The holiday season is without a doubt the most challenging time of year to eat healthy and stay dedicated to your fitness goals. As soon as October rolls around, supermarkets are inundated with candy corn, mini chocolate bars, and other bite-sized morsels loaded with calories and refined sugar. To make matters worse, it seems like every office has a candy tray staring you in the face, and the sweets-capade continues through Christmas.
Surprisingly, the average American only gains one pound during the 3-month span between Halloween and New Year's. Individuals who struggle with their weight gain closer to five pounds.1 While this isn't as horrifying as you'd imagine, it's definitely a major setback if you're trying to shed that extra weight.
I'm not saying it's a crime to gain a little weight this holiday season, or that you have to choose only "clean" foods and none of your holiday favorites, but there's a smart way to indulge that won't leave you feeling sick and disgusted. Do you really want to go on a three-month rampage and undo all the progress you've made thus far? I sure don't!
The good news is, you can enjoy all the delicacies the season has to offer and stay on track with a little moderation and planning! Here are my top tips to keep your holiday indulgence in check:
Don't Turn Holidays Into Holi-Months
Most people can get away with indulgences on the actual holidays, but the scales start to tip when a few days of cheating turn into weeks or months of bingeing! Try limiting holiday feasting to the actual holidays, or one day per week depending on your condition and goals. You will likely have multiple opportunities to indulge throughout the week, but simply tell yourself you'll have it later. If it's really special, you can even save what would be a weekday splurge for your cheat day by storing it in a Ziploc or Tupperware.
Don't Show Up Starving
While it may seem like good idea to fast all day before a big party splurge, it's actually counterproductive. The few hundred calories you saved by skipping breakfast, lunch, or dinner are nothing compared to the amount of treats you'll probably devour if you arrive to a party totally famished. If you're the host and waiting for guests to arrive, the same thing applies.
Instead, play it smart. Eat as you normally would, and have a filling, healthy snack before you leave for your party. Some good choices are an apple with string cheese, raw veggies with hummus, a side salad with light dressing, a 100-calorie bag of air-popped popcorn, 100-calorie Greek yogurt or low-fat cottage cheese, a couple slices of lean deli meat, or a high-fiber protein bar.
Stick to a Small Plate
It's important not to munch away mindlessly by grazing on snack foods at a party, because hidden calories can really add up. When socializing, make yourself a small appetizer plate roughly the size of a cocktail napkin, and try to limit your party food intake to whatever you can fit on that plate.
Choose raw veggies like celery, carrots, cucumber, and broccoli; marinated veggies like olives, artichoke hearts, roasted peppers, and pickled asparagus; fruit such as grapes, apples, pears, pineapple, and citrus; and possibly some lean deli meats like ham, turkey, and roast beef. Mini sausages, salami, pepperoni, pastrami, chips, crackers, and pretzels are all higher in calories, so limit those to half of your little plate. Cheese and nuts are also diet bombs, with just one ounce totaling over a hundred calories.
Holiday Appetizer Portion Guide
|Fruit or vegetables||Fist-sized serving (approx. 1 cup)||50-100 cal.|
|Lean deli meat||Palm-sized serving (approx. 3-4 oz)||100-150 cal.|
|Chips, pretzels, and crackers||Two level handfuls (approx. 1 oz)||150 cal.|
|Cheese||Thumb-sized serving (approx. 1 oz)||100 cal.|
|Nuts||Level handful (approx. 1 oz)||150 cal.|
With cooked appetizers, it can be tough to determine whether they're healthy or hiding secret calories, but some items are pure giveaways. You can bet those cheesy, breaded, or deep-fried items have heaps of calories! Limit yourself to one of each of these must-try items.
Measure Out The Main Course
When it comes to dinner, split your plate into thirds to ensure an equal balance of macronutrients. You'll feel more satisfied if you fill up a third of your plate with meat, a third with vegetable sides or salad, and a third with more carb-heavy sides. Remember, protein and vegetables keep you full.
In potluck situations where there's a smorgasbord to choose from, limit yourself to one plate for your main courses and one small plate for dessert. No need for seconds. You should be able to fit a "taste" of everything into one helping, so plan accordingly.
