Don’t Gain Weight—Maintain During the Holidays

Experts share 25 ways to gain happiness—not weight—this holiday season.

holiday appetizers

Photo by Peter Ardito

Photo by Peter Ardito

With the year’s end crammed with social events and work and school obligations—plus a deluge of seasonal treats—it’s no wonder that your commitment to a healthy lifestyle might slip. “Over the holidays, many women tend to forgo their normal wellness routines,” says Lynn Rossy, PhD, author of The Mindfulness-Based Eating Solution. The good news: You don’t have to constantly fight temptation or guilt-trip yourself when you do give in. Let these experts’ advice allow you to celebrate without overdoing it.

Cook your own way.

1. When you’re in charge of the family feast or the company potluck, you get to be head chef and prepare better-for-you foods. A colorful winter salad or platter of roasted veggies makes an appealing counterpoint to heavier traditional holiday foods, says Katie Morford, MS, RD, founder of MomsKitchenHandbook.com

2. Of course, there are some dishes that, no matter how caloric, are musts on your holiday menu. But resist the urge to go into oven overdrive: Settle on just a few key items that fulfill your holiday traditions. “Moms often feel like they have to make a lot of food—particularly cookies, candy and other sweets—to express their love,” Rossy says. “They often forget the most important thing, which is the time spent together enjoying one another’s company.” 

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3. While you prep, watch out for an often overlooked overeating trap: sampling as you go. “Sip on sparkling water, keep a plate of cut-up veggies on hand or chew a piece of gum as you cook to keep the pre-meal nibbling to a minimum,” says Morford. “You’ll cut calories and show up to your own party with enough of an appetite to really enjoy it.”

Be choosy about treats.

4. The simplest solution to never-ending holiday goodies is to cut down on what enters the house in the first place. “Cookies, cakes and the like are delicious, and they’re hard to resist if they’re staring you in the face,” says Morford. Enjoy small amounts of what you love, but don’t keep heaps of treats within easy reach. Resist the urge to fill your cart with indulgences at the supermarket. Consider moving highly desirable goodies to hard-to-reach shelves. Morford suggests freezing some treats for later or boxing them up “to share with friends who might not enjoy the same abundance you do.”

5. Set up a game plan for when you’ll nosh and when you’ll not. A “no treats unless it’s an occasion” rule works for some. Melissa Mitchell, a mom of one in Chicago, says, “My rule is to stick to healthy lunches and dinners whenever I’m not eating at someone else’s house or out entertaining for work.” 

6. If your biggest challenge is the constant stream of break room treats from well-meaning coworkers, try to find a balance between “Get in my belly!” and saying no to absolutely everything. “Step back and make a conscious choice about how you would like to celebrate the holidays,” Rossy says. If that means snagging a few bites of your boss’s famous fudge, then go for it. Otherwise, consider implementing a “don’t eat it just because it’s there” rule.

Avoid party fouls.

7. The biggest mistake a lot of people make before an event is “saving up” their calories. “They think skipping meals during the day will make up for the food they’ll eat at night,” Morford says. “But if you show up starving, you’re more likely to overeat.” She suggests eating a wholesome breakfast and lunch so that you’re better able to make good choices once you hit the party.

8. It’s easy to get carried away by all the offerings, from the passed appetizers to the buffet. Focus on your most favorite rich dishes rather than having a little of everything, which can be hard to keep track of. “Pick one or two foods you really like and leave the others,” Rossy says. “Take a couple of bites and really savor them.” Fill the rest of your plate with lighter items, like crudités.

9. Sipping heavy drinks, such as creamy eggnog and coffee cocktails, is a double whammy. Not only do the calories add up, but “if you get a buzz on, it tends to diminish your resolve to eat mindfully, which could translate to an extra trip to the buffet table,” Morford says. Now’s the time to work on pacing yourself. Consider taking a break between cocktails, opting instead for seltzer with a squeeze of lime or blood orange. 

10. Most important, listen to your stomach. “Really pay attention to your appetite,” says Morford. Eat slowly and chew fully. “Put on the brakes when you’ve had enough,” says Morford, “and remind yourself that this isn’t the last time you will ever enjoy a particular food.” So there’s no need to go overboard.

11. If you happen to overdo it, remember that a single night of indulgence is not the end of healthy living as you know it. “I don’t overthink or beat myself up about what I ate,” says Abby Brown, a mom of two in Helena, MT. “I never consider anything cheating because that just develops an unhealthy relationship with food for me.” Acknowledge that it was a special occasion, not an everyday occurrence, and commit to making better choices next time. 

