Holiday weight gain is perhaps inevitible for most of us.
Something about the colder/darker days, the abundance of comfort foods, the celebratory get-togethers, and the wind-down of the year makes it a perfect opportunity to put diet and exercise on the back burner.
And you know the drill once January rolls around: Swear to throw the rest of grandma’s trifle away, dust off that old pair of cross trainers, and start working on “the new you.”
It’s such a cliché, but even I do this in some form or another after every holiday season.
There’s no shame in wanting to indulge and enjoy the holidays while they last.
I don’t think it’s all that practical to stick to an extremely rigid diet and exercise regimen hardly ever, but this seems to be ESPECIALLY true during the holidays.
You’re going to eat more than normal.
You’re going to drink more than normal.
You’re going to choose to sleep in or get your shopping done or go to a holiday party or sit on the couch and watch your favourite Christmas movie instead of getting your workout in.
I think it’s important to accept these types of things rather than try to resist them, because all that resistance is going to do is make you more miserable.
Besides, holiday weight gain is actually a lot less dramatic than you might assume—at least when you consider it as a general trend among Westerners.
The Science Behind Holiday Weight Gain
It turns out that holiday weight gain is very real, according to research.
In a 2017 study, it was discovered that adults had a tendency to gain anywhere from about 0.5 to 2 lbs from the last week of November up to the first or second week of January — even amongst people who were struggling with their weight and were actively trying to lose or maintain their weight.
Other research tells us that most people tend to lose their holiday weight gain after the holidays anyway.
Despite this, people on average tend to hold onto a little less than a pound (0.8 lbs to be exact) gained from the holidays, even after the post-holiday weight drop.
It also turns out that holiday weight gain is a worldwide trend — even in countries like Japan.
So what does this tell us?
Well, I think there are a few main takeaways here:
- Holiday weight gain is not as dramatic as you might think. It’s HIGHLY unlikely you’re going to gain 5 to 10 pounds of fat in just 5 to 7 weeks.
- Holiday weight gain is fairly common for almost everybody.
- Much of the average person’s holiday weight gain is probably water weight since it tends to come off relatively naturally after the holidays.
Regardless of what the research says, every person’s experience with how the holidays affect their eating habits, exercise habits, and stress levels is different.
Honestly, I think the worst part isn’t the actual weight gain — it’s that feeling of being constantly bloated, sluggish, and overall unbalanced.
When you overeat on foods that are high in fat and simple carbs, and you don’t exercise very much, it’s very easy to feel unhappy, stressed, anxious, and even depressed.
Your sleep suffers.
You’re less alert in the morning.
You can’t focus very well at work.
Maybe you even have more aches and pains throughout your body.
Just a few days of too much indulgence can have these kinds of effects.
So instead of waiting until after New Year’s to recover and work on damage control, let’s minimize it.
Here are 25 practical things you can do.
1. Fix your sleep schedule.
Lack of sleep is scientifically linked to weight gain.
When you’re running low on sleep, the hormones that regulate your appetite and your brain’s reward system are disrupted, putting you at a higher risk of making poor decisions about food.
Make sure you check out my previous blog post on how to reset your sleep schedule naturally and effectively.
2. Do more strength training (and less cardio).
You might think that you can compensate for the extra calories you’re bound to eat this holiday season by spending an extra 20 minutes, half hour, or full hour on the elliptical/treadmill/stepper/whatever.
Don’t fall for this myth.
Longer periods of cardio at a moderate intensity might seem to burn more calories while you’re actually working out, but it pretty much stops there.
Worse, as your body adapts to all that cardio, you’ll need to go longer and ramp up the intensity to keep burning the same amount of calories.
Doing this can upset your hunger hormones, making it harder for you to resist cravings and more likely to binge.
Strength training, on the other hand, breaks down the muscle AND gives you a cardio effect at the same time (if you lift heavy enough).
This breakdown of muscle leads to an after-burn effect, which means you keep burning calories for up to 48 hours after you stop strength training.
Broken down muscles also need to repair themselves, which is the perfect opportunity to fuel up on lean sources of protein and complex carbs post-workout.
