It’s that time of year. The leaves turn majestic hues of red and gold. The air becomes fresh and crisp. We can finally put an extra blanket on the bed and cuddle up with a cup of hot tea. Yes, it’s fall. We just spent eight months killing ourselves to get into that bathing suit, but now we’ve replaced it with a worn pair of jeans and a much more relaxed attitude towards food. After all, it’s the holiday season, and no one’ll notice a few extra pounds under layers of clothes. A little extra weight just gives us a New Year’s resolution to focus on, right?
Wrong. According to a recent study by researchers at Sweden’s Linköping University, those four weeks of celebrating can actually lead to long-term weight gain.
Essentially, the researchers took a group of healthy young people, increased their caloric intake by 70 percent, and lowered their exercise levels. They also had a control group whose diets weren’t altered. At four weeks, the participants in the test group had gained an average of 14 pounds. After six months, and no longer on an increased-calorie diet, only a third of these participants had returned to their original weight. After one year, the test group members were each still an average of 3.3 pounds heavier. After 2.5 years, the “gluttonous” group continued to gain, while the control group still maintained a stable weight.
Now, most of us don’t increase our calories that drastically for 30 days straight. Sure, there’s Thanksgiving, Thanksgiving leftovers, Hanukkah, the work Christmas party, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day, New Year’s Eve, and New Year’s Day, not to mention the extra sweets, cocktails, and (ahem) fruitcake. But according to the New England Journal of Medicine, the actual average weight gain over the holidays is only one pound. (They obviously didn’t poll my family or friends.) So what’s the big deal? The problem is, a year later, the vast majority of people have not removed that pound. Continue this pattern over 30 or 40 holiday seasons and the problem becomes—quite literally—huge.
So how are we supposed to get through the holidays without causing weight gain? Here are eight effective ways to get yourself ready to beat the holiday bulge.
1. Buy clothes that fit right now. This first tip might be a bit pricy, but it’s a great motivational aid in staving off weight gain. A new addition to your wardrobe in a size that shows off your summer body can be all you need to prevent those extra pounds from creeping on. Imagine that beautiful holiday dress or great pair of pants, then imagine being unable to zip them up thanks to sugar cookies. Yeah, no one wants that. So before you begin the festivities, go buy yourself something perfect to wear to your parties and hang it someplace visible, so it serves as a constant reminder. Perhaps on the TV where you play your P90X® videos, or in front of that treadmill that might be starting to collect a little dust in the corner, or on your refrigerator door . . . that way, if it doesn’t fit quite the same way the next time you try to slip into it, you know it’s time to get back to work.
2. Write it down. We try to write down everything we eat, right? We spend countless hours each month staring at a food diary, adding up our calories, and seeing if we got the correct balance of macronutrients. And then the holidays happen, and our little book ends up in the bottom drawer. It’s almost like we’re hoping that if we didn’t write it down, it didn’t happen. Unfortunately, the scale doesn’t fit in that bottom drawer. The truth is, if we would write down the not-so-perfect meals and treats, we could find a way to compensate for them, at least a bit. For example, you have a peppermint brownie in the break room at work, which you know is carbohydrates and fat. Eat one less portion of carbohydrate and one less portion of fat for your dinner. It’s not ideal, but it’ll help. Or perhaps you couldn’t resist Mom’s homemade scones for breakfast. You could plan on an extra 20 or 30 minutes of your workout tonight. The point is, if we write it down, and do the math, we can lessen the damage. It isn’t a good long-term plan, but to help compensate for a few slip-ups, it can help.
3. Keep exercising. Most fitness trainers will tell you the slowest point of their year is between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Sure, their clients schedule workouts with the best of intentions, but then they cancel them for parties and gift shopping. It’s hard to remain balanced when you have a million things to do and gifts to buy. Yet the greatest gift you can give yourself is to stay focused on your fitness goals and get your workout in. Shopping getting in the way? Do it online and save some time. Parties getting in the way? Just show up later. Who cares if everyone else is a couple of cocktails ahead of you? You’ll be healthier, and you won’t have to worry about the embarrassing YouTube videos in the morning. Just stay consistent, even if it’s inconvenient. You’ll be much less likely to look like Santa (both belly-wise and red-nose-wise) at the end of the month.