Stick it to stress.

12. When stressed, our bodies release the hormone cortisol, which can interfere with weight loss. Stress can also wring the fun out of what should be a celebration. “When you have a lot to do, you end up worried about perfecting the moment, with a preoccupied mind and no time left for enjoyment,” says Flame Schoeder, an International Coach Federation–credentialed life coach. Take control by delegating tasks to family members, including the kids. You do not need to do it all yourself.

13. Be careful not to fill up your calendar. You can and should say no to some invitations. “Only say yes to what truly matters, to those people and activities that bring you joy,” suggests Laurie J. Cameron, author of The Mindful Day. “So, yes to a traditional caroling night in the neighborhood, yes to gathering old coats for donation, but no to one more cocktail party.” 

14. Repeat after us: Taking time for myself is not selfish. That’s true even when events with family and friends crowd your calendar. “Taking early morning walks in nature, soaking in a quiet tub or fitting in mindfulness meditation is more important during challenging times,” Cameron says. Programming a phone reminder to take a one-minute time-out for some deep breathing every few hours is a good practice.

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15. Manage frantic feelings when the season is at fever pitch by doing what Cameron calls “taking in the good.” “Stop, pause and notice what is good in this very moment,” Cameron says, whether it’s the beauty of a fresh snowfall, the aromas of food baking in the oven or that shared feeling of joy after a good laugh.

16. Plan a true break for yourself when it’s all over. “One mom I know scheduled a ‘lock-in’ for a whole week over her family’s winter break from school,” Schoeder says. “They decided to stay in their pajamas and play games and sleep.” If getting your teens to commit to a full week of family quality time is overly ambitious, aim for one day or evening of forced vegging out to help everyone recover from the holiday hoopla.

maintain your weight

Photo by Peter Ardito

Photo by Peter Ardito

Get real about fitness.

17. Forgive yourself  for skipping regular workouts when your schedule is tight. “During this busy time, toss out what you think exercise needs to look like,” says Michelle Segar, PhD, author of No Sweat: How the Simple Science of Motivation Can Bring You a Lifetime of Fitness. “We change what we eat according to what’s going on. Why wouldn’t we do the same for exercise?” 

18. It may actually be counterproductive to go all-out at the gym during times of stress. “If your stress levels are high, overdoing it with exercise—especially if you’re dieting—can make it harder to reach your goals,” says Miriam Fried, an NYC-based certified personal trainer. Not only that, a hard workout, especially when you’re not consistent, can put you at risk for injury.

19. But don’t take that as a reason not to make an effort to move more. “Approach it from a health perspective,” says Sara Dimmick, CSCS, owner of  Physical Equilibrium in NYC. She suggests fitting in some on-your-feet activity as often as possible, even if it’s just a 5- or 10-minute walk, or check out a yoga app with a short flow sequence.

20. Look for opportunities to be active outside of your gym by, say, enjoying wintertime sports like skiing or skating or taking a stroll to check out the neighbors’ light displays. Being physically active is a great way to spend time with loved ones and do good for your body. 

21. If you’re motivated to start a new routine, now is a great time. Gyms and studios run discounts in advance of the new year. Or set a specific goal. “I register for a winter road race so I have to put in miles during the holidays,” says Denise Ryan, a mom of one, in Astoria, NY.

Strategize your sleep.

22. If there’s one non-negotiable in anyone’s schedule, it’s sleep. Chronically sleeping less than six hours per night has been linked to obesity as well as poorer food decisions and appetite control.

23.  “If you aren’t asleep within 30 minutes, get up,” says Ryan Donald, MD, assistant professor of sleep medicine at The Ohio State University. Try a quiet activity, like reading in a chair, until you’re ready to doze off.

24. Don’t fret when you have one of those nights. “People who demand perfection of their sleep tend to have more trouble with it,” says Donald. Get out of bed, get over it and get back on schedule the next night.

25. Parties (and party prep) can keep you up past your bedtime, which is actually fine, to a point. “But it’s best to avoid ‘social jet lag,’ ” says Donald. “Staying up later and sleeping in later for a few days in a row can affect your circadian rhythm.” It’s better to maintain a similar wake-up time every day to help avoid changing your internal clock. After all, the holidays will be full of joyful surprises and breaks from routine. Your body (and your scale) will thank you for a little stability!