Using a Diet Break to Maintain Health – and Sanity – Over the Holidays

Using a Diet Break to Maintain Health – and Sanity – Over the Holidays

I have a female client in her early 40’s – let’s call her Danielle. She started training with me in September with the goal of getting fitter and leaner, including accomplishing a modest 8-10 pound weight loss goal.

But of course, if you’re already on the leaner side, 10 pounds isn’t conservative at all – it can be quite a challenge to lose that fat when your body fat percentage is already in the top end of the healthy range.

Danielle was up for the challenge, though!

She’s pretty amazing. Since September, she’s whittled off about 5-6 pounds with consistent strength training, more activity, and a fresh approach to nutrition. She’s smart about it, doesn’t over-restrict, and has seen great physique results, going from about 25% body fat to about 21% (i.e. fit to very fit!).

But then… November hit.

I preemptively started the holiday season by sitting down with her and introducing the idea of taking a diet break and intentionally entering a maintenance phase – working on some strength goals and continuing her good habits, but reverse-dieting out of the caloric deficit and lower-carb approach with the goal of maintaining her weight.

But I saw her fall into a very familiar trap.

“Is it OK if we focus instead on losing a few more pounds?” she asked nervously.

I get it. It’s the worry of anyone who has lost weight (including myself) – regaining. If you’re not actively moving in the direction of weight loss, it feels like you’re going to slide naturally the other way, back into gaining, like there are only two choices.

So, against my better holiday judgment, I said: “Okay, let’s try it and see how it goes!”

Fast forward through a month of holiday get-togethers, office parties, and family celebrations.

Despite concerted efforts to continue losing fat, Danielle’s weight stayed pretty much exactly the same over the holidays, and doesn’t seem to be moving anywhere before Christmas.

Ironically, this is exactly what I wanted for her from a maintenance phase, and this was a success. She didn’t gain any weight, has gotten stronger, looks fantastic, and still exercises consistently despite a busy holiday schedule. In other words, she has ultimately struck a good balance with her healthy habits and the enjoyment of the holidays.

But the problem is that when diet breaks aren’t intentionally taken, something that could be considered an achievement could feel instead like a failure.

As Christmas has approached, Danielle and I have had to retroactively spend a lot of time talking about how to approach maintenance, and it’s been a process for her to accept where she is at the moment and how we’ll shape her goals in the spring. She has been able to re-define this experience as both as a learning curve and a success.

So I’m writing this post to you, readers, who have made progress you’re proud of this year, but aren’t sure how to handle the holidays. Let me tell you: you have more options than just gaining or losing. There’s something in the middle, too.

Let’s talk about how to maintain healthy habits over the holidays without sucking all the joy out of it!

The secret is the diet break.

The Diet Break

I’ve written about weight maintenance before, but more in the context of indefinite maintenance after accomplishing a weight loss goal. But today, I’m going to zero in on the idea of temporary maintenance as a break from active weight loss – hitting pause on the plan while something like a holiday or vacation happens.

Think of it as an intentional plateau. It’s the third option that we often forget about – there’s losing, there’s gaining, and then there’s maintaining.

Diet breaks, also known as maintenance phases or maintenance breaks, are often crucial for long-term success. They teach you how to maintain your weight, break your fear of re-gaining, and help you practice healthy habits without the pressure of actively losing weight.

In this blog post, I’m going to tell you first what a diet break is not, and then I’m going to tell you what it is, and how to approach it in a smart way.

Trust me: your goals will still be there in January.

What A Diet Break Isn’t

First, let’s clear this up. There are several things that a diet break is not, and when you know what it isn’t, you’ll be able to focus more accurately on what it is and how it will actually help you.

A Diet Break is Not a Season of Mindless Overeating

All of my clients have heard me say that one day or one meal of rich eating won’t undo months of good habits and healthful eating. But don’t misunderstand me: several weeks of mindless overeating could easily undo a few months of hard work. You shouldn’t have to dig yourself back out of a diet break.

A Diet Break Isn’t a Break from All Your Good Habits

Similarly, a diet break is only hitting “pause” on your caloric deficit, not a complete cessation of all good habits you’ve built up – especially exercise.

A Diet Break Isn’t Cheating On Your Medical Diet

If your doctor urges you to eliminate or reduce certain foods, a diet break isn’t the right time to indulge in those foods. Medical consequences – and having to work even harder in January to stabilize your numbers or just feel better again – simply aren’t worth it.

What a Diet Break Actually Is

A diet break is – simply put – taking the focus off of weight loss by increasing your calories into a maintenance zone. That’s it.

It’s not even a chance in how you eat – it’s just a change in how much you eat, and probably a slight change in what you’re eating (because we don’t eat gingerbread cookies or eggnog all year long!).

A diet break, or a maintenance phase, also signals a change in expectation. When you get on the scale, you don’t expect to see a lower number (as you hope when you’re losing weight). Instead, you’re comfortable seeing a number somewhere around where you left off every single time. You’ve engineered your own plateau, and you’re mentally and emotionally okay with it as part of the process.

