Kim is an RN and author of the book "360 Health: Your Guide to Cancer Prevention, Healing Foods, & Total Body Wellness."
What would the holidays be without savory dishes, delicious desserts, and colorful cocktails? Besides getting to spend time with friends and family, most people look forward to the yummy food at holiday gatherings. Hosts and hostesses work tirelessly to decorate their homes and prepare food that their guests will rave about for weeks. But with all of the joy that celebrating brings, there is sometimes a downside to these festive occasions: the dreaded weight gain which often follows.
So what is one to do? Do we miss out on parties because we fear overeating? Do we starve ourselves before attending gatherings? Do we exercise like crazy in an effort to ward off the pounds? The answer to all of these questions is NO! There are some simple strategies that you can implement to help maintain and not gain unwanted weight, even during the holidays.
Maintain, Don't Gain
The following are a list of 15 strategies you might consider utilizing this holiday season. Try one or two that sound reasonable and attainable to you. If one doesn't work, scrap it and try another. The key is to find what's right for you. Remember the goal is to still enjoy celebrations, even the food and alcohol, but to do so wisely and in a way that won't compromise your health, immunity, or weight.
1) Weigh Yourself Daily
No, that isn't a cruel joke. The more frequently you weight yourself, the quicker you'll notice any fluctuations. After a particularly decadent meal or an evening of drinks and salty snacks, you'll probably see the scales tip up a few pounds. Don't worry. This is typically just water retention which will subside in a day or two. However, if you're consistently seeing the numbers rise, knowing this can help you make better choices. You don't want to go weeks on end without weighing yourself because the further off course you get, the harder it will be to lose the weight.
2) Sip Bone Broth
This might sound really strange to you, but bone broth can and should become the new coffee for that afternoon slump. Here's why: First, bone broth is an excellent "pick me up." It's filled with amino acids which help give lasting energy. It's also packed with collagen and gelatin which help to fill you up and curb hunger. It's nutrient-dense and will help boost immunity as well. Best of all, it's very low in calories, so it also won't create inches to your waistline. Win-win!
3) Try Intermittent Fasting
What is intermittent fasting (or IF)? IF is NOT about restricting the amount of food you eat. It's not about only drinking liquid, and it's not a deprivation diet. IF is simply eating your day's food during a shorter window of time. For example, if you wake at 7:00AM, you may not have your first meal until noon. Then you'd be free to eat your meals and snacks until, say, 8:00PM. That would be an 8-hour feeding window and a 16-hour fasting window. This is the most popular, but others do better with a 10-hour feeding window and a 14-hour fast. (There are other versions like alternate day fasting or completely fasting for two days a week and eating normally on the other days. These are a bit more extreme and are quite difficult to follow during the holidays.)
What IF means is that you can enjoy your food, desserts, and wine without feeling guilty. Now, it's not an invitation to go "hog wild" and eat everything in sight. But, many find this approach to be really helpful in counter-balancing holiday eating.
Why does IF work? Essentially, when you're not eating, your body can work on digestion and detoxification, and then it begins to burn fat. It gives your digestive system a break and allows your body to work on burning body fat for fuel after glycogen stores have been depleted from the liver. IF works even better if you lean towards a more fat-adapted diet. This means you focus less on eating carbs and more on healthy fats. You won't get hunger pangs this way either. But even if you continue to follow your normal diet, IF may still help. IF turns down the insulin response (which triggers cravings) and increases Human Growth Hormone (HGH) which helps burn fat and boosts metabolism.
During your fast, drink plenty of water, and you can drink bone broth too! This will further help to curb your appetite.
4) Eat Good Fats
As we just mentioned, when we focus on increasing healthy fats and decreasing carbohydrates, especially the refined versions, our bodies begin to burn stored body fat sooner. When we eat lots of carbs, our bodies use those for energy and fuel. It doesn't take many carbs though to fuel our bodies. And those extra carbs and their calories turn right into stored body fat. That's one reason to focus on fat.
Fats also provide satiety. They keep us full longer and help regulate our blood sugars.
Throughout the day, before attending holiday parties, be sure to get in those healthy fats. These are things like olive oil and olives, avocado oil and avocados, coconut oil, nuts and nut butters, eggs (especially the yolks), and even dark chocolate. Eat more of these and fewer carbs most days. Then, when you get to the party, have some carbs and your dessert!
