The holiday season is hardly the harbinger of impending health and fitness. Especially considering that, for many, December's poster boy is a morbidly obese old man that gorges himself on cookies and cake. But despite the abundance of treats and temptations, this doesn't mean your diet will fall to ruins. Below, we'll discuss a framework you can use in order to stick to your plan.
How the Holidays Affect Your Weight
It's an oft-repeated "fact" that people gain an average of five pounds over the holidays. But that's not true. In reality, studies have shown that this number is closer to only one pound. Any excess comes down to excess water retention from carbs and salt, as opposed to actual adipose tissue, so it will disappear in a day or two.
But beyond a bloated figure on the scale (excuse the bad pun), it helps to keep things in perspective. The fact is, an average adult gains about 0.5-1kg per year. Additionally, your weight is as likely creep up during the holidays, as it is to fall in the following months due to normal seasonal fluctuations in body mass. That isn't to say changes in air temperature and humidity are to blame for what you stuff into your mouth (and, transitively, your waistband). It's just that being a bit heavier over the holidays is normal, and you shouldn't freak out and punish yourself over it.
Instead, reframe your efforts and adjust your goals over the festive season. Because November and December are basically months of socially-approved hedonism, it's kind of unrealistic to assume you'll be able to lose weight at a normal pace (unless you consider deprivation a rewarding way to celebrate). What's contextually realistic is to aim to maintain your weight and health over this period. Given the evidence, that's already a big win.
Schedule Planned "Failures" In Your Calendar
Not only can you prevent seasonal weight gain, but you can actually lose weight during the holidays -- assuming you have a properly structured caloric program in place -- by sticking to a few simple strategies.
The first tactic is to identify all the events that you're going to be indulging in holiday food. For example, Christmas dinner, your company's Holiday party, and SantaCon (for us classless degenerates). After you've identified them, categorise the events into three categories:
- High Indulgence: These are the events that are inextricably linked to fatty foods and sugary desserts. Christmas falls under this category, as does New Year's Eve if you plan on drinking a fair amount.
- Medium Indulgence: Seasonal celebrations with a strong chance of temptation. These are days where anything you could want to eat or drink is laid out for you, but without the social pressure to consume. Work parties typically fall under this category.
- Limited Indulgence: These days contain Holiday-related temptations, but they either aren't as palatable, or there's no one goading you into derailing your diet. If you choose to indulge, you won't be doing any damage as long as you plan for it with flexible dieting.
Now, from Christmas to New Year's, make note of all relevant events, parties and dinners on your calendar. From that list, you'll be able to pick a total of four high indulgence days, and 4 medium indulgence days, and as many limited indulgence days that you want. By doing this, and following the guidelines below, you'll be able to pull through the holiday season with your waistband (relatively) unscathed.
How to Plan Your Holiday Consumption
High indulgence days
These are the easiest and the most enjoyable of the three. Basically, it's a get-out-of-jail-free card: pretend you aren't on any sort of diet, and you tie absolutely no utility to your health and appearance. Eat whatever you want, and however much you please.
The emphasis here is that there are no restrictions. You may think making 'healthy' choices and minimising your serving size is doing future you a favour, but it won't. Instead, reminding yourself of your diet will just bring you out of the moment, and most likely mar the experience guilt. Don't ruin it for yourself -- be present and enjoy it because that's what the holidays are about.
Medium indulgence days
Unlike high indulgence days, you're not affording yourself free reign to wreak havoc on the buffet table. While you wouldn't want to eat like this every day, you will be guiding your food choices by a few rules so you can rebound quickly from any slip-ups.
The first step is to prioritise protein. The reasons behind this are that: it's the most filling macronutrient, least likely to lead to fat gain, and -- let's face it -- guilty pleasures are rarely laden with as much protein as they are with carbs and fats. As a result, tying your intake to your protein needs is an easy way to anchor down your caloric consumption.
So, what you need to do is know how much protein you need per day. Of this, estimate how much protein you'll have at the event. If it's a sit-down dinner with a main course, you'll probably consume around 30g. However, if it's a cocktail party or happy hour, your intake of the nutrient will likely be negligible.
From those numbers, find the difference between the two. Then spend the meals in the lead-up to the event consuming the remaining amount of protein in the form of lean meat and fibrous veggies. That way, the day won't be an entire blowout, and the smarter food choices beforehand will probably dampen your appetite and will to splurge during the festivities.
Optional indulgence days
These days are about enjoying yourself, but within the limits. Know your calorie and macronutrient targets, and read up on the nutritional profiles on your favourite holiday foods. If explicit nutrient breakdowns aren't available, learn to eyeball it. Armed with this knowledge, you'll be able to eat what you want, in moderate portions, as long as it all fits in.
Ultimately, you shouldn't expect yourself to be a perfect dieter over the holidays. You'll feel unsatisfied, and any sustainable diet shouldn't deprive you from enjoying time with friends and family. So let yourself enjoy the festivities, just with balance and moderation, and you'll be able to pick up your progress once the season passes.