Avoiding holiday weight gain may sound as feasible as Santa fitting down billions of chimneys on Christmas Eve, but we promise there are logical strategies to stay on track. Many of us experience weight gain during the festive winter months, but packing on a few pounds in December is far from inevitable.
Don’t get us wrong: The holiday season is all about celebrating, togetherness, and indulging—in moderation. So pass the eggnog and let’s tackle navigating holiday food spreads, hectic schedules, and sidelined gym routines.
Tips for Eating and Drinking
1. Eat before drinking and celebrating.
Skipping breakfast or lunch in order to “save your appetite” probably isn’t the best weight-maintenance tactic. Leidy HJ, Lepping RJ, Savage CR. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 2011, May.;19(10):1930-739X. While the jury’s still out on how important breakfast truly is, not eating until the afternoon may lead to binging later on (read: four slices of pumpkin pie). Astbury NM, Taylor MA, Macdonald IA. The Journal of nutrition, 2011, May.;141(7):1541-6100. Our advice? Stick to a reasonably sized breakfast with plenty of protein, which will keep you fuller longer and temper the urge to stuff your face later.
2. Pick protein.
Like we just mentioned, protein can help maintain a healthy weight because high-protein diets are associated with greater satiety (bonus benefit: It’s important for healthy muscle growth). Clifton P. The British journal of nutrition, 2012, Dec.;108 Suppl 2():1475-2662. Make sure to serve up some turkey, roasted chicken, or prepare animal-free alternatives like quinoa, lentils, or beans.
3. Bring your own.
4. Eat and chew slowly.
Eating slowly may not be easy when appetizer options are endless, but it pays off to pace yourself. The quicker we eat, the less time the body has to register fullness. Kokkinos A, le Roux CW, Alexiadou K. The Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism, 2009, Oct.;95(1):1945-7197. Andrade AM, Greene GW, Melanson KJ. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2008, Jul.;108(7):0002-8223. Hollis JF, Gullion CM, Stevens VJ. American journal of preventive medicine, 2008, Sep.;35(2):0749-3797. So slow down and take a second to savor each bite of baked brie or scoop of spiced nuts.
5. Serve meals restaurant-style.
When you sit down for the main event, leave food in the kitchen (away from reach) rather than display a basket full of piping hot rolls, multiple casseroles, and an entire turkey directly on the table. When you’ve cleaned your plate, take a breather, and then decide if you really want seconds. Changing up the environment—in this case, by leaving food near the stove—can help reduce overall food intake. Cohen D, Farley TA. Preventing chronic disease, 2007, Dec.;5(1):1545-1151.
6. Fill up on fiber.
Snacking on vegetables and other high-fiber items like legumes can help keep us fuller, longer (though there’s always space for dessert). Howarth NC, Saltzman E, Roberts SB. Nutrition reviews, 2001, Jul.;59(5):0029-6643. Slavin JL. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 2005, Sep.;21(3):0899-9007. Give the vegetable platter a second chance with a healthy, tasty dip.
7. Use smaller plates.
Plate sizes have expanded significantly over the years. Wansink B, Wansink CS. International journal of obesity (2005), 2010, Mar.;34(5):1476-5497. Whenever possible, choose the smaller salad plate (8-10 inches) instead of a tray-like one (12 inches or more). Using smaller plates can actually make us feel fuller with less food. The brain associates a big on the plate with less food (and smaller plates generally require smaller portions). Herman CP, Polivy J. Physiology & behavior, 2005, Oct.;86(5):0031-9384.
8. Make room for (healthy) fats.
Cutting butter and oil can slash calories (and it’s easy to swap in foods like applesauce, avocado, banana, or flax into holiday baked goods!), but not all fats are bad fats. We need fat in our diets to provide and absorb the fat-soluble vitamins A, D, E, and K, fat helps us feel full.
Get healthy monounsaturated and polyunsaturated fats from avocadoes (hello, guacamole), nuts, and olive oil (in baked goods, on veggies, or in homemade dressings). Assunção ML, Ferreira HS, dos Santos AF. Lipids, 2009, May.;44(7):1558-9307. Bonus: Combining fat with fiber—like dipping veggies in guacamole— to increase fat’s power to make us feel full.
9. Ditch added sugar.
Holiday cookies, cakes, and pies are nothing short of tempting, but all that added sugar may increase the risk for cardiovascular disease and obesity. Welsh JA, Sharma A, Cunningham SA. Circulation, 2011, Jan.;123(3):1524-4539. Fulgoni V. The American journal of clinical nutrition, 2009, Jan.;88(6):1938-3207. Stick to sugar that comes in its natural form (fruits, veggies, and whole grains) and try small tastes of the desserts you’re truly craving rather than loading up a full plate of bland cookies. Schulze MB, Manson JE, Ludwig DS. JAMA, 2004, Aug.;292(8):1538-3598.
