This week is Thanksgiving and for many people it’s the official kick off of the overeating season. It also tends to coincide with the start of a flood of holiday stresses, and it’s no coincidence that the two happen at the same time. Stress has been shown to encourage overeating and overeating tends to stress people out (worrying about doing so before and then beating themselves up about it afterwards). My biggest advice to people is don’t freak out. The average person only gains about 1 pound during the holiday season, so don’t stress yourself out thinking that you’re going to need a whole new wardrobe on January 1st. Wild fluctuations in weight are caused by water retention, and they tend to go away just as quickly as they come.
Your body strives to maintain a state of homeostasis (a set point that it considers normal). It’s why it’s so hard to lose weight. Your body alters all kinds of internal processes to maintain homeostasis by not only prevent weight loss, but also to set up your metabolism for easy weight regain. While that can be frustrating, those same systems for maintaining your current set point also work to make sure you don’t gain too much weight above normal.
Enjoy this time with your family and friends, and don’t try to punish yourself by avoiding parties or avoiding your favorite treats. That will only make you miserable and cause your discipline to fail in a big way. That said, don’t go nuts either. If you’re really determined, you can definitely gain weight fast. With some simple tricks, you can find a balance between discipline and indulgence that will allow you to enjoy yourself without worrying about your waistline. Here are some simple tips to lessen the impact to your weight while still enjoying the food and good times that go hand in hand with the holidays.
Don’t Throw in the Towel
People with an all-or-nothing attitude towards healthy eating tend to binge far more than people that forgive themselves for minor slip ups. Eating healthy 100 percent of the time through the holidays is really unnecessary anyway. This time of year is meant to be enjoyed, just don’t enjoy it all the time. If you had a big dinner one night, get back on track the next morning with a little exercise and healthy eating to undo the damage. If you have a big meal coming up, make a point of loading up an vegetables during the meals leading up to it. It’s OK to eat a little less on meals around it, but don’t skip meals. Cycling through starvation and gorging will just lower your metabolism and increase fat storage. Skipping meals and deprivation isn’t going to work. Plan your healthy meals leading up to the big event and you won’t be starving when you get there.
Exercise is Your Ally
Workout first thing in the morning on an empty stomach. You will burn fat more efficiently and it will improve your insulin sensitivity throughout the day. This will make your body more efficient at processing sugar and fat for energy instead of storing it as more fat. As I’ve mentioned before, a big workout on the morning of your big meal can really protect you against weight gain.
If you can’t get in a big workout, smaller sessions can help out too. Splitting your workout into two sessions with at least a 30-minute break in between burns more fat than one long session. This is good news if time is tight because squeezing short sessions in throughout your day can actually help more than one big calorie burn.
Foods and drinks high in carbohydrates will spike your insulin quickly. This has two big side-effects that you don’t want. For one, it makes your body store any fat you consume for the next 2 to 4 hours and it increases your appetite, which makes you eat even more. Reduce the effects of high carb foods by combining them with protein or vegetables (or both). It will fill you up and reduce your insulin spikes.
It may seem like it’s all going into the same place, but the order that you eat your food can effect the speed at which it’s ingested. As I mentioned above, flooding your system with sugar causes problems, so eating things that slow that release will help keep the appetite spikes to a minimum. Protein, fiber, and fat slow gastric emptying (the speed at which food leaves your stomach and enters the small intestines) which in turn slows the speed that sugar can enter your bloodstream. Enjoy the meat and veggies before you get to the potatoes, rice, noodles, or bread and you’ll lessen the impact from these high-carb foods.
Control Your Portions
It’s pretty easy to eat faster than your feedback systems are able to inform you that you’re full. With a few simple tricks, you can slow down the speed that you mindlessly wolf down calories and give your body time to tell you that you’ve had enough.
Use a smaller plate (like a dessert plate) to limit the chance of mindlessly putting away a ton of calories while you chat.
Don’t stand by the snack table. It makes it too easy to mindlessly graze on hundreds of calories while you talk. Load up your little plate and then walk away.
Keep your portions small on your first pass at the buffet table and go back just for your favorites if you want more.
Appetizers tend to be pretty calorically dense, and those calories will add up quick. A typical appetizer is about 60 calories a bite. Five bites will get you into the 300 calorie range which is really about half a meal. Keep count of your bites or just fill a small plate and skip the seconds.
Fill Up on the Healthy Stuff (It actually tastes good too)
As I mentioned above, don’t go to the party hungry. Eat a healthy snack before you go to keep your appetite in check. If you go hungry, you’ll find those calorie-dense hors d’oeuvres irresistible. Save your appetite for the meal.