So by focusing more on strength and less on cardio, you get to burn more calories at rest, eat more as part of the recovery process, and build lean muscle over the long-run — which will only help boost your metabolism even more.
3. Get your holiday shopping done early.
Are you a last-minute Christmas shopper?
I’m not one to judge because I have a history of being one myself, but I can tell you right now that procrastinating on checking off all the items from your list is probably pretty bad for your stress levels.
And of course more stress equals less control over your eating habits — especially with the abundance of treats found everywhere during this time of year.
Don’t be that person who finds themselves sitting at their laptop, frantically adding everything to their Amazon shopping cart a mere week before Christmas while simultaneously gorging yourself on a tin of Quality Street chocolates because you’re worried about what you’ll have to pay for Express shipping.
4. Get your shopping done at a mall for extra activity points.
Speaking of shopping, now is a perfect opportunity to hit up the malls.
I know, I know — malls are basically dead now thanks to the ease and convenience of online shopping, but while they’re still around, why not take advantage of them?
It’s a great excuse to do a lot of walking and you’ll have peace of mind by being able to physically pick out the items you want to give as gifts.
The average person who weights 140 to 160 lbs can burn about 225 calories per hour walking at a moderate pace (about three miles per hour).
I recommend going early in the day — as soon as the malls open — if you want to beat the worst of the crowds.
5. Give yourself permission to indulge, and plan to indulge on those days where you know you’ll be attending holiday events.
You should never feel like you have to miss out on any particular event just because you want to avoid bad foods.
If you do, then you might have orthorexia — a fairly new type of eating disorder trend that involves obsessive healthy eating.
I, myself, suffered from this years ago before I even knew it was a thing, and I plan to write a blog post about it in the future.
For the sake of staying on topic here, I can only stress the importance of flexible eating, and the fact that there’s no such thing as “good” or “bad” foods.
You can and should allow yourself to indulge in your favourite foods from time to time.
The tricky part is being strategic about it, without it feeling overly forced. (You should be able to genuinely enjoy it).
The most basic advice I have is to keep those dates in mind where you know you’ll be partying or celebrating around lots of food and alcohol, and make a plan to eat relatively healthy the week leading up to it.
You can even use it sort of as motivation to stay on track for the week, so it feels more liken a well-deserved reward.
6. Fill up on veggies and lean protein sources at potlucks and all-you-can-eat events.
I’m not saying you can’t indulge in chips and dip or cheese and crackers or butter tarts and sugar cookies.
I’m just saying that it’s a good idea to initially go for the most nutritious, low-calorie, and filling foods first to help prevent yourself from going overboard on indulgent foods later.
Go for stuff like celery sticks, carrots, hummus, lunch meats, sausage slices, and high-quality cheeses, if available.
Better yet, offer to bring a veggie or meat and cheese platter if no one’s bringing one.
After you’ve had your fill of veggies and protein, you can enjoy the good stuff—you’ll just be far less likely to end up eating two pieces of fruitcake and five gingerbread cookies.
7. Focus more on portion control rather than food restriction.
It’s not always what you eat that leads to holiday weight gain — it’s how much.
After all, it is possible to overeat on healthy foods.
You’d probably be better off using the last tip to fill up on some healthy stuff first, then allow yourself to pick a few small things from the dessert table as opposed to trying to distract yourself with celery sticks and hummus alone.
Food restriction can feel too much like punishment, which could potentially backfire later on over the course of the day or night once your willpower reserves are depleted.
It’s not necessary to deprive yourself of the foods you want, as long as you keep your portions in check.
That might mean taking a small piece of cake rather than a large one, enjoying one cookie rather than five, or splitting a butter tart with your significant other rather than scarfing down the entire thing yourself.
Remember to eat slowly, chew your food, and savour each bite to make it more satisfying and prevent yourself from going back for more.
8. Consider avoiding certain foods you know are likely to trigger cravings for more.
Even though I’m not a big advocate of food restriction, I know there are just some foods that are better to be avoided.
For me (and I’m sure many others too), it’s chips.
Once I have one, I want another, and another, and another.
The satisfying crunchiness and salty taste is just too much to resist once I’ve put it into my mouth.