10. Sneak in the veggies.
Munching on vegetables has long been recognized as a way to protect against obesity. Ledoux TA, Hingle MD, Baranowski T. Obesity reviews : an official journal of the International Association for the Study of Obesity, 2011, May.;12(5):1467-789X. Mix puréed veggies (like pumpkin) into baked goods or casseroles, or sneak them into pasta or potato dishes. Adding veggies increases fiber, which helps make us fuller. Rasoamanana R, Even PC, Darcel N. Physiology & behavior, 2012, Dec.;110-111():1873-507X.
11. Just say no.
Though your relatives by shoving seconds onto a cleaned plate, it’s OK to respectfully decline. “I’m full” or “I’m taking a break” should be enough for friends and family members to back off (and give you time to decide if you’d really like more).
12. Wait before grabbing seconds.
Like we've mentioned, the quicker we eat a meal, the less time we give our bodies to register fullness. Kokkinos A, le Roux CW, Alexiadou K. The Journal of clinical endocrinology and metabolism, 2009, Oct.;95(1):1945-7197. Since it takes about for the brain to get the message that dinner’s been served, it’s best to go for a walk or chat with friends before dishing up seconds.
13. Take it easy on the white stuff.
Simple carbs are often the white stuff—white bread and refined sugars (like those in soda and candy). These foods , but often lack the same nutrients as (which are found in starchy foods, such as legumes, potatos, corn, and whole grains). While some simple carbs can be good for us (a.k.a the kind found in fruit and low fat dairy products), in general, the body breaks down more quickly than the complex kind, which creates a spike in blood sugar () that can leave us feeling hungrier, faster. Bessesen DH. The Journal of nutrition, 2001, Nov.;131(10):0022-3166. Stick to whole grains (whole-grain bread, brown rice, or quinoa) and stay full on healthy proteins (like we mentioned previously).
14. Invest in some toss-away tupperware.
Before guests leave you with half-full platters of food, have some Tupperware at the ready. Load up containers for friends and family to hand out as they leave. Bonus points for getting containers that are holiday-themed or for adding a festive bow to your parting gift.
15. Freeze it.
If you end up with loads of leftovers on your kitchen counter, pack up the extras and store them in the freezer for a later date. Studies show that when food is out of sight, you’ll be less likely to reach for a second helping. Ferriday D, Brunstrom JM. International journal of obesity (2005), 2010, Jun.;35(1):1476-5497. Maas J, de Ridder DT, de Vet E. Psychology & health, 2011, Jun.;27 Suppl 2():1476-8321.
16. Turn off the tube.
Though turning off the TV during any football game or family movie might feel like a sin, eating while watching television is linked to poor food choices and overeating. Pearson N, Ball K, Crawford D. The international journal of behavioral nutrition and physical activity, 2011, Mar.;8():1479-5868. Plus, getting sucked into It's a Wonderful Life or Elf may bring on mindless eating, since it can be easy to lose track of just how many chocolates or candies you've had. And it’s not just the mindlessness of watching television that’ll get us. for unhealthy foods and drinks may increase our desire for low-nutrient junk, fast food, and sugary beverages.
17. Chew gum.
Studies have conflicting results on whether chewing gum will actually help curb your appetite and lead to weight loss in the long run. Swoboda C, Temple JL. Eating behaviors, 2013, Feb.;14(2):1873-7358. Hetherington MM, Boyland E. Appetite, 2006, Nov.;48(3):0195-6663. However, in the short-term, chewing can keep you busy when socializing amongst a sea of hor d’ouevres or when you're full but still eyeing a second plate of dessert. Hetherington MM, Regan MF. Appetite, 2011, Jun.;57(2):1095-8304.
18. Turn your back on temptation.
The closer we are situated to food that’s in our line of vision, the more we’ll actually consume. Wansink B, Painter JE, Lee YK. International journal of obesity (2005), 2006, Dec.;30(5):0307-0565. A simple fix? Face away from the dessert spread to listen to cues from your gut rather than your eyes.
19. Beware of booze.
Not only does alcohol add unnecessary calories to your diet, but getting boozy has another effect on us, too. Drinking too much in the presence of champagne, eggnog, wine, and beer can make us lose our inhibitions around food and start . Take it easy with the bubbly before you start saying things like, "Eh, what's one more cookie?"
20. Cave in to cravings.
Finally, a suggestion we can all get behind. It’s smart to acknowledge a few cravings instead of pushing them away completely. to a craving—as long as it’s in moderation—can curb the desire to go at it like a kid in a candy store.
Forbidding a specific food or food group during the holiday season may only make it more attractive. Still want more of that apple pie after a couple of bites? Try thinking of your favorite holiday activity, like opening presents, watching Christmas movies, or playing in the snow. Research that daydreaming about pleasant activities or distracting yourself with just about any activity can reduce the intensity of food cravings. Knäuper B, Pillay R, Lacaille J. Appetite, 2011, May.;57(1):1095-8304.
21. Choose tall and thin.
When you’ve got a hankering for some seasonal eggnog, reach for a , not a short squatty one. Research people pour less liquid into tall glasses than into their vertically challenged counterparts. With a taller glass, you’re likely to down less in one sitting (which is especially helpful when drinking booze).
