One of the most common questions I hear this time of year is “How do I prevent weight gain over the holidays?” The “weight gain season” is typically associated with the time period from Thanksgiving—New Year’s. The answer is rather simple but for many, difficult to achieve. You must better balance the calories you consume with the calories you burn. This misbalance of calories occurs year after year for several reasons.
1) During the colder months, people tend to become less active. Weight gain can occur if you are not burning extra calories through exercise yet continue to eat the same amount of calories as before.
2) People also tend to consume more calories, primarily from rich, high-calorie and high-carbohydrate menu items that are associated with the winter months and holidays such as casseroles, spaghetti, mashed potatoes, dressing and sweets.
3) With the holiday season comes increased social interactions and more opportunities for non-homeostatic eating to occur. What this basically means is that we are more likely to eat in the absence of hunger in social settings. Think about the last party you went to and how much grazing on appetizers and desserts occurred while deep in conversation with friends or family.
Year after year, this pattern of decreased activity and increased caloric intake can attribute to weight gain over the lifetime. In fact, many studies have shown that more weight is gained over the holiday season (mid-November through mid-January) over any other time during the year. Researchers in the New England Journal of Medicine found that 52% of annual weight gain occurs over the holiday 6-week period (just 12% of the year).
The next most common question I hear is, “What are some low-fat or low-calorie desserts I can make?” Yes, I completely agree that desserts are a source of unneeded calories, but this is where I side differently than other health professionals in my field. As a sugar-aholic myself, I don’t like my desserts to be messed with; I love them for all their high-sugar, high-calorie glory! Thanksgiving is the one time every year that I get my Aunt’s apple pie. But this is where I understand my habits are different than others; I do have the discipline to turn down some desserts and then allow myself to indulge in others. Plus, I do not believe that replacing more natural ingredients with chemicals (mainly sugar-substitutes) makes a dessert any healthier for you (other than the fact that it may be lower in calories than the original version). This sets the tone of why my holiday eating advice targets balancing calories better rather than finding low-calorie substitutes for holiday favorites.*
- Don’t skip meals. Many of us will often skip a meal or two in efforts to balance out calories consumed at a holiday meal/social gathering. Skipping meals can trigger your metabolism to slow down and can throw off your hunger/satiety hormones. This can lead to excessive eating and eating beyond the point of actually feeling full.
- Do choose lower calorie menu items more often. For breakfast on days I know I will be going to a holiday party, I make a big veggie omelet. The protein and fat from the eggs help keep me full between my meals and the veggies help fill me up without adding a ton of calories.
- Put your appetizers on a plate. Often we converse around the appetizer and dessert displays. When you’re lost in conversation you often mindlessly munch on the food in front of you and may find yourself thinking, “is this my 5th or 9th chocolate covered pretzel I’ve consumed?” Putting your food on a small plate can help you better track how much you have munched on.
- Make exercise a priority. With the hustle and bustle of the holidays, we often sacrifice our workouts for shopping and social occasions. If you don’t have a gym membership, purchasing some home equipment is a great investment in your health. If this is out of your budget, then take advantage of walking at the mall or large department stores such as Menards, Lowe’s or even Walmart.
- Focus on quality. Have you ever consumed a menu item or dessert that really didn’t taste that good but you finished it anyway? To avoid feelings of guilt after eating poor-tasting foods, focus on the flavors of your food. This happens a lot with desserts for me. If after one bite, the flavors just aren’t working out for you, then immediately throw the rest away or cover with a small napkin if you don’t want to hurt anyone’s feelings.
*These tips are geared toward the general population. For individuals with specific conditions, it is medically necessary to control sugar and nutrient intake with holiday selections.