Sometimes I can say the same for sweet treats — especially chocolate truffles.
I’m fine being in the same room of that bowl of chips or box of truffles, but if I have just one, I’m likely to set off an avalanche of cravings for more.
My advice is to be aware of your own trigger foods so you can decide whether it’s necessary to avoid them altogether.
9. Schedule fun seasonal events into your calendar that encourage you to be more active.
I know it’s super tempting to stay glued to the couch every night in December watching cheesy Hallmark Christmas movies, but it’s a bad idea to make it a habit.
Instead, sit down and make a list of all the fun activities you can do alone, with your partner, with your kids, with your relatives, or with your friends that get you up and moving around a lot more.
Here are a few basic ideas to get you started:
- Take a walk around the neighbourhood at night to look at the Christmas light displays on the houses.
- Go ice skating at a local rink, or sledding at a local hill (if it’s cold and snowy enough).
- Visit a local Christmas market or festival.
- Visit a tree farm to chop down your own Christmas tree.
- Make your own Christmas crafts (ornaments, wreaths, cards, etc.)
The goal is to take advantage of as many fun and festive activities as you can to sit less and move more, which will help contribute to your overall daily calorie burn (even if it feels like it’s not).
The more you can move throughout the day, the better.
10. Avoid making or buying holiday treats too early (or making/buying too much).
I’ve been guilty of baking too many cookies or brownies or buying too many candy canes before an event, only to find myself grazing on the excessive amounts throughout the day and into the night.
Don’t do this.
If you’re making something, plan to do it the day before at the absolute earliest. Same goes for heading out to the store to buy something.
And aim to make or get no more than you need.
If you don’t have an excessive amount, you’re far less likely to eat before the event—or get stuck with tons of leftovers afterward.
11. If you’re going to drink, choose alcoholic beverages that are low in sugar.
I totally love a nice glass of eggnog with rum or even peppermint schnapps at Christmas, but I’ve made the mistake before in previous years by indulging in this high sugar, high fat drink too much.
I’m not saying you can’t have your favourite eggnog concoction or other sugary cocktail—I’m just saying it’s probably a good idea to keep it minimal.
I might have two eggnogs all season, but stick to red wine as my main drink of choice, which I might enjoy several nights a week depending on how festive I’m feeling.
Dry wine (red or white) is a fine choice, and so is hard liquor (vodka, rum, gin, brandy, and whiskey) as long as you avoid combining it with sugary drink mixes.
12. Enjoy your alcoholic beverage after you’ve eaten and hydrated.
Most people know how fast the effects of alcohol take over them after drinking without eating very much beforehand.
If you get too buzzed, too fast, then you’re more likely to make poor decisions about what else you’re going to eat and drink.
Having food in your stomach slows absorbption of alcohol in your bloodstream, which is good if you want to stay in control.
You also want to make sure you drink water before, during, and after you drink since alcohol is a duretic that can easily dehydrate you.
And if you mistake that dehydration instead for hunger, which believe me, is easy to do when you’re feeling good and tipsy, then you can kiss your self-control over food goodbye!
13. Drink lots and lots of water — all day, every day.
Speaking of dehydration, did you know that the winter makes it worse?
The air is naturally dryer, which is why you might suffer from dry skin, dry eyes, or a dry cough.
When you breathe and can see your breath, that’s water vapour that’s being lost.
Of course, it’s easy to not pay attention to these types of things and pass them up as just part of winter.
Make sure you’re drinking water first thing in the morning, all throughout the day, and as needed in the evening.
Staying well hydrated is key to avoiding unnecessary cravings and fatigue.
To make it easier on yourself, try cooking up some warm winter recipes that are extra moist to help yourself get extra fluids through the day.
14. If traveling for the holidays, plan ahead for healthy food options.
Traveling by car, plane, or train can make it hard to stick to a healthy diet.
When you’re hungry and tired from traveling, all it takes is the sight of a fast food place on the road, the scent of fries at the airport, or the convenient placement of a street meat stand just outside the train station to pull you into old bad habits.
The trick to avoid giving into fast food and less healthy food choices when you’re on the go is by bringing your own healthy snacks along with you.
