What to do when that time of year rolls around? Candy, cakes, pies, ice cream, cookies, mashed potatoes, rolls, biscuits, pancakes, waffles, pumpkin this, and peppermint that. Every year when October rolls around, my clients begin thinking about how to strategize their weight management efforts for the holidays. And yes, it often begins at Halloween! This means planning for about 2 straight months of holiday social events, work parties, travel, and indulgent family meals. How do you manage to get through two months unscathed by weight gain?
I’m including some of my clients’ favorite strategies and tips that I provide them with every holiday season. As you try these out, keep in mind that some weight gain on its own is actually not the root problem. Rather, it’s that most people who gain holiday weight don’t lose it again in the new year. So this means that even if you gain just 1 pound over each holiday season and don’t lose it again in January, you can add 25-50 pounds of weight to your frame over the course of your adult life. And this isn’t counting any other times of the year where weight gain is common (e.g. vacation, pregnancy, illness, etc.). So, the overall goal I have for you here is to keep you in the healthy weight game all through the holiday season. If you stay mindful of your eating and exercise habits, you won’t only minimize your weight gain. You’re also more likely to lose any weight you DO gain rather quickly when January rolls around.
Before I dive into the tips, I want to start with a general rule my clients and I set for the holiday season:
INDULGE ONLY ON THE ACTUAL HOLIDAY DAYS. Imagine this for a second. What if you stayed on track with your diet all through November and December but allowed yourself to indulge on the actual days of each holiday? That would reduce your indulgences to about 3-4 days out of the entire holiday season! Not bad, right? This is a really effective strategy because it keeps weight gain at bay, prevents energy crashes from too many heavy foods, and motivates you to stay on track the other days. Simply try applying this one rule, and you may notice that you feel surprisingly good come January 1.
Now I realize that this is easier said than done. Being the realistic dietitian that I am, I work with clients every day by helping them tackle social environments where an abundance of not-so-good-for-you food is present. If this is you, and you need some help in keeping bad habits from creeping up, read on! Applying just one or two of these strategies can help reduce your weight gain, support healthier energy levels, and improve your confidence with making healthy decisions in challenging situations.
- Holiday Dinners with Family (Family Style)
Mom’s mashed potatoes and pumpkin pie are calling your name, and Grandma is handing you a slice of her delicious cake. How do you navigate family events? So much nastalgia, so little room for calories!
I generally recommend that you commit to surveying your options before you even serve yourself anything. That ham may look amazing now because it’s the first thing you saw with your hungry eyes, but what about those ribs sitting at the other end of the table? Serving yourself both, and then adding sides and desserts will only be a recipe for an upset stomach, bloating and weight gain later. So, slow down a bit and look at all of your options before deciding what to eat.
But really. What if you want everything? Fair question! There are a few ways you can approach this. First, prioritize what you love. It’s amazing what placing some boundaries around your indulgences will do. It will force you to really figure out what you love and what you can do without. Once you’ve separated the loves from the do-withouts, focus on the former. From here, fill your plate first with a veggie option. This could be a salad or grilled or steamed veggies. Veggies are voluminous with few calories. Plus, they pack essential vitamins, minerals and enzymes. Starting with veggies first will tame your appetite just enough to help you decide what you really want to eat. If no veggie is available, start with a lean protein, like a chicken breast (remove excess oil or sauce). Protein will also fill you up on fewer calories than those mashed potatoes sitting in front of you. It will be just enough to take the edge off.
Now that you’ve had your veggies or proteins, survey your favorite foods again and decide what you want. Then, take a 3-bite portion of each food (about ¼ cup). I know. That sounds like torture. But, trust me. The process works! By the time you’ve eaten a plate of veggies or protein, you won’t be nearly as hungry for large helpings of mashed potatoes, breads, and casseroles. A 3-bite portion of each will be satisfying by the time you finish the meal. One glass of wine, beer, vodka seltzer, or gin and tonic is also OK here. The key with alcohol is to stick to 1!
When dessert rolls around, go through this process again. Survey the foods you really love, and serve yourself a 2-bite portion of each. Then, finish with a glass of water or a cup of hot tea.
This will feel foreign and maybe a little strange at first, but stick to the plan, and you’ll feel the benefits when you wake up the next morning!
- Work Events and Parties (Your client hands you your third margarita…)
Let the food and alcohol flow! Coworkers, clients and a holiday party are a great recipe for a calorie disaster. Your coworker hands you your third margarita, and the catering company beautifully displays those delicious crab cakes, cheese and charcuterie, and chocolate dessert. What to do?
These situations are not easy to navigate, largely because you don’t always know what to expect. So, having some general but clear principles can help you minimize the caloric damage. First, survey your options. What’s available? What kinds of savory and sweet hors d’oeuvres are being served? What drinks are available? Once you’ve gotten a handle on your options, find a small plate and fill it with the veggie appetizers first (e.g. asparagus, veggie skewers, raw veggies with a spoonful of dip). None being served? Find the leanest protein option (e.g. grilled chicken strips, shrimp cocktail). Once you’ve filled up on your veggies or protein, choose your favorite dishes being served and serve yourself a 2-bite portion of each. Again, I know this may sound a little crazy, but it works. If you’re still hungry, stick to veggies for a third round. All of this will be satisfying, but you will have saved hundreds of calories in the process.
