Did you know that the average American consumes 3,000 calories during Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner?
Now, no one ever said holiday dinners were ‘healthy,’ but you might be surprised to learn that they cause many Americans to gain between one and three pounds each year. That might not sound like a lot, until you consider that those pounds are gained over a short four-week time span!
Especially difficult is that many of us now coordinate multiple family visits. With each, we’re tempted by double or triple the bounty of dishes—many of which likely contain inconceivable amounts of sugar, fat, and oil.
So, how do you avoid holiday weight gain? Here are our seven tips on game planning to make the best possible choices, while still enjoying everyone’s favorite meals of the year.
1. Eat a Good Breakfast
Spontaneity is not your friend when it comes to making healthy eating choices.
Now, some folks believe that skipping breakfast and saving the calories for the big holiday meal is a sensible choice. But the reality is that when we get hungry, we reach for whatever’s available. And around the holidays, the choices put in front of you are even more tempting than usual.
Instead, start your day with a small, satisfying breakfast, which WebMD experts still support as the most important meal of the day.
Even if you’re short on time due to holiday travel plans, try to whip up something that focuses on protein and fiber—“such as an egg with a slice of whole-wheat toast, or a bowl of whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk.” Doing so will take the edge off of your appetite so that you won't be starving by the time you reach the hors-d'oeuvres.
2. Start With a Soup
Kicking off your meal with soup will help you slow down while eating, and research has shown it may even reduce the number of calories you consume at your main meal.
What if there isn’t any soup being served? Stash a few packets of miso or a dehydrated vegetable soup in your bag and simply mix into a microwaved mug of hot water. Doing so is a discreet way to curb your appetite before being served.
3. Police Your Portions
Whether or not you’re doling out your own portions, your most important decision is to take responsibility for what you eat during the holidays.
Especially when it’s easy to tell ourselves that it’s not our fault if the dishes in front of us are deliciously rich—or that our loved ones might consider it rude if we don’t go back for seconds and visibly stuff ourselves.
But that’s simply not true—no one has any say in what you put in your mouth but you.
Don’t want your eating habits to incite comments from family? There are stealthy ways to eat smart. (And no, we don’t mean feeding leftovers to the dog under the table.) The easiest way to control your calorie intake is to take small portions and eat them slowly, so it looks like you’ve had a full plate throughout the meal.
If there’s a lot of pressure to eat pie, there’s no shame in “I developed a food allergy” to explain why they’re skipping the breaded goods. After all, gluten-free is such a trend that no one’s likely to think twice.
4. Know Which Veggies to Fill Up On
As tempting as marshmallow-covered yams or creamy mashed potatoes can be, they’re not much better for your waistline than guzzling a boat of gravy.
Instead, Lori Zanini, RD, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics, advises that you fill up half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, including “Brussels sprouts, green beans, carrots, bell peppers,” or the always-trustworthy green salad (just be sure to go light on the dressing).
Then, allow higher-calorie vegetables, such as “corn, potatoes, green peas, and winter squashes,” to take up another quarter of your plate.
If you’re hosting a holiday meal, are bringing a dish, or are helping out in the kitchen, she also recommends helping others make healthier choices by seasoning colorful vegetables with “herbs, spices, onions, and garlic to flavor them with fewer calories.”
“You can also add a healthy twist to classic comfort foods,” she adds, “such as replacing green bean casserole with some grilled green beans flavored with garlic and red pepper flakes.”
Hosts take note: We tend to overeat when presented with a wide variety of foods, so you want to give your guests a variety of choices, including multiple vegetable-based options can help to keep your loved ones healthier.
5. Eat Mindfully
Ever looked up from your morning paper (or your iPad) and discovered your entire breakfast is gone, and you don't remember eating it? Not only does allowing yourself to be distracted while eating reduce your enjoyment of your meal, but a Harvard study also shows that not paying attention as you bring your fork to your mouth may directly be linked to weight gain.
Specifically, this research shows that a technique called ‘mindful eating’ can help you continue enjoying the foods you love, while avoiding holiday weight gain, by changing the way you consume them. Here are some of Harvard’s tips:
Make a note of the time on your watch before you take your first bite, and then make sure you take at least 20 minutes to complete what's on your plate.
While it might be awkward, try eating with your non-dominant hand; if you’re a righty, hold your fork in your left hand when lifting food to your mouth.
Don’t mind staying out of the conversation? The article suggests eating silently for five minutes, taking the time to think about what it took to produce that meal as you do so.
Take small bites and chew well.
Before taking each bite—or another serving—take a breath and ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” If you’re unsure, do something else, like reading or going for a short walk.
6. Go Easy on the Alcoholic Beverages
Not only do the calories from alcohol add up quickly, research suggests that drinking alcoholic beverages before a meal can actually result in increased fat storage. Why? There are two main reasons:
Reporting for Elle, Rachael Combe reports that alcohol is broken down into acetate inside the body, which is “basically vinegar.” And it’s this acetate that your body will burn before any other calories you’ve consumed or stored.
“So, if you drink and then consume more calories than you need (which is likely during holiday meals),” she says, “you’re more likely to store fat from the Cheez Whiz you ate and the sugar from the coke you drank because your body is already getting all its energy from the acetate in the beer you sucked down.”
Further, studies show that alcohol temporarily inhibits lipid oxidation (i.e., producing energy by metabolizing fats), making it easier for the fatty foods you eat during the holidays to slip right to your problem areas like the belly and thighs.
7. Finally, Be Realistic About Holiday Your Weight Goals Over the Holidays
Not only is the holiday season a time for celebration, the addition of extra social obligations, busy schedules, and so many temptations means that this isn’t an ideal time of year to strive for losing inches off your waistline.
Instead, focus on weight maintenance and, come January first, you’ll already be ahead of the hordes hitting the gym to work off all those second and third helpings.
And if you do overindulge? Make like Elsa and let it go. Recent brain research shows that punishing yourself for a bad choice makes it more likely that you’ll repeat the poor decision—a pattern that quickly leads to falling off the weight-maintenance wagon.
A better choice is to focus on what you did right and compliment yourself, since creating a positive feedback loop is one of the best ways to ensure that healthy habit sticks. How so?
Saying “Wow, you said no to that third glass of wine, good for you!” will do you more good than, “I shouldn’t have eaten that third piece of the cake.” By turning your focus towards your healthy-habit successes, you have a better chance of taking care of yourself tomorrow and in the future.