4. Eat before parties. Most holiday parties don’t focus on low-fat, low-calorie refreshments, so unless you’re organizing the event, the best damage control is to show up with a full tummy. Make sure you eat your meals and snacks throughout the day, and try to eat a healthy meal before attending any party. If you’re going straight from work, prepare a healthy and filling snack to eat on the way. You’ll be a lot less likely to swim in mayonnaise dips and pigs in blankets if you’re full.
5. Get junk out of the house. The majority of people don’t get into their car at midnight, drive to the store, buy the ingredients for cookies, bake them, and then stay up to eat them. But if those homemade cookies that Linda in accounting made for you are already on your kitchen counter, you better believe you’ll find a way to justify it. Frankly, at 12:30 a.m., after a rotten day, for most of us there’s nothing like a few cookies to drown our sorrows. The secret is to get the garbage out of the house. Send it to work with your significant other, donate it to a bake sale, regift it to your 100-pound friend with the perfect metabolism, or just dump it in the trash. Linda will never know. If you have holiday dinner leftovers, box them up for your guests individually and send them home with them. If your family still sends you that Pepperidge Farm® cookie assortment, invite a bunch of people over for a pre-party party and serve ’em up before the drinks. Try not to be wasteful, but get the less-than-healthy temptations out of your reach.
6. Offer to prepare healthy fare. This suggestion won’t be well received by those of us who’d rather spend Thanksgiving sitting around watching football than toiling in the kitchen, but if you do the cooking, you have the control. Your family could have a tasty and satisfying meal without ingesting thousands of calories and fat grams. The way the turkey is prepared, the type of stuffing, how vegetables are made, whether the cranberries are real, and countless other things can make or break the healthiness of a meal. There are tons of cookbooks out there, plus recipes at our website, that can help you out. Yes, it does require a bit of work. But you’re a graduate of P90X. You can do anything.
7. Choose wisely and proportionally. Something occurs during a holiday meal. It’s like a Las Vegas buffet—we feel like we have to eat some of everything. We feel almost like those foods will never exist again, and this is our last meal on the planet. This year, why not try to eat only your favorites, as in two or three items, and keep the portions to the size of your palm? If you’re still hungry, try to fill up on veggies (preferably ones that aren’t drowned in butter or cream-of-mushroom soup). If you want dessert, lean toward a small slice of pumpkin pie (220 calories) as opposed to pecan (a heftier 543), leaving out the hydrogenated nondairy whipped topping if possible. If you’re going to have an alcoholic beverage, go with a flute of champagne (100 calories) as opposed to that rum-laced eggnog (with more than four times more calories, at 420). Just a few wise choices will save you a ton of calories, and probably a significant amount of heartburn as well.
8. Don’t beat yourself up. Quite possibly the worst thing you can do is beat yourself up over a bit of holiday indulgence. Yes, it does stink to backslide after working your tail off. But sometimes it doesn’t stink as much as dealing with your mother when you turn down her brisket and potato pancakes. Sometimes, we don’t have time to go to work, buy a Christmas tree, decorate it with our kids, make dinner, oversee homework, tuck kids in bed, and spend an hour doing INSANITY. We can only do our very best. Mentally beating yourself up will only make you feel worse, which never helped anyone get back to their fitness program. So if you happen to gain that one extra pound this holiday season, be part of the rare group who actually follows through with their New Year’s resolution and manages to shed it again. A week of hard work and a slight calorie deficit should do the trick. Resolutions don’t come easier than that!
A wise person once said, “The toughest part of a diet isn’t watching what you eat. It’s watching what other people eat.” That really is the crux of the problem with dining out in public. When you’re surrounded by people who are consuming the equivalent of their body weight in fat grams, it’s really tough to stick to that chicken breast and steamed veggies. But if you have a game plan, you’re more likely to walk out with both a satisfied tummy and a satisfied mind. So spend a few minutes on researching, on eating, and on exercising beforehand, and be strong when you get there. The effort will be worth it, and you might even be an inspiration to your dining partner. What greater reward is there than that? Oh, yeah—a six-pack.