If you’re like most people, you look ahead at holiday eating with a mix of glee and a healthy dose of dread. You’ve been nailing your nutrition and training and want to ride that wave all the way into the New Year.
Aside from turning down invitations and holing up with your steak and broccoli, what can you do to enjoy the holidays while eliminating the damage?
Here are ten tips for avoiding the most harmful mistakes so that you can maintain your body composition and you sanity throughout the holidays.
#1: Fat Gain Is Not A Given: Avoid The “What The Hell Mindset”
A big assumption in our society is that you will gain fat over the holidays. This contributes to the “what the hell” mindset in which people binge for six weeks straight.
In fact, fat gain is not a given! In a 2012 study of 34 men and women ranging in age from 23 to 61, four subjects gained more than 5 pounds over the six weeks spanning the holidays. However, when the average was calculated, there was no change in body fat for the group, showing that the majority stayed the same or decreased body weight (1).
A second study found that obesity level predicted fat gain (2). That is, the more body fat an individual had prior to the holidays, the more fat they gained during the holiday season, whereas leaner individuals stayed leaner, suggesting that weight gain is more about individual habits (such as a tendency to overeat or a sedentary lifestyle) than greater exposure to indulgent, high-calorie foods.
Bottom Line: You have complete power to avoid the “what the hell” mindset in which you assume you’re going to gain fat over the holidays! Abandoning all self restraint is like saying “oh well, I have one flat tire. Let me just slash the other three!”
#2: Maintain Your Training
A side effect of the “what the hell” mindset is that people abandon their workouts. Now, it’s definitely not a good idea to think you’re going to be able to out-exercise six weeks of dietary excess, but maintaining your training has a number of indispensible benefits:
First, it preserves muscle mass for a higher metabolic rate. This is a deal breaker: One study found that even though body weight was unchanged over the holidays, college students gained an average 1.5 pounds of body fat but lost about a pound of muscle. Body fat percentage increased by 1.1 percent.
Second, ditching your training during the holidays leads to significant detraining: You can lose almost all of your conditioning with 6 weeks of inactivity, and strength and power will also be reduced.
Bottom Line: Find a gym when out of town and reschedule workouts that you have to miss due to traveling, holiday closures, or other commitments. At the least, do body weight exercises at home and focus on staying active.
#3: Do Sprint Intervals
Sprint training is the perfect form of damage control during the holidays. Sprints are a super energy burning exercise, torching calories during training and triggering a large afterburn so that you use calories at an elevated rate during the 24-hour recovery period. Sprints have an appetite-suppressing effect and they use up a lot of glycogen—the storage form of carbohydrate—which fuel your muscles during intense exercise. Finally, sprints increase insulin sensitivity and raise fat burning enzymes so your body is better able to burn fat for fuel.
Bottom Line: Cycle sprints of 30 seconds on and 30 seconds rest are a great place to start on gym days. If you can’t make it to the gym, try hill or stair running. Do intervals of 30 seconds and then jog back down slowly, rest for 30 seconds, and repeat.
#4: Fill Up On Lean Proteins
Once a year, it’s fine to indulge in your favorite treats, but hitting a party with an empty stomach is a recipe for overeating. Lean protein is your best friend during the holidays because it will dull your appetite (the gut releases hunger-reducing hormones in response to high-protein foods) and the calories get used to repair damaged tissue instead of being stored as fat.
Bottom Line: Holiday meals always feature high-quality proteins—use this to your advantage by enjoying these satiating foods prior to indulging in your favorite holiday treats.
#5: Fill Up On Veggies
Vegetables are low in energy but high in fiber and water, which makes them great for managing your appetite. They also provide antioxidants that help the body to eliminate any toxins you may ingest from alcohol or junk food. Finally, making the habit of filling your plate with veggies sets you up for continued nutrition success as you head into the New Year.
Bottom Line: Most holiday get togethers will have a raw veggie plate or a big salad, but you can also bring one to share. Everyone will thank you for the healthy option!
#6: Don't Randomly Skip Meals
Random meal skipping and “saving your calories” tends to backfire if you do it repeatedly. Although some form of intermittent fasting can be a useful for tool for dealing with holiday excess, the lack of structure of haphazardly skipping meals often results in a pattern of overeating that can pack on the pounds.
Bottom Line: Organized fasting can be a great tool because it increases insulin sensitivity and fat burning, but watch out for signs that it is backfiring on you. Intense hunger, cravings, or constantly thinking about food are key indicators that fasting is not a good choice.
#7: Stay Hydrated
Drinking extra water has the double benefit of blunting appetite (one study found that people reduced energy intake by 200 calories when they drank more water) and helping your system flush the effects of any overindulgence after the celebrating.
Bottom Line: Shoot for 3 liters of water a day, drinking at regular intervals. By noon, you should have at least half of your daily water quota consumed.
#8: Mentally Prepare Yourself In Advance For Parties
Take a little time prior to a big fiesta to think through how you want to approach the celebration. Cutting loose once a year is no big deal as long as you’re prepared to deal with the consequences. But if you have a slew of get togethers, you need to figure out a way of partying that leaves you guilt and hang over free.
Decide in advance if you’re going to have cocktails. If so how many? If not, what will you drink instead?
Figure out which indulgent foods you want to try in advance. One trick is to rate all holiday foods from 1 to 10, with 10 being your favorite. Eat only the 9s and 10s, leaving out all the rest. And remember that protein and veggies are go-to foods to start every meal with.
Bottom Line: You’re in complete control of what you put in your mouth. No one ever ate anything by accident!
#9: Try Mindfulness To Deal With Holiday Stress
It may sound cliché, but mindfulness techniques such as deep breathing or simply paying attention to what and how much food you put on your plate have been shown to lower the stress response and reduce appetite.
Bottom Line: Although it won’t give you that jolt of pleasure that comes from a liberally poured cocktail, being in the moment appears to be more effective for lowering your stress response.
#10: Focus On Seeing Friends & Loved Ones Instead Of On Food
The holidays are a time of year to connect with the people you love. Shift your focus onto enjoying friends and family. Think of food as just a tasty and pleasurable backdrop to family time. Enjoy it, but don’t let it take the focus of your holiday.
Bottom Line: By using habits to take care of yourself so that stress and hunger don’t become a dominant theme, you’re better able to focus on enjoying the season without guilt or negative thoughts about your body.