December marks the height of the holiday season – with Christmas, end-of-year celebrations, weddings and general festive spirit. But it also brings in a challenge familiar to those of us who are trying to manage weight gain or stick to consistent nutrition routines: holiday weight gain.
If you’re finding it difficult to keep on track of your health and fitness goals this time of year, you’re not alone.
Is holiday weight gain real?
Unfortunately, yes. Research has shown that most people tend to have weight gain over the winter holidays (from mid-November to mid-January). This is because of a number of factors – reduced activity during the colder winter months, increased alcohol intake, larger portions when it comes to holiday foods. There are also several psychosocial factors involved. We tend to meet with friends and family more during this period, we have a more relaxed, social eating environment – all of these play a role in holiday weight gain.
The good news is, the actual extent of holiday weight gain might be less significant than most of us believe. Very few people tend to have drastic weight gain – most studies suggest that this weight gain is under 1 kg, and typically range around 0.5 kg. However, this does vary from person to person. With some individuals, especially those already overweight or prone to obesity, these gains are more. Over time, this can lead to increased gains.
Strategies to manage holiday weight gain
So, is holiday weight gain inevitable? No! Studies have found that making small behavioral changes can go a long way in avoiding excessive weight gain during the holidays. Here’s how:
Learn to recognize portion sizes
Perhaps the single biggest factor when it comes to overeating, especially during the holidays, is not controlling portion sizes. When food is laid out in a buffet, whether it’s at a holiday party or a wedding, it’s easy to overload your plate – and we tend to eat everything that we take, leading to overeating. One quick behavior you can adopt to manage this is to choose a smaller plate and avoid going for seconds. For calorie-dense foods like ice-creams, cookies, and desserts, choose a small ‘custard-cup’ size bowl.
More often than not, recommended portion sizes are much smaller than you think. One quick tip is to use your hand to measure your portion sizes. Here’s a quick guide:
Balance your plate
What goes in your plate can significantly impact your holiday weight gain. Holiday meals are typically laden with carbs, but it’s important to balance your meals with proteins and fiber. Proteins have been proven to reduce calorie intake by promoting satiety – or the feeling of fullness. Fiber – mostly in the form of vegetables, fruits and legumes – also promotes fullness, aids digestion and is a great source of vitamins and micronutrients.
An easy guide to follow is to fill half your plate with vegetables and fruits – the more colorful, the better (richer in antioxidants). A quarter of your other half should be filled with protein. Remember to choose a leaner protein (like chicken) over fattier meats wherever possible, and a grilled or baked option rather than a breaded, battered or deep-fried one. The other quarter of your plate can be carbohydrates. Choose complex carbohydrates (like whole wheats, beans and brown rice) over simple ones (pasta, white rice, bread or mashed potatoes) wherever possible. Limit the amount of high-calorie sauces or gravy you consume.
Choose your dessert wisely
When it comes to dessert, remember that looks can be deceiving. You might think an apple pie is ‘healthier’ because it has fruits in it but a pumpkin pie might actually be a better choice – since it has about 100 calories fewer in a slice because it doesn’t have a top crust (more crust equals more calories). Similarly, when choosing between Christmas cookies and milk chocolate, you might think they’re about the same, but cookies have a lot more icing sugar on it, which makes their overall sugar content much higher than a piece, or even two, of chocolate. But, if you’re faced with a choice between fruit cake and chocolate cake, a slice of fruit cake might be a marginally better option since it has more fiber in it from the dried fruits, and a lower sugar content.
Use substitutes wherever possible
If you’re hosting at home, use substitutes to make your end-of-year dinners a little healthier. For example, if you’re roasting chicken, skip the lard or fat (butter/oils) and dry roast it to significantly reduce calories. Consider making sweet potato bakes or mash instead of normal potatoes – even though they’re slightly higher in calories than regular potatoes they take longer to digest as they’re complex carbs, and are richer in nutrients like antioxidants like beta carotene and Vitamin C. Use cooking methods like broiling and baking instead of frying. For thick soups that use heavy cream or recipes that call for cream cheese, consider greek yogurt instead to up their protein content.
When it comes to baking, consider halving the sugar content that the recipe asks for, or replacing butter with mashed bananas and all-purpose flour with oats flour. Add dried fruit to your cakes instead of chocolate chips or marshmallows.
Be mindful while snacking
Snacking mindlessly at a holiday party can lead us to consume way more calories than we intend to. At home, the more accessible your treats are (laying out cookies or other sweet treats v/s keeping them in the kitchen), the more likely you are to mindlessly snack on them. Remember to pay attention to your hunger cues while snacking.
All snacks are also not created equal. If you’re choosing between chips and dip or cheese and crackers at a party, while their calorie counts might be similar, cheese will provide you with significantly more calcium (30 g of cheddar or a low-fat cheese will have about 200 mg, almost 20% of the recommended daily intake), and it’ll also likely keep you full for longer. Pairing it with fruits (like apples or pears) instead of crackers makes your snack fiber-rich as well.
Similarly, choose dried fruits like figs and dates – which are both rich in iron, potassium and magnesium – instead of cold cuts or sugary snacks.
Studies have also conclusively proven that eating rate affects energy intake. In other words, eating slowly and being more mindful while eating can reduce your overall calorie consumption.
Watch your beverage intake
Beverages, including alcoholic and sugary drinks, are a big factor when it comes to holiday weight gain. If you’re consuming alcohol, skip the tonic or sugary mixer and choose sparkling water or soda instead. For cocktails, consider adding flavor with vanilla, lemon or cinnamon instead of using sugar syrups. For traditional holiday recipes like eggnog or hot chocolate, substitute the heavy cream or milk with lower calorie options.
Don’t ‘save up’ for bigger meals
Contrary to popular belief, ‘saving up’ for a big dinner by starving through the day can actually be counterproductive. Fasting yourself can lead to slowing down your metabolism, resulting in more of your big meal to be stored as fat – since your body thinks you’re in survival mode. It can also lead to overeating or eating too quickly when you actually have your big meal. Instead, having a protein-rich breakfast and a moderate lunch, and having some fiber-rich snacks, like a whole fruit, ahead of your Christmas party can actually help you make better choices when it comes to eating.
Don’t be too hard on yourself! Remember that everyone responds differently to food. Some might find it easier to resist temptations, while others might be more drawn to the social aspect of eating. The trick is to find what works for you, and enjoy the festivities with a balanced and conscious approach.