Holiday Dinner Portion Guide
|Casseroles, potatoes, stuffing||1/2 cup or one serving spoon||100-200 cal. for typical homemade recipes|
|Roasted turkey or chicken (white meat)||Palm-sized serving (approx. 3-4 oz)||150-200 cal.|
|Roasted turkey or chicken (dark meat)||Palm-sized serving (approx. 3-4 oz)||200-250 cal.|
|Baked ham, pulled pork (no barbecue sauce), or prime rib roast||Palm-sized serving (approx. 3-4 oz)||200-250 cal.|
|Barbecue pulled pork or beef brisket||Palm-sized serving (approx. 3-4 oz)||250-300 cal.|
|Shrimp cocktail, crab, or lobster (no butter)||Palm-sized serving (approx. 3-4 oz)||100 cal.|
Eat Sweets In Moderation
Before you have "one of everything," consider halving a couple cookies with someone else, or splitting up that decadent brownie. Or, ask what the absolute best treats are—it's a great way to strike up a conversation with a fellow partygoer—and dig into one of those.
The same goes for holiday cakes and pies. Instead of indulging in a whole slice, go for half a slice—just enough to enjoy the sweetness without overdosing on sugar. If you're in a comfortable family situation, you might even get away with just a forkful of each! My family makes about six different pies, so I feel your pain. Still, it's important to remember, sugary calories add up quickly:
Holiday Dessert Portion Guide
|Candy and chocolate||Thumb-size serving (approximately 1 oz)||100 cal.|
|Cookies, brownies, and bars||Golf-ball size or the size of three dice (approximately 1 oz)||100-150 cal.|
|Pies||Half slice (1/16 of a 9" pie)||150-250 cal.|
|Cakes||1 small slice||150-250 cal.|
Feel free to make healthier versions of your favorite dishes and bring them to share! If you're not comfortable unleashing your creative side, just stick with the family recipe, and exercise moderation.
Be Wary Of Drinking Your Calories
Beverages can be a slippery calorie slope. Start your event with a couple glasses of water. Continue drinking water during the festivities, and between drinks if you're consuming alcohol.
If you choose to drink, keep in mind that intoxication encourages overeating. Dehydration sends false cues that make it hard to suppress a ravenous appetite. Again, moderation is the best policy. Guys, limit yourselves to 1-3 drinks; ladies, 1-2 drinks. What exactly constitutes a drink? Here are the official drink sizes and calorie counts:
Holiday Drink Portion Guide
|Wine||5-oz glass (2/3 full)||100-150 cal.|
|Champagne||4-oz glass (3/4 full)||100 cal.|
|Domestic beer||12-oz bottle||100-150 cal.|
|Craft beer (Hefeweizen, Stout, IPA)||16-oz pint||200-250 cal.|
|Liquor (vodka, whiskey, scotch, rum, tequila)||1.5 oz||100 cal.|
Remember That You're Human!
Don't be too hard on yourself. Despite your good intentions, you may fall off the wagon, have a few too many fun-size candy bars at Halloween, or eat yourself sick at Thanksgiving. And that just means you're human. The best thing you can do is push aside the guilt and regret, and focus on healthy choices in the here and now. Dwelling on your failures will make you feel like just that: a failure! Focusing on small, positive changes will empower you to have a positive, powerful attitude when it comes to your goals.
I'll admit, I have a really hard time sticking to my goals when no one is watching. When I'm home alone, having a stare-down with a plate of cookies, it's easy to think about how six packs are overrated. Just remember, no fleeting taste is worth destroying all the months of hard work you've already put in. Don't binge and don't deprive yourself. Indulge responsibly! Give yourself a 90/10 rule, or even an 80/20 rule: If you can eat healthy 80 percent of the time and save 20 percent for enjoying your favorite foods, you'll do just fine.
Share your favorite holiday tips below!
- Yanovski, J., Yanovski, S., Sovik, K., Nguyen, T., O'neil, P., & Sebring, N. (2000). A Prospective Study of Holiday Weight Gain. New England Journal of Medicine, 342(12), 861-867.