5) Snack Before the Party
Don't starve yourself all day long. Intermittent fasting is fine, but even if you IF, you'd definitely be consuming food prior to the party anyway. If you haven't eaten anything, you'll want to race right towards the chips, pretzels, and cookies. But having a snack that contains protein and/or good fats will help ward off that intense hunger. Try eating a handful of nuts and an apple or carrots and hummus prior to leaving home. This will make you less ravenous when you get there.
6) Go For the Hors D'oeuvres
Lots of gathering have hors d'oeuvres as finger foods prior to the meal and dessert. Many of these appetizers might not be so bad as they often contain vegetables (fiber!) and protein. Good choices would be a veggie tray, olives, some shrimp cocktail, bacon wrapped dates, hard cheese, deviled eggs, or prosciutto. These will fill you up and also help curb cravings as they're low in sugar and carbs as well. Eating these first will leave less room for all of those refined and processed carbs and decadent desserts. Let JERF be your motto ... Just Eat Real Food! (Real food is essentially anything that doesn't come in a box or bag.)
7) Practice the Three-Bite Rule
Eat the dessert! But one way to ensure you don't overdo it is to practice the 3-bite rule. Find a dessert that looks delicious. Really eye up the table and find the one that screams your name. Then, share it, or if it's all for you, take 3 bites and throw the rest in the garbage right away. This allows you to enjoy it and savor those bites without consuming half the cake or platter of cookies. Try to stick to one dessert or two desserts max. If you limit the number of selections and then only eat a small amount, you won't feel guilty or feel overly full either.
8) Eat From a Small Plate
Whether at home or at a party, there are usually different sized plates from which to choose. Normally, the smaller plates are for just appetizers or just dessert. Try to fit all of the food you'll be eating for the night onto that one smaller plate. This doesn't mean piling it sky-high! The food has to fit without it becoming a balancing act. This forces you to pick the most delicious-looking foods or those you have to try, and stay away from the filler foods like bread, extra crackers, or just one more cookie.
9) Limit Alcohol
This is no fun, but research shows the more you drink, the more you may weigh. Obviously, if you consume too much alcohol on a consistent basis, this can mess with your hormones, insulin, and metabolism, leading to weight gain. Even after a night of binge drinking, which is defined as 5 or more drinks for men or 4 or more drinks for women, the after-effects can last for days. Think bloating, stomach issues, headaches, decreased immunity, inflammation, and muscle soreness.
Another problem is that alcohol increases dopamine which, in turn, makes you crave starchy carbs. Alcohol also raises cortisol which further increases appetite and tells our bodies to hold onto the influx of glucose as body fat. Worst of all, when you're drinking alcohol, your body must metabolize it first, so it can't work on burning off that cheesecake.
Of course you don't want to deprive yourself of celebratory cocktails at the work Christmas party, but if you do indulge, follow the one-to-one rule. This means that for every alcoholic drink you have, drink one 8 oz. glass of water. This helps reduce dehydration and also helps to curb the influx of sugar and subsequent insulin spikes and cravings.
10) Hydrate, Hydrate, Hydrate
During the winter months, our bodies are more prone to dehydration. We may be drinking more coffee than normal to warm us up. And, as mentioned, we may be indulging in alcohol a little more often, too. Both of these drinks are diuretics and tell our bodies to excrete water. Humidity levels also fall, so naturally, our skin becomes drier and more prone to cracking. So, we NEED extra water.
However, hydration becomes even more important when we think about counteracting holiday indulgences. Water helps to suppress appetite. You've probably heard that often when you feel hungry, you may, in fact, be dehydrated. And as we read earlier, water offsets the sugar-spiking and hangover-causing effects of alcohol too.
Drinking water helps boost your metabolism and cleanse your body of waste. Also, drinking more water helps your body stop retaining water, leading you to avoid putting on those extra pounds of water weight.
Aim to drink 10-12 cups of water per day. This may seem like a lot, but it will really help hydrate you and fight off the battle of the bulge. If the thought of drinking cold water has you shivering, try warming the water and adding a little lemon. The lemon will also help with detoxification. Another great way to counteract all the indulging.
11) Have Minty Fresh Breath
When your mouth feels and tastes clean, you're less likely to want to eat spicy, garlicky, or savory food. Heck, you may not want to eat anything at all, especially if you're in close conversation with others. A great trick is to brush your teeth immediately before attending a party or gathering that you know will have food. When you have a minty taste in your mouth, you hate to ruin the freshness, but sometimes it also makes food taste less palatable. Have you ever brushed your teeth then sipped orange juice? Yuck! Alternatively, you might chew some spearmint or peppermint gum. If you're at a party, and you really want to stop eating but can't seem to muster up the will power, pop in a piece of gum. This will immediately help you turn off those cravings.