If traveling by car, you can bring a small cooler along with some healthy wraps, veggie sticks, fruit pieces, and nut mixtures.
You might even be interested in trying my cheesy roasted chickpea recipe if you’re looking for a great snack to take on the road with you.
Traveling by plane is a little trickier, but you can make the best of the situation by researching restaurant and food options at the airport or on the airline so that you know the healthiest options available.
15. Never let yourself get too hungry (or hangry).
The holidays might be a better time to opt for small, regular meals (4 to 6 daily) rather than big, less frequent meals to help battle the stress of the season.
Let’s say you go several hours without eating because you decided to get some holiday shopping done after work, but now it’s 8 o’clock at night, you haven’t eaten since lunch, and now you’re not just starving — you’re also cranky and frustrated.
Chances are you’re going to go for some kind of comfort food in hopes of it regulating your emotions, and you might eat too much because you’re so hungry.
It’s worth carrying a few snacks around with you like an apple, a bag of almonds, or a protein bar if it means you won’t totally splurge later on.
16. Consider tracking your weight daily.
I have mixed feelings about weighing in on the scale in general, but it turns out that doing so might actually be just what you need to avoid holiday weight gain.
Researchers found that people who did daily weigh-ins either maintained or lost weight throughout the holidays, while people who didn’t weigh themselves daily actually gained weight.
The thought is that daily self-weighing makes people more conscious of their weight, so they make better lifestyle choices following their weigh-ins.
I can vouch for this.
I don’t weigh myself very often, but I have a pair of pants I like to try on to make sure I still fit in them, and when they start to feel tight, I know I need to clean up my eating and gain better control of my portions.
17. Avoid wearing stretchy pants all holiday season.
Don’t get me wrong, I love my stretchy pants, but they can be dangerous to wear all the time when there’s so much food around.
Similar to the above strategy of daily weigh-ins, it can be a good idea to wear fitted clothes during the holidays to help you stay conscious of you’re eating habits.
Besides, you don’t want to spend weeks in stretchy pants only to find that you can’t fit into that nice pair of dress pants you planned to wear on New Year’s Eve.
They might be less comfortable, but those fitted pants might just be a big help with your diet.
18. Expect to see some weight gain a day or two after indulging.
I personally think daily weighing is annoying because the daily fluctuations are enough to drive you mad.
No matter who you are, you’re bound to fluctuate in weight, sometimes as much as 5 to 10 pounds, and much of that fluctuation is water weight.
If you eat a big, heavy meal or have one too many alcoholic drinks, anything is possible with the scale.
Some people see a loss the next day, only to see a gain the next day.
Some people gain five pounds and lose three pounds in one day.
Regardless, it’s common to see weight gain after eating or drinking a lot, but it usually comes off as fast as it was gained.
It’s mostly water, so don’t worry too much about it.
19. Never, ever punish yourself for indulging too much. Just aim get back on track.
Look, I know we all go into the holiday season with the best intentions and often a good plan to eat mostly healthy and keep working out.
But even when we give ourselves permission to indulge, sometimes we over do it.
It just happens. And it happens to everybody.
I know that sense of guilt and shame for having a second helping of mashed potato at dinner, two pieces of pie for dessert, and four eggnogs throughout the rest of the night.
And I’ve done that thing where you try to compensate for it all the next day by eating as little as possible and/or exercising for three hours straight to try to burn it all off.
Trust me, it’s useless.
This type of behaviour is being recognized now as a trending disorder, and in the long-run it does more harm than good.
Undereating and overexercising can just upset your body and make your hunger and cravings even stronger.
You can’t gain much in actual fat from one day of bad eating, and even if you ate well over 3,500 calories, you can undo it just by getting back to your normal, healthy routine for a few days.
So do that instead.
No extreme calorie deprivation, no exercise marathons—just back to balanced healthy eating and physical activitiy.
20. Take time for rest and recovery.
The holidays can be seriously stressful.
