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How to enjoy the holidays without packing on extra pounds

Updated December 12, 2023 - 6:45 pm

Ninety-four percent of Americans admit to gaining weight each holiday season, with nearly 50 percent gaining 4 to 9 pounds, according to Inner Body. With tempting treats, drinks, chilly weather and a hefty dose of stress, it’s no surprise that maintaining a healthy weight during the holidays can be challenging.

What are people doing to keep their health and waistline in check during the holidays?

According to a 2023 survey from wellness site Inner Body, the top strategies to avoid holiday weight gain include: increasing exercise frequency and intensity (45.7 percent); trying to drink more water (37.4 percent); avoiding holiday parties (36.9 percent); abstaining from calories from alcohol (36.5 percent); dieting before the holidays (33.6 percent); steering clear of sugar and full-fat options (31.2 percent); eating smaller portions (29.5 percent); regular weigh-ins (22.4 percent); and skipping meals before a holiday feast or party (16.9 percent).

With plenty of strategies in place, why are so many people still gaining weight and missing out on the joy of indulging in holiday treats?

Goals vs. reality

Eighty percent of people want to stay fit, yet over 90 percent gain weight each season. Why is there such a mismatch?

People’s desires to maintain weight and enjoy the holidays aren’t meshing well.

A 2017 review study by the Journal of Obesity looked at behavioral habits during the holidays. Variables that affect weight gain include the prevalence of calorie-dense foods, eating bigger portions and less activity during the winter months.

The temptations can be significant with the frequency of get-togethers, festivities and social time. Plus, add the stress of securing holiday gifts, planning meals and spending money — it all adds up to a recipe for a health disaster.

Finding balance

People love to indulge in holiday treats, but data suggests it can lead to stress, avoidance and restriction.

Many people view the holidays as a time to abandon all healthy habits and indulge in the things they usually avoid. Yet many people will regret their decisions and experience the stress of food guilt.

Finding balance during this time of year may be the key to avoiding weight gain. Instead of throwing all inhibition to the wind, maintaining healthy habits while enjoying treats in moderation might be the best answer.

How to feel in control

It is possible to enjoy the holidays without gaining unnecessary weight. Fitness and nutrition experts weigh in on the subject.

Make a plan: Meal planning on the days leading up to a holiday event can be a game changer. Ali Van Straten, a nutrition coach, says, “The biggest tip I have is to meal plan and prep. So, if you know you’ll have a huge carb-heavy dinner, try to load up earlier in the day on veggies and protein.”

Eating a balanced meal beforehand can curb cravings and make it easier to enjoy holiday favorites without overeating.

Focus on whole foods: Chef Tiffany McCauley of The Gracious Pantry shares her practical advice for keeping her eating habits in check. “I maintain my weight during the holidays by making sure that the foods I make are whole foods-based. I keep sugar to a minimum and sweeten desserts with natural sweeteners like maple syrup or stevia. I also make sure not to let myself get too hungry so that I don’t get the urge to overeat for the main meals.”

Rather than keeping certain foods off the table, McCauley gets creative in finding nutrient-dense substitutes for holiday favorites.

Ditch the guilt: Shifting our mindset around holiday eating can also be powerful. Adding stress to holiday eating habits only fuels the weight gain fire because of its impact on hormonal balance.

Karen Kelly, a health coach at Seasonal Cravings, says, “Try to treat yourself with compassion over the holidays. Eat the holiday foods you enjoy, but try to stick to smaller portions, and don’t beat yourself up. If you know you will be attending a party at night, have a smaller lunch that day. Know that spending time with family and friends around food is essential to the season, and when you look back, you will remember the experiences with family and not what you ate.”

Get moving: Unfortunately, people overestimate how many calories they burn while exercising and underestimate the number of calories they consume. Running coach Simon Loughran explains, “Exercise is an excellent way to balance the inevitable extra calorie intake that comes with the festive season. But be wary of overcompensating. For example, a woman weighing 170 pounds will burn approximately 285 calories by jogging for 30 minutes. That’s a small slice of chocolate cake.”

Overall, it’s essential to persevere through the winter doldrums and get the body moving with realistic expectations.

Get back on track quickly: Alex Caspero, a registered dietitian at Delish Knowledge, offers great insight. “As a dietitian, I usually recommend lower expectations for the holiday season. Enjoy the few celebrations for what they are, but get back to your healthier habits in between. That may look like enjoying Christmas to the fullest, but then returning to a more normal, healthy eating pattern the next day.”

Caspero explains that a couple of pounds gained during the holidays isn’t necessarily a concern as long as a healthy equilibrium is restored quickly. Instead, it’s the gradual accumulative effect of gaining more weight each year that’s problematic.

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