he Thanksgiving-to-New Year’s holiday season can be a fun time of celebrating with friends and family . . . but if you’re not careful, it can turn into a 5-week festival of overeating, too. Not only is this period associated with heavy winter comfort foods, but seasonal treats and big holiday meals can be a minefield for people trying to stick to a fitness plan. It’s no wonder so many people end up dieting in January just to make up for their recent excesses.
But as someone committed to gaining and maintaining a fit body, you should know that it is possible to enjoy the season without feeling deprived or looking like a party pooper. Follow these tips, and you can have a fun time and maintain your weight—or end up even leaner than before.
1. Forget the preemptive diet. A new British study found that lots of women crash-diet before the holidays in the expectation that they’ll overindulge during the season itself. But your goal should be to learn healthy eating habits that you can stick with over the long term, not to lose weight now just so you can gain it back later. That’s likely to lead to a yo-yo dieting cycle, which could lower your metabolism and make fat loss more difficult than ever. Instead, make the decision now that you’ll eat reasonable portions later (even on Thanksgiving), and you won’t have anything to make up for.
2. Stick to your workout program—or start one. We recently gave you some tips on how to keep up with your fitness plan over the holidays. (See “Stay Fit This Holiday Season” in the Related Articles section below.) Here’s another reason why you should: Exercise and eating right go hand in hand. When you’re working out, the food you eat goes toward energy and muscle, not fat. And you’ll naturally want to eat foods that fuel your body, instead of junk that detracts from your performance. And if you do indulge in occasional treats, your regular workouts will help prevent them from doing much damage.
3. Be careful with comfort foods. When it’s cold outside, you may be tempted to cocoon indoors with hot, hearty meals and snacks. This isn’t necessarily a problem if you make fitness-friendly choices. (Check out our guides to high-protein winter stews and healthy hot drinks.) But if lousy weather or a lack of sunshine makes you crave carb-heavy dishes, prepare them with healthier carbs such as root vegetables and whole grains, not macaroni or mashed-potato flakes. And make them part of a balanced meal, not the whole thing.
4. Moderate your treats. More than any other time of year, the holiday season is associated with lots of “special” foods—turkey and stuffing, pumpkin pie, candied yams, green-bean casserole, latkes, Christmas cookies, etc. Some of these would put you way off your food plan, even if you managed not to stuff yourself the way so many people do. But others are just fine when eaten in moderation, or can be made much healthier—in fact, you couldn’t do much better than a meal of turkey, baked yams, and fresh green beans. (And you can make Pumpkin Pie Shakeology® a daily habit.)
5. Plan ahead for parties. Cocktail parties can be the downfall of any food plan, but they don’t have to be. First, if you’re expecting to be served treats or hors d’oeuvres instead of healthful food, have a protein-rich snack before you go. It’ll prevent you from gobbling up appetizers or sweets out of sheer hunger, and will help keep your blood sugar steady even if you do have a few cookies or crab puffs. If there’s a buffet, watch your portions carefully; it’s easy to pile on the food, especially if there are a lot of choices you want to try. And if it’s a potluck, bring along a dish that’s both tasty and healthful—it’ll guarantee there’s something good for you to eat, and others will probably appreciate it, too.
6. Don’t stress out. A recent study at the University of California, San Francisco, confirms what you already know: You’re more likely to eat high-calorie comfort foods when you’re under chronic stress. And the holidays can be a perfect storm of stressful conditions and sweet treat availability.
You probably can’t avoid the annoyances that come with too little time or money, holiday crowds, or lengthy family get-togethers, but you can keep them from getting you down. If you’re working out regularly, you already have a leg up on the average person, because exercise helps reduce tension and create an upbeat mood. Help yourself even more by doing something relaxing for a few minutes each day, whether it’s yoga, meditation, or simply listening to calming music. And if you do start feeling stressed, stop for a few seconds and take slow, deep breaths instead of reaching for an extra snack.
7. Don’t abuse the booze. Yes, a glass of wine or champagne can be a nice way to celebrate the season, and it’s pretty much obligatory on New Year’s Eve. But too much drinking has all kinds of negative effects: extra calories (which your body will burn while storing carbohydrates), lowered inhibitions (which can lead to overeating, or behavior that will require an apology later on), and a feeling of sluggishness or worse the next day that can derail your fitness plan. As long as you’re an adult and don’t have problems with alcohol, an occasional drink or two is fine—but if your cheeks regularly get as red as Santa’s, eventually your belly will resemble his, too.
8. Avoid the food-gift trap. You could stay away from heavy sweets all year and still find it hard to resist grandma’s special fudge, even if the box contains 2 full days’ worth of calories and enough sugar to fuel an army of hummingbirds. So what should you do with food gifts? Store-bought baskets of fatty sausages and “cheese food” are fine to regift (or donate to a food bank), but homemade goodies are trickier. You’ll have to be polite and enjoy a little, preferably in the giver’s presence. Man Eating PastaLeave the rest out for the family to share, or bring it to work (where it’ll probably be devoured quickly). If it’s a treat you really love, divide it into small pieces and freeze them in individual baggies, so you won’t be tempted to eat it all at once.
9. Give yourself a break. If you do overindulge at some point, don’t beat yourself up about it, or decide to give up entirely and start over in January. As long as you have a consistent fitness program, you’re unlikely to lose the progress you’ve made. Just Keep Pushing Play every day, go back to your food plan, and look forward to your healthiest holidays ever.