4 Easy Tips to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain

Do you want to avoid holiday weight gain this winter season?

Many of my clients have made significant progress on their health and fitness goals this year, and some are justifiably concerned about losing ground over the next month.

Here’s the good news: this study shows that holiday weight gain is often minimal – only 1-2 pounds or so. This amount of weight is pretty inconsequential overall, and doesn’t add up to the “average” 8-10 pounds that’s a holiday urban myth. It certainly doesn’t undo months (or years) of hard work.

But some dietitians point out that the deeper issue is that sometimes this weight sticks around, accumulating year after year. When “extra” weight doesn’t go away, it can contribute to health issues over time, and this can be more serious for people who are already struggling with weight-related health issues.

But for people like my clients, I think the more immediate question is, “Can I not gain any weight at all, or can I even still lose weight over the holidays? Can I still make progress on my fat loss goals even though there’s so much food around?”

I think yes. And I’ve got four tips for you.

Tip #1 Enjoy yourself mindfully

Focusing on weight loss has a few pitfalls. Sometimes, it’s easy to develop “food rules” or black-and-white thinking, like:

  • “Protein is good, carbs are bad.”
  • “I can’t eat sugar or I completely lose control of myself.”
  • “There are no healthy options at _________ (fill in the blank with your holiday gathering).”

In other words, if you can’t be perfectly on track, then you don’t have any plan at all, and the baby goes out with the bathwater.

Instead, I suggest mindful enjoyment of holidays. Instead of promising yourself that you won’t have sugar, choose the dessert (or small portions of desserts) that you really, really love. Indulge in the family favorites that mean something to you. Have that extra cookie!

But it’s important to remember that “mindfully enjoy” doesn’t at all mean “mindlessly overeat.” You can still help yourself stick with overall healthy eating by paying attention to how much of something you’re eating. Having the extra cookie at a family gathering is not the same thing as taking the cookie tin home with you and eating an extra 4 (or 10) cookies per day until you run out.

The key is to pay attention to overall food patterns, not demonizing a specific food (like sugar), and not putting yourself in helpless positions that predispose you to overeat.

Instead, including mindful enjoyment and positive re-framing of rich foods in your weight loss journey is an extremely powerful strategy that can help with weight loss overall! Small portions of favorite foods are incredibly satisfying, helping you feel more flexible and more “in control” in the big picture.

Tip #2: Don’t skip meals

It’s common for people to skip meals leading up to a holiday gathering, hoping to sort of “save up calories” and offset the overeating.

Sometimes, it might even happen unintentionally because it’s a busy day and you lose track of your schedule (and self-care needs).

Unfortunately, this tends to lead to overeating, which will lead to holiday weight gain. You can easily outpace your daily nutrition needs with one voracious meal. Counterintuitively, it’s easier to access self-control around food when you’re not as hungry. Hunger naturally increases cravings – especially for calorie-rich foods like desserts.

I highly recommend staying on a regular eating schedule (as much as possible) even when you know there’s going to be a rich meal. It’s possible to do some gentle compensating by slightly decreasing portions during other meals and snacks, especially from fat (for example, use a teaspoon of peanut butter in your breakfast smoothie that day instead of 1-2 tbsp). But the key word here is gentle – the goal should be to still hit appropriate meal targets so that you are not overly hungry.

You can also make slight adjustments to your eating routine if a large meal is at a strange time, like 3 or 4 PM. For example, you can make your lunch a snack, and then have your “dinner” at 3-4 PM for the holiday meal. Because these meals tend to be protracted over several hours, it’s likely you don’t need to eat again that night. You can swap things around to make sure that your needs are met.

But don’t starve yourself for a meal! It’s a strategy that’s sure to backfire.

Tip #3: Keep your exercise routine consistent, and your activity high

We often broadly say “the holidays,” but this is only a small part of the picture for the winter months. For several months, the days are shorter, the weather is colder, and it’s harder to get moving. What seemed easier during the summer can seem like an insurmountable challenge during the fall and winter.

Honestly, I think this movement issue (or lack of movement issue) is more impactful than a few holiday meals. If your metabolism is healthy, a few oversized meals won’t make any kind of dent in your overall health or weight. But removing 200-500 calories per day of movement certainly will.

Plus, there’s a gigantic mental health benefit to exercise, and it affects how we eat, too. When we exercise regularly, we’re more emotionally resilient, and our workouts also help to set the tone for the rest of our day. Unfortunately, when we exercise less, sometimes our healthy food habits decline as well.