12) Prioritize Sleep
There is always so much going on around the holidays. We have social functions, family gatherings, Christmas pageants, sing-alongs, holiday decorating, shopping, gift wrapping, etc. The list goes on and on. We're so busy that sleep seems to become last on our list. However, now more than ever is the time to actually make sleep a priority. Our immune systems can become very weakened when we don't sleep. And we know that many germs spread during all of this social interaction.
Sleep also helps to keep our cortisol levels in check. When we don't sleep, cortisol rises which makes us crave carbs and more food in general. We seek an energy boost elsewhere when we're not refreshed after a night of sleep. Our metabolism may also slow because it's thought that proper circadian rhythms help keep biological functions running smoothly.
Try to turn off the TV 30 minutes before sleep. And get home from that party early enough so that you can still get 7-9 hours of sleep. On average, most adults need about 8 hours to function optimally.
13) Wear Structured Clothing
During the winter we tend to wear big bulky sweaters. We lounge around in PJ bottoms or sweatpants. All of this loose-fitting clothing isn't doing us any favors. It allows our waistbands to expand with hardly any notice. You've probably heard of people wearing their elastic-waisted pants to "all you can eat" buffets. Don't be that person! When you wear tailored or structured clothing, you'll notice a lot quicker if you've eaten too much. You'll begin to feel uncomfortable, and that's a good thing. That's your key to stop.
Also, when you wear form-fitting clothes, you tend to feel better about yourself too. We're not talking about tight or body-hugging clothes, just something that fits you. And you're not a formless blob. Also, when you dress well and feel good about the way you look, you want to maintain that. This makes you less likely to sabotage yourself by overeating.
14) Exercise First Thing in the Morning
If you're able to wake up and exercise immediately, this may set you up for a more successful day. Exercising in the morning helps rev up your metabolism, allowing you to burn more calories throughout the day. It can be as simple as a 10-30 minute workout video, yoga session, or going for a short walk.
To increase the effectiveness, exercise in a fasted state. This means you won't eat breakfast before you begin. Instead of burning through the calories you would've eaten at breakfast, you'll more readily begin to burn stored body fat. This technique may not be for everyone. Some people tend to feel nauseated if they exercise on an empty stomach. But if that doesn't bother you, try fasted workouts!
15) Focus on Muscle Conditioning
Many people feel as though they need to up the ante as the holidays approach. They begin running, cycling, taking intense cardio classes, going to the gym for hours and hours, and aiming to sweat til they drop. That approach may not be the best. In fact, research shows that lifting weights may help to boost metabolism better. In addition, when people focus on intense cardiovascular conditioning, they often are ravenously hungry afterward. A slower approach that involves muscle training, even lifting heavy weights, may be better for overall bodyweight maintenance.
Also, having muscle mass ensures that your metabolism will stay revved up long after your workout has ended. You've probably heard that muscle burns more calories than fat. This is true. Those who lift weights tend to have a higher basal metabolic rate (BMR).
In summary, weight training helps you burn calories; it raises your metabolism; and it won't leave you starving like chronic cardio will.
It's important to enjoy the holiday season. Spending time with friends and family is good for mental and emotional health. You shouldn't deprive yourself of attending gatherings nor should you deprive yourself of partaking in the delicious meals and desserts that are offered. But if you're worried that you might gain weight over the holidays, try a few of the tips mentioned. Having a plan will help you feel more at ease and ready to enjoy the season.
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McDermott, Nicole. "31 Science-Backed Ways to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain," 27 October 2017, https://greatist.com/health/ways-to-avoid-holiday-weight-gain.
"Weight Gain and the Holidays: Steps to Prevent," December 2013, Cleveland Clinic, https://my.clevelandclinic.org/health/articles/17509-weight-gain--the-holidays-steps-to-prevent.
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This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and does not substitute for diagnosis, prognosis, treatment, prescription, and/or dietary advice from a licensed health professional. Drugs, supplements, and natural remedies may have dangerous side effects. If pregnant or nursing, consult with a qualified provider on an individual basis. Seek immediate help if you are experiencing a medical emergency.