22. Gulp H2O
Drinking water helps people , and as a result consume fewer calories. Stookey JD, Constant F, Popkin BM. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 2008, Sep.;16(11):1930-7381. Rather than guzzling calorie- and sugar-laden sodas and juices (which are associated with increased body fat and blood pressure) treat yourself to a glass of wine with dinner and keep your allegiance to water for the rest of the day. Lin WT, Huang HL, Huang MC. International journal of obesity (2005), 2012, Aug.;37(4):1476-5497.
Tips for Moving and Mindset
to make ourselves feel better when we’re sad or anxious can interfere with weight loss goals. But meditation—using techniques like muscle relaxation, deep breathing, and mindfulness—can help binge eaters become aware of how they turn to food to deal with emotions. Blair AJ, Lewis VJ, Booth DA. Appetite, 1991, Feb.;15(2):0195-6663. This is especially important at parties where there’s a ton of food on display. Sojcher R, Gould Fogerite S, Perlman A. Explore (New York, N.Y.), 2013, Jan.;8(5):1878-7541.
24. Set realistic goals.
Come New Year’s resolution season, it’s easy to set lofty goals about weight loss (i.e. drop three dress sizes by February!). Linde JA, Jeffery RW, Levy RL. International journal of obesity (2005), 2005, Oct.;29(8):0307-0565. Since impractical targets can slow down long-term weight-loss, it’s important to address those before making any health and fitness changes. Wamsteker EW, Geenen R, Zelissen PM. Journal of the American Dietetic Association, 2010, Feb.;109(11):1878-3570. Write down your goals—keep them specific and attainable—and post them somewhere highly visible, like the refrigerator door. If your goal is “stick to two cookies at every holiday party” seeing it periodically may help you commit.
25. Stay positive.
Many of us demonize certain foods and even punish ourselves for indulgences. Instead, positive messages like “I can control my eating” or “I’m proud that I ate responsibly today” can reframe our relationship with food. Research shows positive expectations are associated with weight loss. Finch EA, Linde JA, Jeffery RW. Health psychology : official journal of the Division of Health Psychology, American Psychological Association, 2006, Apr.;24(6):0278-6133. Even if it feels a little silly, try telling yourself at least one positive affirmation per day.
The holiday season is full of cheer, but it can also be stressful keeping up with family get-togethers and paying for all those gifts. Unfortunately, a lot of stress can trigger and cravings, especially for sugary carbohydrates. Torres SJ, Nowson CA. Nutrition (Burbank, Los Angeles County, Calif.), 2007, Sep.;23(11-12):0899-9007. If family time (or being away from family during the holidays) has you feeling overwhelmed, try out one of these ways to reduce stress before downing hot chocolate and cookies.
27. Let go of limitations.
28. Get functional.
has been shown to increase strength and balance and reduce risk of injury, all while working multiple muscle groups at the same time. It also means you can squeeze in an effective mid-Christmas-movie-marathon workout in a shorter amount of time. Spennewyn KC. Journal of strength and conditioning research / National Strength & Conditioning Association, 2008, Apr.;22(1):1533-4287. All that movement promotes muscle gain, and over time, that can increase metabolism. Melanson EL, MacLean PS, Hill JO. Exercise and sport sciences reviews, 2010, Sep.;37(2):1538-3008.
29. Sleep smart.
Though there’s likely no stopping the urge to wake up early on Christmas morning, getting enough sleep can help shave off some pounds, since sleep loss is linked to changes in appetite. Knutson KL. Sleep medicine clinics, 2007, undefined.;2(2):1556-407X. Getting enough sleep has also been associated with less weight gain. Thomson CA, Morrow KL, Flatt SW. Obesity (Silver Spring, Md.), 2012, Mar.;20(7):1930-739X. Chaput JP, Després JP, Bouchard C. International journal of obesity (2005), 2011, Jun.;36(5):1476-5497. Practice good sleep hygiene, like turning off electronics in the bedroom and avoiding high-fat foods at night. Dollander M. L'Encéphale, 2003, Mar.;28(6 Pt 1):0013-7006. Basner M, Dinges DF. Sleep, 2009, Jul.;32(6):0161-8105.
30. Partner up.
Research suggests we perform better on aerobic tasks like running and cycling when exercising with a partner. Irwin BC, Scorniaenchi J, Kerr NL. Annals of behavioral medicine : a publication of the Society of Behavioral Medicine, 2013, Feb.;44(2):1532-4796. Feltz DL, Irwin B, Kerr N. Journal of diabetes science and technology, 2012, Jul.;6(4):1932-2968. If you’re home for the holidays, call up a friend or family member for a gym date or a home workout with our favorite partner exercises, including medicine ball lunge-to-chest passes, and clapping push-ups.
31. Move it and lose it.
A simple phrase for losing weight is to move more and eat less. The secret here—like we said before—is that moving doesn’t just mean hitting the track or going to the gym. Make a conscious decision to get more steps into the day by taking the stairs or parking the car far away from the grocery store entrance. Before curling up around the fire, round up family members for a hike or snowshoeing session.
Originally published December 2013. Updated November 2017.