8 Strategies for Avoiding Holiday Weight Gain

Holiday weight gain is real, but may not be as bad as you think.

It’s the most wonderful (er, unhealthy) time of the year. But honestly, the effects of holiday indulgences — particularly in regard to weight gain — tend to be a little overblown.

In fact, a study published in The New England Journal of Medicine found that the average American gains 1.3 pounds in the 10 days following Christmas. A previous study found that the average person only gains 0.8 pounds between mid-November to early or mid-January. Either way, that’s well less than the 5 pounds the Internet generally warns you about.

And how much of that is actually fat? Consider these points:

— Gaining a pound of fat requires eating more than 3,500 calories above and beyond how many you burn (generally about 2,000 per day).

— The study found that people tend to lose about half of that poundage immediately after the holidays.

In any event, it’s fair to say that the weight most Americans gain over the holidays is only a fraction of what most folks are usually led to believe.

Most of the weight comes off again quickly, but some usually lingers.

The rest of the holiday bloat is really due to water retention. This results from “a significant increase in sodium intake, as well as overall increased food consumption as a whole,” says Laura Bishop-Simo, a registered dietitian at the Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center in Columbus.

After all, when you drastically increase your intake of carbs — in the form of cookies, sugary cocktails and potatoes prepared in every way imaginable — your body stores much of it as glycogen, a fast-acting energy source, explains Wesley Delbridge, a registered dietitian nutritionist and school nutrition expert based in Phoenix. Every glycogen molecule hoards water.

However, one pitfall to that weight gain is that many people don’t lose all of it, Bishop-Simo says. “Although 1 to 2 pounds doesn’t seem like a lot, most people lose only a portion, or none, of what they gained during the holiday season. That doesn’t seem like a big deal in the moment, but added up year after year, that small weight gain becomes significant over time.”

Strategies for keeping holiday weight gain to a minimum

So, that said, how should you approach all of the holiday parties, buffet tables and family gatherings? Follow these eight easy and completely sane strategies this holiday season — and straight through the new year.

1. Make your indulgences intentional.

It’s not so much feasting on one enormous Christmas dinner that contributes to weight gain. It’s munching on toffee during a work meeting and mindlessly chain-eating chocolate-covered pretzels at a holiday party (no one likes to have their hands empty), Delbridge says.

Distracted, mindless eating not only equates to consuming more food than you realize, it tends to leave you pretty unsatisfied. The result: you’ll eat even more later.

Rather than grazing on sugar every time a cookie catches your eye, mindfully eat the foods that are most important to you during the holidays, and leave the rest. When you indulge in your grandma’s famous pecan pie, for instance, slow down and savor it, he says. You’ll it enjoy it more that way and will actually consume far fewer calories when the holidays are said and done.

2. Stay sober-ish.

Many seasonal beverages are high in sugar and calories. You don’t have to be a teetotaler this holiday season, but it’s wise not to live on bubbly and hot toddies either.

Treat your wine like any other indulgence and head into that holiday party with a plan as to how many glasses you will have. And also be aware that when you’re intoxicated, it can be harder to resist temptation; the more wine you drink the more likely you are to overindulge in the plethora of treats available during the holidays.

3. Emphasize good sleep.

The holidays are a super busy time for everyone, and with evening parties and weekend plans, your regular routine will likely be disrupted. For many folks, this means less sleep than usual, but not getting enough shuteye can make it more difficult to fend off those excess pounds, says Mia Syn, a registered dietitian based in Charleston, South Carolina.

“Sleep deprivation can contribute to weight gain during the holidays. When you don’t get enough sleep, your hunger hormones are elevated,” she says, which can make you crave food and consume more calories throughout the day. This coupled with the fact that many of the foods you’re faced with during the holidays are nostalgic comfort foods that “can be calorically dense and higher in hyperpalatable ingredients like fat, added sugar and sodium” makes it that much easier to overindulge.

