8 Tips for Avoiding Christmas Weight Gain that Actually Work
Every Christmas, you see the same kinds of articles in the magazines doing the rounds:
“How to avoid Christmas weight gain”
“How to keep off the pounds this Christmas”
“20 tips to avoid weight gain during the holidays”
Each article follows the same stock format, sharing stats about how many pounds of weight you gain between Christmas and New Years, and then giving you a long list of weight loss tips like “ditch the added sugar,” or “chew your food slowly,” or “drink water before meals.”
It’s not that the stats are wrong or the tips are useless, but at this point, you probably know that eating more calories than you burn is the root cause of weight gain, and the only way to not gain weight is to not eat so much.
Of course, during Christmas, this is easier said than done.
You’re surrounded by a load of delicious, calorie-dense food and separated from your normal routine, which makes it remarkably easy to overeat.
So, what should you do about it?
What’s the “hack” for avoiding weight gain over the holidays?
It’s this: accept that you’ll probably gain a little weight, use some simple strategies to limit the damage while still enjoying your meals, and lose the weight after the holidays with proper dieting.
So lets dive into the strategies in more detail.
8 Simple Ways to Beat Christmas Weight Gain
You’ve probably heard all of these tips before:
Limit your food choices
Eat simpler, less appetising foods
Be more mindful of your portion sizes
Wait 20 minutes before you serve yourself seconds
And so on . . .
While these recommendations can help you avoid overeating in any situation where you’re presented with lots of tasty food, you’ve probably found they have limited use during Christmas time.
Part of the fun of this time of year is “letting down your guard” and enjoying yourself. This doesn’t mean uninhibited gluttony, but it also doesn’t mean irrational self-denial, either.
So, instead of giving you a laundry list of tips that you’ll probably abandon when confronted with a glistening turkey, warm cookies, or a glass of wine, here are some counterintuitive but very effective methods for limiting and reversing weight gain while enjoying the Christmas treats.
1. Expect to gain some weight (and lose it again quickly).
Having the right mindset and expectations going into Christmas and the New Year is one of the best ways to avoid “falling off the wagon”.
You should accept that you’re going to gain some bodyweight, even if you gain very little if any body fat.
This is because much of the weight you gain will be due to water and glycogen storage and simply having more food in your stomach, so don’t be surprised when you step on the scale the morning after Christmas day and see a much bigger number than you did the day before.
Luckily, this weight also goes away within about a week after you return to your normal diet.
Now, it’s likely that some of this additional weight will be body fat, but again, you can lose this quickly with proper dieting and exercise.
The trap many people fall into is telling themselves they’ve “blown it” after one of these weigh-ins and proceeding to throw caution to the wind. In their mind, they’ve already ruined their diet, so they might as well go “all in” and deal with the fallout later.
Ironically, research shows that people who try to follow very strict dietary rules in all circumstances are the most likely to fail their diets. It’s the people who tell themselves they “won’t eat any added sugar” or “won’t eat any calories after 7 p.m.” or “will eat 1,500 calories per day every day except Christmas”, that tend to succumb to binge eating the most.
We want to avoid this, and one effective way is to look at Christmas like a “diet break,” rather than a succession of “cheat' days” interspersed with your regular “healthy” diet.
That is, let yourself eat a bit more junk food and slightly larger portions than you normally would, but also keep in the habits of healthy eating.
So, first and foremost, look at Christmas as a time to ease off the gas a little and relax about your diet, and don’t overreact if you gain a bit of weight (or even a lot). Most or all of it will quickly vanish after you start eating normally again, and any remaining fat gain can be quickly dieted off over the next few weeks.
2. Focus on things other than food.
Food is a central part of Christmas, and sharing meals with your friends and family is something to savor.
That said, if food is foremost on your mind going into the festivities, you’re going to eat a lot more than you should.
It’s best to think of food as incidental to the overall Christmas experience, rather than the chief attraction.
On the one hand, don’t severely restrict your food intake for days in advance, ruminating on how you’re going to “spend” your calories during the holidays. On the other hand, don’t force yourself to eat like a runway model while everyone else enjoys generous portions.
