For six weeks, from late November through December, we are inundated with reasons to celebrate. It starts with Thanksgiving (my favorite holiday of the year) followed by a succession of holidays including Hanukkah, Christmas, and New Years. It is a time dotted with family parties, community traditions, celebrations in the work place, and lots of food. It is a fun, festive time of year. But, it can also be a perilous time for those who are trying to watch their weight.
“But,” you ask, “aren’t the holidays supposed to be a fun, relaxing time–a time to forget our worries and indulge a little with family and friends? Besides, even if I do put on a little weight, can’t I easily take it back off in January?”
I recently read a study published in the New England Journal of Medicine which suggested that even people who are not overweight need to take special care during the six-week period from Thanksgiving to New Years. The study showed that people actually accumulate a large proportion of their yearly weight gain over the winter holiday season. Research showed that while individuals in the normal weight range gained an average of only 1 pound during the holidays, they didn’t lose that weight over the rest of the year and started the next holiday season the following year an average of 1.5 pounds heavier. This trend of yearly weight accumulation could contribute to obesity later in life. The most disturbing news was that 54% of Americans are already overweight, and 22% are considered obese. In the study, overweight individuals were more likely to gain up to 5 lbs during the holidays. So, this time of year poses special risks for those who struggle with their weight.
It’s clear that we need pay attention to this issue. But, can we still enjoy the holidays while watching our weight? The answer is a resounding, Yes! And, it can be easier than you think.
Here are simple 8 tips that will help you to safely navigate the holidays while maintaining a healthy weight:
- Commit Now – Often when it comes to holiday weight gain, our biggest problem is our attitude. We tell ourselves, “this is supposed to be a fun time and I don’t want to spoil it by paying attention to what I eat.” We forget the wise adage: an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure. In other words, it is far easier—and much healthier—to avoid weight gain in the first place than it is to put on the weight and then spend months trying to take it off later. Commit now to doing whatever is necessary to maintain your healthy weight for the next 6 weeks.
- Eat Right at Home – The holidays are a time to especially concentrate on healthy eating at home. Focus on fresh produce items which are often neglected during the winter months. Try to add more whole grains and low fat proteins to your diet. Finally, replace soda and alcoholic beverages with lots of pure water. This will reduce your overall calorie intake at home to balance occasional splurges at holiday events.
- Plan Ahead – When you are invited to events where you will be tempted to eat more than you should, be proactive and plan ahead. Eat something healthy before you go so that you won’t be hungry and overindulge on foods that are high in fat or calories. Volunteer to bring a “fruit & vegetable tray” to the party so that you will have something healthy to snack on without feeling out of place. Nature has provided delicious treats in the form of appetizing vegetables and brightly colored fruits bursting with flavor. If you like to dip your vegetables, instead of high-fat dips try humus or guacamole which can turn ordinary vegetables into mouth-watering treats. You’ll find that others will appreciate having healthy choices and follow your lead. Finally, bring a small travel-size toothbrush and toothpaste with you. When you have finished eating, excuse yourself for a moment and go brush your teeth. It will make your conversations more pleasurable. And, it gives your mind a subliminal message that you are finished eating for the evening.
- Savor the Moment – Many traditional holiday treats are served only once a year and are therefore much anticipated as part of the celebration. If you have a favorite holiday food or treat that you anticipate with fondness and which makes the holiday for you, go ahead and eat it. But, instead of loading up your plate, choose small portions and savor the unique taste and delightful aroma of each bite. You can get just as much pleasure from a small serving, slowly enjoyed and appreciated, than from a large serving hastily eaten. It’s so easy to devour a table full of snacks while chatting with a friend and not even remember what you ate. If you are going to indulge in a once-a-year treat, pause and be present, enjoy each tantalizing bite. Then, return to your conversation or activity.
- Don’t Give Up – Above all, avoid the temptation to give up. If we have overindulged a little, it’s easy to rationalize additional eating by saying, “I’ve already blown it so I might as well eat everything in sight.” It’s a tempting thought, but totally false. Every additional calorie adds to the problem. So, if you suddenly realize that you have overeaten. Take immediate action to break the cycle. Take a deep breath, go brush your teeth, then return and focus on celebrating in other ways. Be especially careful with alcoholic beverages, which are filled with empty calories and can contribute to weight gain.
- Avoid Stress – The holidays can be a stressful time. Family or social events can spawn anxiety. Gift giving can create financial stress. Out of town guests can strain family relationships. All of these stresses can combine to sabotage our will-power and cause us to overindulge in “comfort foods” which are all too available this time of year. Make it a point to include stress-reducing activities in your holiday plans. Take a daily walk/run, meditate, listen to stress reducing music or relaxation programs, breathe deeply, exercise or play with a pet. These activities will not only help you stay on track physically, it will make the holidays much more enjoyable for you.
- Celebrate with Activities, Not Food – There are so many traditional holiday foods that we sometimes feel that our holiday celebrations must be centered around food. Not true. Inspiring holiday music, family traditions, festive decorations, and community activities, can add warmth and tradition to our celebrations without involving food at all. Plan activities which focus on service to people who need a lift this time of year. Make it a point to plan activities that bring out the joy of the season, without relying on food.
- Keep Moving – The most important thing you can do to maintain a healthy weight during the holidays is to continue, or even increase, your levels of physical activity. In many climates, the weather turns cold during the holidays making outdoor exercise more difficult. So, we need to concentrate on adding these activities whenever possible. Make it a point to increase your own activity level: walk, take the stairs, carry bags, go to the gym, etc. Why not make exercise a part of your family holiday traditions? Many communities sponsor a 5K exercise run/walk on Thanksgiving. Perhaps you might participate as a family in one of these events, or create one of your own. Play games together that include physical activity. In this way, you’ll create holiday traditions that will help to keep you and your family healthy for many years to come.