4. Prioritize movement.

Between travel, crazy long to-do lists and often abbreviated gym hours around the holidays, it’s important to integrate movement — even if it’s not structured “exercise” — into your days. Physical activity does more than keep holiday weight gain at bay. It promotes proper digestion to keep you feeling your best (despite any junk you’re putting in your body) as well as mediates stress levels, which tend to be at an all-time high this time of year, says New York-based fitness expert Erin Stutland. Stress is one of the biggest threats to good health and on its own can increase fat retention, particularly around the waistline, she explains.

Try walking around your neighborhood with your family to check out holiday lights. (Walking outside significantly boosts energy and mood, according to recent research in Environmental Science and Technology.) And don’t write off any laps around the mall that you’ve taken shopping for gifts; carrying heavy shopping bags also counts as physical activity.

5. Plan ahead.

Dr. Andrew M. Freeman, director of clinical cardiology and director of cardiovascular prevention and wellness with National Jewish Health in Denver, says, “I think most people know and plan that they’re going to gain weight over the holidays. But it doesn’t have to be that way.”

Also the founding immediate past chair of the American College of Cardiology’s nutrition and lifestyle work group, Freeman says that with a little strategizing, you can avoid most of the pitfalls that can lead to weight gain. “What I usually tell people, especially when they’re visiting other people or going to another family’s house is to bring your own dish,” such as a veggie tray with hummus or a light and healthy fruit salad for dessert.

He adds that it’s best to opt for “something made out of plants instead of the animal products,” as plant-based foods tend to have fewer calories, fat, sugar and salt than conventional holiday meal options. “You could eat a room full of cucumbers and lettuce and have very few calories, but lots of nutrients and good stuff. Whereas if you eat just a little candy, you can end up with hundreds or thousands of calories.”

Syn also recommends avoiding arriving at a party or gathering hungry by “eating before a party or big holiday meal with a small meal or snack centered around protein and fiber like hummus and veggies, yogurt and fruit or whole grain toast and peanut butter. This will not only help ensure you get in quality nutrients before a more indulgent holiday meal, but also help take the edge off of hunger and make you less likely to overeat.”

Bishop-Simo adds that when you do enjoy a meal with family or friends during the holidays, “avoid double servings and offer to bring a healthy side to a meal that you know you can fill up on more than other foods.” She also recommends avoiding watching TV or playing with electronics while eating so you can be more present to savor the foods you’re eating and help prevent overindulging.

6. Drink plenty of water.

Freeman notes that staying hydrated can sometimes help fend off the impulse to overindulge. “I recommend drinking a fair amount of water — provided your doctor is not restricting it for some reason, such as if you have heart failure — before you eat so that way, your stomach is a little bit full of water,” he says. “Water has no calories,” but it will limit the space in your stomach for heavier foods and treats.

7. Avoid ‘overcorrecting.’

After overdoing it on sugar, fat or anything else, it’s important to get back into your “regular” balanced eating routine rather than diving headfirst into a cleanse or other extreme weight-loss strategy, Delbridge says. Your body is well-equipped to do any and all detoxing on its own, and extremely low-cal diets, juice fasts and elimination diets can deprive your body of necessary nutrients, result in muscle wasting and actually slow down your metabolism, he says.

Psychologically, alternating from holiday indulgences and cleanses fosters an unhealthy relationship with food and your body, which can contribute to weight regain and disordered eating.

8. Take a deep breath and savor the holidays.

“Enjoy yourself. Try to carve out some time with some people you love. It’s one time of year that almost everyone around the world gets an opportunity to slow down just a bit for a few days,” Stutland says. “Taking time to appreciate your life and give gratitude for what you have and the people in it is one of the healthiest things we can do for our mind and body.” So, what if that involves a glass of eggnog?

“No food is bad during the holidays,” Bishop-Simo notes. “It’s how much of them that’s eaten that causes the weight gain.”

8 Strategies for Avoiding Holiday Weight Gain

— Make your indulgences intentional.

— Stay sober-ish.

— Emphasize good sleep.

— Prioritize movement.

— Plan ahead.

— Drink plenty of water.

— Avoid ‘overcorrecting.’

— Take a deep breath and savor the holidays.

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8 Strategies for Avoiding Holiday Weight Gain originally appeared on usnews.com

Update 11/03/21: This story was previously published at an earlier date and has been updated with new information.

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