A handful (not a can full) of almonds are a great healthy snack that will reduce your appetite around all those holiday temptations. The health differences between raw almonds and roasted ones are negligible so grab the ones you prefer. You need to satisfy your brain as much as anything. If you substitute foods you barely tolerate for the ones you’re dying to have, you’ll just punish yourself unnecessarily. There are plenty of healthy foods that actually taste good. Rely on your favorites to get you through.
Make Treats a Treat
Like I said, we’re not aiming for perfection, so treats are still on the table. That said, don’t just fill up on garbage, really pick and choose what you indulge on. It’s supposed to be a treat, so make it one. Trying to hold off on every office treat throughout the holiday season can be tough. Instead of throwing in the towel and going wild, indulge yourself on one treat a day. It gives you something to look forward to and gives you a firm limit.
Also, consider the concept of diminishing returns. The last bite will never taste as good as the first bite, and many people finish off a giant treat simply because it’s there rather than because of hunger (you’re probably stuffed long before you start dessert). You’d be surprised how satisfying a significantly smaller portion of dessert can be. Scrape about half off your plate before you even start, you won’t miss it.
Don’t let Booze Beat You
I already explained in-depth how to limit weight gain while enjoying a few drinks here, but I have a few little tips that can help limit the amount of alcohol you drink at the holiday party.
Poor drinks into tall, skinny glasses. Studies have shown that people are more likely to pour 30 percent more liquid into short, fat glasses.
If you want to keep your alcohol calories down but your glass full, alternate between alcohol and no calorie drinks like diet soda, water, or sparkling water.
Just add ice. Order your drinks on the rocks to add a little water to the mix, plus the ice will keep you sipping longer before your next refill.
Alcohol calories add up fast so choose carefully. Generally, the simpler the drink the less calories it has. Here are some examples from lowest to highest:
80 calories – White wine (4 ounces)
85 calories – Red wine (4 ounces)
100 calories – Light beer (12 ounces)
120 calories – Wine cooler (8 ounces)
150 calories – Gin and tonic (4 ounces)
160 calories – Beer (12 ounces)
205 calories – Eggnog, alcoholic (4 ounces)
225 calories – Daiquiri (4 ounces)
262 calories – Pina colada (4 ounces)
270 calories – Margarita (4 ounces)
Sleep it Off
A busy holiday schedule can really impact your sleep, which in turn can impact your weight. Studies have shown that when people do not get proper sleep the night before, their brains respond more strongly to junk food, plus their ability to make rational decisions (like not to eat that junk food) are impaired. Basically, your impulse to eat high-calorie food goes up and your ability to resist that impulse goes down. Do your best to get a good night’s sleep, but if that doesn’t happen, be aware of your impulses and try not to let your brain beat you. Once again, protein and vegetables are the easiest way to counter an appetite that’s been thrown out of whack (that’s the technical term) without doing too much damage.
Even if you get to bed early, too much alcohol in your system can impact your sleep. This gets back to what I was saying about your body maintaining homeostasis. Alcohol is a depressant. To balance that out, your body tries to perk you up a bit to get back to normal. Alcohol may make you feel tired when you first go to sleep, but after a few hours when it’s fully metabolized, the effort your body took to balance you out will simply wake you up instead. Put down the booze several hours before bedtime and you’ll get a more restorative night’s sleep.
Another study found that sleep deprived people tended to eat most of their extra calories during after-dinner snacking. This is another instinct to keep an eye on and head to bed if you notice your appetite firing up late at night. Put down the junk food and try to catch up on the sleep you missed the night before instead.
Lack of sleep and other stressors can encourage the desire to comfort eat. It may seem like a strange trick but a great way to fight the urge is to drink a cup of hot water. Warm water is comforting to the psyche and that’s what you’re looking for in that unhealthy snack. If you don’t like the taste, add a little lemon or drink a cup of hot tea or coffee, just skip the sugar.
I want to end by reiterating the thought I started with; enjoy this time with your friends and family. We get so focused and stressed out over the little things that we forget to really appreciate the time we get to spend with our loved ones. Don’t beat yourself up over every treat you eat. What’s the point of eating it if you can’t take a break to enjoy it. There’s a lot of emotions tied into the foods we eat, and unfortunately, a lot of them are negative. Focus on the important things and the stressors from little things like calorie counting can fade away into the background. Don’t try to be perfect when it comes to disciplined eating. Pretty good is good enough right now.