pie or your mom’s brisket, for example. But do try to avoid the heavy side dishes you can have any other time of the year.
• Load up on veggies: During the holiday season we’re more likely to have lots of high-calorie, nutrient-poor comfort foods than nutrient-rich vegetables. Aim to have some kind of green veggie on your plate during every holiday meal – not only are they full of vitamins and minerals, they also contain fiber, which helps us feel full.
• Go for lean protein: In general, protein keeps us satisfied longer than carbohydrates and fat. No need to skimp on protein during the holidays and rather than chowing down on tons of red meat, which is high in saturated fat, try to choose a lean or low-fat source of protein when available. Chicken, fish, turkey, tofu, and other plant-based proteins are excellent sources that are low in saturated fat and will help keep you satiated.
• Eat breakfast: How many times have you starved yourself all day knowing that a night of binge eating was in your future? It may seem like a smart idea to “save” all of your calories and skip breakfast or lunch before a big feast, but as a result you’ll overeat to compensate for your hunger- inducing fast. A better idea is to eat a breakfast filled with protein, vegetables, and healthy fat, like a veggie omelet with whole-wheat toast.
• With alcohol, keep it simple: The holiday season wouldn’t be nearly as festive without cocktails or eggnog around Christmas. And everyone should indulge in their favorite seasonal beverage in moderation. But if you’re concerned about your sugar intake, a good rule of thumb is to stick with drinks that have no (or just a couple) added ingredients, like beer, wine, or a spirit with club soda. Having several sugary drinks in one night equals hundreds of calories consumed, not to mention a nice hangover the next day.
Regardless of how healthy (or unhealthy) we eat during the holiday season, consistent physical activity remains as important as during the rest of the year. But for many of us, maintaining a traditional exercise regimen is unrealistic, as traveling, altered work schedules, and the mere exhaustion from socializing gets in the way. And that’s okay. Even squeezing in 15 minutes of physical activity a day will be beneficial for the body and mind. Take a long stroll around the neighborhood with family, or take advantage of the Internet’s vast library of short at-home workouts that you can follow on your phone. It’s important not to dwell over how much time or energy you may have to exercise during the holidays. Just get moving any way you can.
So what was on this dietitian’s Thanksgiving plate? I had my pescatarian staple, roasted salmon, accompanied by asparagus, roasted potatoes, and a heaping serving of my mom’s delicious green bean casserole (with cheddar cheese and baby onions). It was the perfect balance of protein, carbohydrates and fat, with some green veggies to round out the meal. I had zero qualms about having one slice each of my mom’s pumpkin and blueberry pies – both topped with whipped cream. And of course, my dad’s famous Clamato Juice Bloody Marys were an excellent start to the feast. I’ll be back in the gym in a couple of days, but for now I’m just enjoying the healthy post-Thanksgiving leftovers.