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How to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain and Food Pitfalls

The holidays are often associated with weight gain. Numerous social functions which include large tasty meals, rich desserts, as well as alcoholic beverages can significantly increase our calorie consumption. This additional fuel as well as the fact that many individuals tend to be more sedentary during this time of year can lead to unwanted pounds. 

Even though holidays this year may not be as packed with social functions as years past, it still can be a busy and sometimes very stressful time for people. Worrying about your diet can often take a toll on your mental well-being or can be completely overlooked which can cause problems later on. 

There is no need to venture into the holidays with an all-or-nothing mindset. In fact, creating overly strict or ambitious rules can backfire and lead to more anxiety or weight gain. Instead, consider focusing on simple, realistic, and smart strategies that can help you stick with your current healthy eating habits or can actually help you create some new diet practices that help you eat better and prevent weight gain, even while you enjoy the occasional indulgent treat.  


Understanding the pitfalls and having a plan in place can help prevent the unwanted holiday pounds. Here are some guidelines and tips to help you stay on track.

The Problem: Weight Gain During the Holidays

Weight gain seems to be a trend during the holidays not just in the U.S. but globally. Researchers from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab found that people tend to put on an average of 1.5 pounds during the holidays due to overindulging in various types of holiday food from October through December but that it can take five months to return to normal weight.1 

However, another study from the National Institute of Health growth and obesity unit suggested that a significant number of individuals fail to lose this weight which may contribute to the weight gain commonly seen throughout adulthood ². Even though 1.5 pounds may not seem remarkable, over the years it can quickly add up and become 10, 15, or 20 extra pounds. 


Does this mean that weight gain during this time of year is inevitable or are there actual steps we can take to help avoid going into the new year heavier?


A study from the Institute of Applied Health Research at Birmingham University examined the impact of a short term, 4 to 8 week, behavior change during the holidays ³. They found that the adults in the intervention group who regularly weighed themselves as well as received information on specific weight management strategies or the amount of exercise needed to offset those foods often consumed during this time actually lost weight compared to the control group which gained weight during this time period. 


However, the holidays are a time to enjoy yourself and this can be accomplished with a healthy eating approach to the holidays.

How to Avoid Holiday Food Pitfalls

What is a healthy eating approach to the holidays? Should you indulge in some holiday treats? Should you avoid them altogether? No—everything should be okay in moderation, so it’s not necessary to skip the sweets entirely. A holiday treat won’t break the calorie bank—however, an entire box of chocolate could be a big setback.


Set yourself for success by making healthy food choices readily available, such as having fruit in a bowl on the counter and limiting the number of sweets in your house. If you’re at someone else’s house and have less control over your environment, try to be mindful of where you are standing. Staying away from buffets or snack tables can limit temptations or staying on the move and socializing vs. standing can help you enjoy yourself and limit mindless snacking. If that’s not realistic because the people you want to catch up with are right by the buffet table, try this tactic: survey all the holiday food that is there and aim to pick out just two or three things you want to try the most. 


You can also hold a cup of water to sip away at slowly and try to add one healthy snack to your plate for every unhealthy one—have veggies and dip or some slices of sharp cheddar cheese with your Christmas cookies and hot chocolate.


If celebrations are in the evening, make sure you eat breakfast and lunch, in fact the more you can stick to your normal meal schedule the better. It usually backfires if you tend to starve yourself until dinner— as it is more difficult to make health-conscious decisions when we are very hungry. 


There are plenty of holiday recipes that can be made health-friendly. Try swapping the following ingredients for healthier alternatives when creating holiday food recipes:


-Fresh vegetables over green bean casserole 

-Mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes 

-Skim milk over evaporated milk 

-Low sodium broth for soups 

-Yogurt dips instead of high-fat dips or cheese spreads 

-Wine spritzers or apple cider over soda or creamy drinks 

-Homemade stuffing instead of store-bought 

-Roasted sweet potatoes over candied yams 

-White meat rather than dark meat 

-Partially freeze gravy before serving so you can skim off the fat that rises to the top 


Also, be mindful of beverages. Alcoholic beverages can quickly contribute to your daily calorie and sugar intake. Even regular, non-alcoholic eggnog can have more than half your recommended dose of saturated fat for the day.


Try drinking a glass of water for each of the beverages that you have. This will help you cut calories, keep you hydrated with something that’s good for you, and help you avoid that nasty hangover the next morning. If you want to practice reducing your alcohol intake even further while still feeling like you are not missing out, try cutting your drink with seltzer or finding fun non-alcoholic “mocktails” that are also low in calories such as a sparkling “mock” champagne.


After the meal, or even in between meals, keep in mind that healthy activities—such as exercise—can help offset calorie excursions. Ensure you’re making time in your holiday plans to work up a sweat. Go for at least a 15–20 minute walk each day if you can. In many areas around the world, it seems that people are not only eating more during these holiday weeks but exercising less as well because of the cold weather or holiday stress.This is ironic because exercise can help lower the stress of the holidays and daily life. Be sure that you prioritize some movement this Christmas season. You can get on the dance floor if you are at a holiday party where that would be appropriate and the weather is preventing you from being outside much, as even dancing can burn calories. Moreover, exercise has the added benefit of lowering stress levels.

Customizing Your Holiday Food Experience

The holidays are for socializing. Make the day more about friends and family than food. Listen to hunger cues and take your time to savor and enjoy the meal. Use the other tips from our blog to guide you through the holiday season too.


It’s important to know that things will affect everyone differently. As it turns out, you can eat for your genes during the holidays. Find out more by downloading a free sample report to see how to do right by YOUR body and its own individual needs—even when it comes to holiday food.

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1. Helander, E. E., Wansink, B., & Chieh, A. (2016). Weight gain over the holidays in three countries. New England Journal of Medicine, 375(12), 1200-1202.

2. Yanovski, J. A., Yanovski, S. Z., Sovik, K. N., Nguyen, T. T., O'Neil, P. M., & Sebring, N. G. (2000). A prospective study of holiday weight gain. N Engl J Med, 342, 861-867.

3. Mason, F., Farley, A., Pallan, M., Sitch, A., Easter, C., & Daley, A. J. (2018). Effectiveness of a brief behavioural intervention to prevent weight gain over the Christmas holiday period: randomised controlled trial. bmj, 363.


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