Both approaches involve an unhealthy fixation on food — mental energy that could be better spent toward other activities that don’t involve eating, like picking out and wrapping presents, picking up and decorating a Christmas tree, going to farmer’s markets, visiting friends and family, playing board games, and so forth.
3. Create a calorie buffer before big meals.
There are generally two schools of thought about how you should eat on feast days, usually, Christmas and New Year:
You should eat filling, healthy, low-calorie snacks the rest of the day and especially immediately before your big meals, so you aren’t as tempted to overeat.
You should eat as little as possible during the rest of the day to create a large calorie buffer, so that even if you significantly overeat, your total calorie intake for the day still won’t be outrageous.
Which method you choose ultimately depends on your personal preferences and past experiences. Typically, what I’ve found is that people who aren’t very experienced with any kind of structured dieting do best with option #1. They’re used to “intuitive eating,” and would prefer to just stick to what they know works throughout the holidays.
People who are more experienced with meal planning and controlling their body composition tend to prefer the second option. They have a good sense of how much they’ve eaten, how much they need to eat per day to lose weight, and how to effectively lose weight after gaining some.
Now, while this may seem like it contradicts my earlier recommendation about not ruminating on all of the food you’re going to eat, it really doesn’t. It takes very little mental and physical effort to eat less on the days of your big meals, but this can significantly limit fat gain. In other words, it’s a low-effort, high-reward strategy.
What’s more, you’re probably going to overeat on feast days no matter how many healthy, filling, high-fiber snacks you eat beforehand, so you might as well just eat less early in the day and enjoy your big meal. In other words, you probably aren’t going to turn down dessert because you ate some carrot sticks and hummus a few hours earlier . . .
Finally, you’re probably going to feel stuffed after the meal and won’t want to eat anything else for the rest of the day anyway (assuming you eat mid-afternoon or early evening). Thus, if you don’t eat much before your big meal and little to nothing afterward, you can keep your total calorie intake under control without feeling hungry for more than a few hours (if that).
If you want to go with option #2 and create a calorie buffer, here’s a good rule of thumb:
Eat about 50% of your daily protein target throughout the day before the big meal. That is, if you normally eat 200 grams of protein per day, try to eat at least 100 grams of protein before you start inhaling goodies.
If you still feel hungry despite eating this much protein, eat some fibrous fruits and vegetables like apples, oranges, strawberries, and melon to tide you over.
4. Eat big meals, limit snacking.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the people who have the easiest time avoiding weight gain over the holidays are those who confine their overeating to one or two large meals per day and eat very little the rest of the time.
Conversely, the people who tend to gain the most weight are the ones who graze throughout the day on high-calorie foods like cookies, pastries, chocolates, candies, fatty appetisers, and alcoholic drinks. It never looks like they’re eating all that much, but their actual calorie intake is often significantly higher than that of the people who eat fewer, larger meals.
It’s easier to eat a large number of calories when you consume them throughout the day.
Think of it this way: which do you think is more difficult, eating 3,000 calories worth of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, bread, and pie in 30 minutes, or eating 4,000 calories of the same foods spread out over 16 hours?
Confining your feasting to a single large meal puts a natural limit on how much you can overeat and how much fat you’ll gain. Research shows that some people also feel more satiated eating three meals per day instead of six, but this tends to be very individual, so you’ll need to play with your meal frequency to find what works for you.
So, if you want to maximally enjoy Christmas treats without gaining too much body fat, I recommend you let yourself eat one large, calorie-dense meal per day, but limit grazing the rest of the time.
If you want to have more than one large meal per day, that’s fine, but you’ll need to be more conscientious about how much and what you eat if you want to avoid gaining too much fat.
5. Eat lots of protein throughout Christmas, especially on “feast” days.
If you’re like most people, you’re going to be surrounded with calories over Christmas.
Cookies, pastries, chocolates, candies, appetisers . . . all whispering “come hither” in their sweet and savory tones.