My advice? Don’t over-focus on the holidays. Think instead about a winter and cold-weather game plan for keeping activity robust. What will you need to do differently to make sure you get in your steps each day, or achieve your workout goals? What challenges do you encounter during the winter months that you don’t face during the spring and summer? What affects you the most – the temperature, the dark mornings, the early sunsets…?

Creating intelligent workarounds for your biggest obstacles can significantly help to keep your goals moving.

Tip #4: Keep your regular nutrition routines on track

Finally, this one may sound obvious, but my last piece of advice is to keep up your healthy eating habits! Continue to do things like…

  • Meal prep and plan each week and each day
  • Eat lots of fruit and vegetables
  • Prioritize protein intake

It’s easy to focus on how to handle the “temptations” of the holidays (extra treats in the work lounge, more holiday parties, more alcohol, etc.). But this time of year, it can be far more helpful to use the mindset that I use with my clients all year long – addition instead of subtraction. Add more healthy habits and foods in, and don’t worry so much about subtracting the “bad” habits out.

Healthy eating habits are more than about weight loss – they constitute an important part of self-care. They also serve a critical role in mediating cravings and preventing overeating, because they strengthen your self-control overall. When you focus on adding, you don’t have to worry about subtracting, because all the healthy habits sort of “squeeze out” the other temptations.

For example, if you eat a protein-rich breakfast with fiber (picture an egg, cheese, and broccoli frittata like the one from my 28-Day Meal Prep Guide with a piece of toast and nut butter), you’ll roll into work with a full stomach and feel practically impervious to the cookies in the lounge. Yes, they’re there, and yes, they look tasty, but they don’t call to you like they do when your stomach is rumbling and your blood sugar is low. Then, if you stay hydrated all morning and power up with a yogurt you packed, you go to a work lunch feeling composed and ready to make a health-minded order with protein and veggies front and center (think: salmon over a quinoa and greens salad). Full from lunch, you’re again able to tune out the siren song of the cookies throughout the afternoon, and instead grab a decaf latte and a bag of nuts (that you packed from home) and feel satisfied and focused until dinner. Then, because you feel good, you have the wherewithal to cook the dinner that you planned in advance.

Contrast that with skipping breakfast and rushing to work with a coffee, crashing into the cookies mid-morning, overeating a carb-heavy work lunch, helping yourself to a few more cookies in the afternoon, and then picking up takeout on the way home because you cannot even imagine cooking (and you already “blew it” anyway, right?). Your blood sugar is haywire, your energy is low, and your cravings are high.

Healthy eating habits don’t just mean you’re eating “clean” and eating fewer calories – they truly help us to feel good. And when we feel good, we tend to make healthier choices overall, because we want to keep feeling good.

Keep your regular nutrition routines on track, and they will play a massive preventative role in helping to avoid holiday weight gain (or even helping with weight loss!).

But really…

Can you avoid holiday weight gain, or even lose weight over the holidays? Should you even try?

My answer is, yes, absolutely! But I certainly would allow for slower weight loss, or even a period of weight maintenance, rather than expecting to lose weight at your typical pace from previous months. But truly, if you apply the four tips I shared in this article, there is no reason why you couldn’t lose a few pounds over the month-long span between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Just give yourself grace that your weight loss pattern may be extremely non-linear, as you retain water and seem to “gain” a few pounds each time you have a holiday party or gathering. It may be a “two steps forward, one step back” pattern for several weeks, and making peace with that can help you stay on track overall.

So much of it comes down to mindset. Like I said earlier in this post, the key is not to completely collapse, and instead to take the holidays in stride.

Allow yourself to mindfully enjoy the things you truly love. Avoid under-eating and over-compensating. Keep your exercise and activity vigorous. Maintain your normal nutrition and self-care routines.

Want to create a game plan for handling the holidays in a healthy way? You can reach out to set up a consultation.

Rachel Trotta

I am a Certified Personal Trainer, Fitness Nutrition Specialist, Physique and Bodybuilding Specialist, and Women's Fitness Specialist. I live in New Jersey in the NYC metro area, and I coach clients online all over the world. As a trainer and health writer, my mission is to make healthy living sustainable for the average person. I’m also a wife, mom, nature lover, runner, avid cook, weightlifting aficionado, history nerd, travel addict, and obsessive podcast listener. Get in touch!

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