On alcohol: stick to wine, lite beer, vodka seltzer, or gin and tonic, and do your best to stick to one drink. If that’s not possible, try using one of these strategies to keep things under control while enjoying yourself:
1) Spread out each drink with a glass of seltzer and lime in between. This may cut your alcohol intake by half
2) Wait until the last hour of your event to start drinking. This will also save you hours (hundreds of calories) of drinking, while giving you something to look forward to at the end of the night
- At Home (On your own):
This is where you can really keep things in line during the holidays. If you know you’ll be indulging at parties, work functions, and family dinners, keep at-home meals lean. This means focusing on proteins, veggies and fresh fruits for your meals. Find high protein, low carbohydrate meals, and then plan them into your routine. Prepping some of them on the weekends will also help you stay on track with this. I always recommend making one meal on Saturday and one on Sunday, and then freezing or refrigerating those meals for the upcoming week. Purchase glass containers for your meals to help make portioning easy. I love Fit n Fresh and Wean Green containers.
Also, don’t forget to squeeze in some exercise, even if it’s a 20-minute routine. Any activity can help minimize weight gain and also help you feel better during a busy time! You can even add in lifestyle exercise, like walking to the grocery store, parking at the spot furthest from a store entrance, becoming a part of a sports team, etc. Fitting movement into your daily routine will boost calorie burn and help control weight.
- Travel (Planes Trains and Automobiles…)
This is sometimes the trickiest part about eating healthy, even when it’s not holiday season! Airports are notorious for having very few healthy or fresh options, and if you’re stuck in an airplane or car all day, chances are you’ll get a little bag of peanuts or pass several fast food joints along the way. What’s the best way to tackle this?
- Airplane travel: Eat before your flight. Make sure that your last meal before your flight is within an hour of leaving for the airport. This can help keep you satisfied during your flight, and decrease your need for snacks at the airport. However, if your flight is several hours, after you pass through security, grab a liter of water, a fruit or veggie and a healthy(ish) nutrition bar for the flight. Dehydration during a flight is a real thing (think recirculated air and cabin pressure), so a liter of water can help offset that. And let’s be real. Those little complementary drinks they serve won’t do you many favors. Having a bar and some produce on hand is a practical strategy to help prevent poor hungry choices later. Many of the Hudson News stores at airports will offer something in the form of a healthy-ish bar, like Clif, Quest, Zone, or some other option. The key here is protein and portions. One bar with a fruit or veggie is perfect to keep you satiated for the flight.
- In the car: Pack a cooler of healthy options! I know. It sounds campy. But, that’s OK. Bring your usual healthy snacks, and pack one portable healthy meal for the road. And bring a couple of liters of water with you. Since many people eat out of boredom during road trips, it may be helpful to plan the times you’ll eat your packed food. This may sound like overkill, and you may not need it. But, if you find that you mindlessly snack during a car trip, plan out your meal and snack times to keep things in line.
- On the train: This is also much easier than an airplane! You can theoretically bring a cooler with you on the train, but that may be a pain to lug around. I would recommend a lunch box strategy. Throw 3-5 healthy food items into a lunch box or brown bag and bring along with you.
In summary, try to remember these key points this holiday season:
MY TOP FIVE TIPS FOR HOLIDAY WEIGHT MANAGEMENT:
- Focus on veggies: grilled, steamed, baked, or raw. They’re all great! Veggies pack in filling fiber and essential vitamins and minerals. They provide the volume you need to feel full without overdoing it on calories. Always start with veggies!
- Don’t forget your lean proteins. In the midst of all the holiday sweets and treats, we often forget protein. Most holiday foods are carb and sugar-laden, which when eaten in large portions, can trigger more cravings for carbs and sugar. Making lean protein a priority can help keep your cravings and hunger at bay. Try more chicken, turkey, lean beef, fish, Greek yogurt, cottage cheese, string cheese sticks, egg whites, tofu, and tempeh.
- Stay hydrated! Did you know that dehydration can manifest as hunger? So, the next time you feel hunger pangs, recall when you had your last sip of water. Reach for a glass of water first, and then see how hungry you still feel. Better yet, be proactive and aim for 2 liters of water per day (about 8 cups), and sip consistently throughout the day.
- Sleep: don’t skimp on this! Losing just 1-2 hours of sleep can increase your caloric intake by a few hundred calories per day, due to longer hours awake and your body’s need for quick energy since it’s low on shut-eye. Aim for 7-8 hours per night to help keep hunger and cravings at bay, and to support healthy hormones that regulate your hunger, satiety and mood.
- Exercise: The holiday season may be busy, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t fit any activity in. I’m a fan of lifestyle exercise, which essentially is movement you can squeeze in while going about your normal day. In NYC, I always recommend that clients walk to work (at least in part) whenever they can. By doing this, they can fit in an extra 1-2 miles of walking that they otherwise may not get. It may mean leaving a little earlier for work, but you have to commute anyway, so why not make it active? Side effect: you may be surging with feel-good endorphins when you get there! Other forms: walking to the grocery store, parking far away from a store entrance, running errands in a shopping mall so that you walk from place to place, cleaning your house more often, separate trips up the stairs so that you have to take them more frequently, take the stairs at work instead of the elevator, join a sports team on the weekends, play outside with your kids…All of those every day activities add up to burn calories. Don’t minimize them! Get out there and move.