Shopping alone is enough to cause stress, but then there’s everything else — getting your work done before taking time off, decorating the house, getting a Christmas tree and making sure the cat doesn’t get to it, making travel plans, RSVPing to events, figuring out what to bring to said events, picking out appropriate outfits, wrapping all those gifts, hosting Christmas dinner, organizing New Year’s plans…
Phew. It’s exhausting!
Make sure you take some time for yourself every day, even if it’s just 10 minutes.
You totally deserve to take a hot bubble bath, watch your favourite Christmas movie, or even just sit by the window and watch the snow fall quietly.
Balancing stress is an important part of overall health that will certainly affect your weight.
If you want a quick way to beat stress, be sure to check out my free 5-step quick method for instant stress relief.
21. Consider giving yourself the gift of a happy lamp.
We’ve already established that the holidays can be super stressful, and it’s probably no surprise that the lack of natural sunlight during this time of year can make it worse.
It’s not your fault for feeling like such a grinch — you might just need a bit of daily light therapy to get back to your cheery old self.
I use the Verilux HappyLight VT22 for 30 minutes to an hour every morning when I get up.
It’s ridiculously bright, so if you’re planning on getting a happy lamp yourself, I recommend positioning it at an angle first so you’re not blinded directly by its brightness.
I love this thing, though.
It makes a real difference in my mood levels and helps regulate my wake-sleep cycle too.
And hey, if someone asks you what you want for Christmas, you might as well tell them that you’ve been looking at getting a happy lamp in hopes that they might take the hint!
22. Donate, freeze, or repurpose leftovers and excess baked goods.
There always seems to be an excess amout of food during and after the holidays, which would be a shame to let go to waste.
Donating food is I think one of the best ways to get rid of it.
After all, ’tis the season of giving.
Of course, food drives and charities typically only take foods that are prepackaged and haven’t been opened, so there are some limitations with that.
You might be able to bring some extra stuff to a New Year’s get-together, or package up some little tin cans of goodies and give them to your kids to give to their friends.
If you can’t get rid of everything, consider freezing the last of it for a treat day or something.
Almost anything can go in the freezer, including baked goods.
Some leftovers from Christmas dinner can also be used to make healthier dishes throughout the week.
Use leftover turkey and veggies like carrots, peas, turnips and more to make a hearty soup or stew.
23. Get a head start on your New Year’s resolutions.
The New Year is a great time to start working toward some new goals, but it’s an even better idea to start thinking about them in December.
Take some time this holiday season for yourself to reflect on the past year, journal about what you learned, make a list of new goals you want to achieve, and research some strategies to tackle them.
The very act of just thinking about your goals for the New Year might encourage you to start behaving in alignment with them.
24. Balance fun and enoyment with structure and the need to control.
There’s probably going to be several instances where you’ll be forced to make a decision about whether you want to give in and enjoy something, or whether you want to exercise self-discipline and stick to your plan.
You need to do both to feel like you really lived it up this holiday season without it resulting in significant holiday weight gain.
When it comes to this sort of thing, I like to follow the 80/20 rule.
80 percent of the time, I try to be good with my eating habits and lifestyle habits.
The other 20 percent of the time, I can eat what I want and do what I want—even if that means skipping workouts for Christmas movie marathons.
That might even shift to 70/30 or 60/40 at the very height of the holidays (like Christmas Eve and Christmas Day).
Figure out what works best for you.
Just remember that balance is key.
25. Be grateful for your body and all that it does for you.
Regardless of what kind of shape you’re in, you have to admit that your body is pretty amazing.
It can probably shovel a heck of a lot of snow, fight off cold and flu viruses, take you three laps around the mall, hoist a tree up, multitask on three baking recipes at once, wrap over 20 gifts, and dance around to that Mariah Carey song that everyone secretly hates but actually loves.
And that’s just scratching the surface!
There’s no better time than the holidays to practice love and gratitude for this physical shell you live in.
Even if you didn’t lose as much weight as you wanted to this year, even if you stopped going to the gym, and even if you gained 50 pounds—it’s still worth being grateful for.
Gratitude is love, and without love for yourself in the present, you can’t work toward self-improvement for the future.
I hope this really hits home with some of you who might be struggling with self-acceptance and self-love—something I’ll be blogging about more in upcoming posts.