To navigate the holiday season, here are four tips for implementing a diet break over the holidays, so that you can maintain a focus on your healthy habits without feeling deprived.

#1 Focus on maintaining exercise anyway.

Not only is it good for your health in general, but maintaining your exercise habit has three important behavioral benefits:

  • You won’t have to work hard to re-form your exercise habits in the new year. Instead of “falling off the wagon” and struggling to get back on, your exercise habits will remain a fixed constant when a lot of other parts of your routine and lifestyle are thrown off schedule (including your eating). It’s far easier to maintain a habit than to start a habit – invest in the maintenance of your exercise habit by showing up for it consistently! It will be so much easier that way.
  • Exercise puts you in a more positive, health-minded mental state each day. Have you ever noticed that when you exercise more regularly, you eat better, too? Many of my clients find that healthy habits tend to encourage other healthy habits. Hitting the gym in the morning may encourage you to reach for a high-protein yogurt instead of skipping breakfast, because you’ve motivated yourself to make healthier choices and invest time and energy in your well-being.
  • Exercise helps you to sleep better and automatically regulates your appetite. Having a consistent exercise habit greatly helps with appetite regulation – in other words, you experience fewer cravings and have improved self-control. This is partly because moderate exercise is also associated with superior sleep, and when we’re well-rested it’s easier to feel in full control. But it also happens because exercise temporarily decreases the presence of the hunger hormone, ghrelin, and increases the production of the fullness hormone, leptin. This means that after your morning workout, you’ll have the presence of mind to plan your food for the day because you won’t feel anxiously snacky.
#2 Focus on food quality.

Sure, you’re likely going to be eating more foods that are rich in fat, sugar, salt, and starch.

But the holidays are a great time to focus on what you are eating, instead of what you aren’t.

In the midst of holiday merriment, make sure to get plenty:

  • Protein, which will help to satisfy your appetite and maintain lean muscle with your workouts. Get protein at every meal through whole foods sources like lean meats, dairy, eggs, legumes/beans, and tofu. Try to avoid getting most of your protein from supplemental sources like protein powders or power bars.
  • Fiber, which will also help you to feel fuller and experiences fewer cravings. It will also help to move your digestion along and help you feel better, too. Eat plenty of fiber at every meal through whole grains, nuts, seeds, legumes/beans, fruit, and vegetables.
  • Healthy fats, which help you feel fuller longer and also improve brain function and your mood. Try to have one source of a healthy fat at every meal, from sources like extra virgin olive oil, avocados, nuts, seeds, or fatty fish.

Don’t sweat the small stuff, but take steps to ensure that you continue to eat what does matter – protein, fiber, and healthy fats at every meal.

#3 Continue good food habits, including smart portion control and reduction of unhealthy fat.

Again, a diet break isn’t a break-up with all of your good habits.

If certain portion control strategies have been working well for you all year, why would you stop during the holidays?

Continue to wisely implement strategies that help to manage portions, especially of foods that are easy to overeat. You can do things like:

  • Keep your grocery shopping habits the same, as well as what foods you keep around your house on a regular basis.
  • Use a measuring cup or spoon for rich foods.
  • Put junky snacks, like baked cookies or desserts, in opaque containers out of sight, rather than leaving them out on the kitchen counter.
  • If you track calories, it’s not a bad idea to use this strategy to hit your new maintenance calorie goal, and stay aware of the caloric content of rich foods (which are extremely easy to mentally discount if you’re not keeping track!).
  • Avoid snacking at night in front of the TV, or use healthy replacement snacks like Greek yogurt or cut raw vegetables or rice cakes.

Again, a few cookies over the holidays aren’t going to undo months of hard work. But it’s amazing what just a few weeks of unbridled snacking can undo. You won’t be worried about maintenance – you’ll be trying to dig yourself out of re-gained weight once the holidays are over.

And finally…

#4 Focus on de-stressing by prioritizing rest, healthy connection, and me-time.

The holidays are notorious for being rushed and almost frenetic – especially for moms.

It can be easy to neglect rest, because if you take a break, who’s making all the holiday magic happen?

But trust me – taking 20 minutes to go for a walk to clear your head will not bring Christmas crashing down. A nap, a coffee with a friend, a workout, or indulging in a few minutes of reading is likely to improve your time management, not take away from your productivity.

This is incredibly important, because I often see healthy habits sacrificed on the altar of serving others. What people don’t often see is that if they can make time for themselves, they usually do an even better job of taking care of the people they love.

So take that time for yourself, guilt-free!

If you can put the focus on exercise, the quality of your food, your eating habits, and taking adequate rest, you won’t have to worry about what a few extra cookies (or glasses of wine) will do to your waistline. Instead, you can relax and enjoy the holidays, knowing that you are in full control of your health and that fresh goals will be there for you in January!