One of the best ways to resist their siren song is to not be hungry, and one of the best ways to do that is to eat lots of protein.
Specifically, I recommend you eat as much protein as you want during Christmas. In fact, it’s often a good idea to try to eat more protein than you normally do in order to suppress appetite and prevent overeating (especially between meals, for all of the reasons explained above).
Consuming protein shake supplements will not only help you hit your protein goal for the day, they’ll help tame your sweet tooth and reduce the temptation to indulge in high-calorie snacks.
6. Stay active.
You don’t need to do formal exercise to burn lots of calories over the Christmas period. Simply staying physically active by walking whenever possible, taking the stairs instead of the escalator, or doing housework can burn thousands of calories over the course of the Christmas holiday season.
What’s more, staying active can also reduce your appetite and boost your insulin sensitivity, which can reduce your chances of overeating and minimise fat gain.
The second reason to exercise is simply to stay in the habit of doing so.
As you now know, you’re probably going to gain a little weight over Christmas, but this isn’t a big deal as long as you can lose it afterward. A combination of exercise and moderate calorie restriction is the best way to do this, but it’s going to be more difficult to get back into the habit of exercising if you give it up during Christmas.
Third, it’s important to remember that exercise — formal or informal — can also be a fun way to spend time with friends and family.
You can go on long winter walks, or do any number of other fun physical activities. Not only can these activities burn a fair number of calories, they also help take your mind of food.
7. Bring some healthy-ish foods to parties.
It’s not always possible — or socially acceptable — to bring food to a party, but when you can, it’s an easy way to give yourself (and your hosts) a healthier alternative to what’s available.
So, if you’re worried you “won’t be able to eat anything” at a party, and it’s appropriate and practical, bring a dish or two that are lower in calories and higher in fiber and/or protein. And if you feel awkward being “that person ” who brings healthy food to the party, remember that you probably aren’t the only person who’s craving healthier fare.
8. If you do gain some fat, follow a meal plan to lose it.
Even if you follow the previous seven steps, you’ll still probably gain some weight, and some of it will probably be fat.
And that’s fine.
As you learned in the beginning of this article, the reason most people never lose the weight they gain during Christmas is their regular, non-Christmas diets aren’t that much better. They still eat too many calories and exercise too little.
Let’s say you really go wild over Christmas and gain three pounds of fat. If you know what you’re doing in the kitchen and gym, you can easily shed this in two to three weeks of proper dieting and training.
All you have to do is eat the right number of calories and sufficient protein every day, and you’ll lose weight. It’s that simple.
And the easiest way to do this is to have a meal plan and stick to it.
A good meal plan is like a GPS device for your diet — it takes all the guesswork out of what, how much, and when you should eat. All you have to do is follow the plan, and watch your body change.
A Special Note on Alcohol
If you have one or two (or three) drinks a few times throughout Christmas, it isn’t going to cause enough fat gain for you to notice.
The keyword here being, “moderation,” which tends to be in short supply during Christmas.
Although moderate drinking isn’t a big deal, repeated binge drinking is.
Not only can this contribute to fat gain directly, drunkenness often prompts people to overeat even more aggressively, leading to even more fat gain.
If you want to enjoy a few drinks here and there throughout Christmas, you don’t have to worry about gaining excess body fat. Just don’t drink excessively.
The Bottom Line on Christmas Weight Gain
Christmas weight gain isn’t that big of a deal.
Most people only gain 1 to 2 pounds, an amount that’s easy to lose if you follow a well designed meal and training plan.
What’s more, you can largely avoid this weight gain in the first place if you follow the tips in this article:
Expect to gain some weight (and lose it again quickly).
Focus on things other than food.
Create a calorie buffer before big meals.
Eat big meals, limit snacking.
Eat lots of protein throughout the holidays, especially on “feast” days.
Bring some healthy-ish foods to parties.
If you do gain some fat, follow a meal plan to lose it.
And if you want to drink alcohol over Christmas, just do it in moderation (usually defined as 1 to 2 drinks per day), and you won’t have to worry about any excess fat gain.
Now, go and enjoy your Christmas.
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