How to prevent holiday weight gain, according to a nutritionist

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By Samantha Cassetty, RD

Holiday weight gain might seem inevitable given that we often put a pause on our healthy habits until January. But having a strategy to avoid it could tip the scales in your favor — not just come the new year, but over the course of your life. Here’s why: On average, we pack on around 1 to 2 pounds during the holiday season and while that sounds like no big deal, studies suggest we don’t take it off. Ever. That means we enter each year a couple of pounds heavier — which can add up over the decades.

And if you enter the holiday season already overweight, it’s likely you’ll gain even more, say researchers who’ve investigated the matter. But as they say, an ounce of prevention is better than a pound of cure so here are some expert-backed pointers for avoiding the typical holiday weight gain.

  • Keep moving. When holiday activities ramp up and we’re gearing up for some out of office time, workouts are one of the first things to slip. But even if you don’t have time for an hour-long spin class or your typical yoga session, put in what you can. Exercise has a number of mental and physical benefits, and the science suggests it can counter some of the metabolic effects of overeating, even if it doesn’t wash out all those extra calories you’re consuming. Resist the all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to workouts and do what you can when you can — even if that’s just a quick routine in your living room. It may be especially helpful to enlist a friend. One study found that doing so led to increased activity, particularly if the workout partner provided encouragement and support. So grab a pal and go for a quick walk or make a weekly date to attend a group class. If you can’t meet up in person, have a virtual check in to encourage each other to keep moving.
  • Be picky about splurges. Chances are, you don’t love all holiday food equally so consider which ones are worth it to you and which ones you can live without (or at least, live with just a little bit). In other words, it’s fine to have a food thrill or two so between the mashed potatoes, the stuffing, the pies, fruitcake, eggnog, gingerbread cookies and other holiday fare, but decide which ones deserve a spot on your plate and enjoy them mindfully. Don’t reserve an equal spot for the stuff that doesn’t totally wow you. If the stuffing is your thing, have a spoonful, but if you’re not all about apple pie, you might want to skip that or just have a bite or two.
  • Don’t save your calories. It’s common to try to eat lightly in an effort to save calories for the holiday meal, but this plan can backfire quickly because when you’re beyond hungry, it’s hard to stay in control of your food choices. (Real talk: When you enter a party starving, do you make a bee line for the crudité? I don’t!) Instead of eating ultra-lightly or even fasting, try having a late but satisfying breakfast or brunch. Since holiday meals tend to be on the early side, you may not need to eat on your normal schedule so a meaningful brunch might be enough to keep you content and energized until you hit the main affair. Your non-holiday meal should include the winning combo of protein and fiber — the nutrient duo that helps tame hunger. Some examples: A yogurt parfait or smoothie made with Greek yogurt, berries and a portion of nuts or nut butter; a salad made with greens, leftover roasted veggies, canned tuna, and a drizzle of dressing; a grain bowl with the grain and veggie portions reversed (to boost your veggie intake) made with chicken or turkey. This format keeps things light but filling so you can stay in control of your holiday choices. It’s also a good structure for meals on your non-party days.
  • Drink wisely. Alcohol can weaken your inhibitions so while you might have intended to skip the baked brie, a couple of drinks might spur you to change your mind. Beyond that, alcohol can disrupt your sleep (which can impact your appetite and food choices), and leave you with a next day reminder (hello, hangover) that could also sway your food choices. (Have you ever craved leafy greens while hungover?) When possible, stick with the recommended caps of one drink a day for women, two for men, and try to avoid sugary mix-ins, which can worsen the impact of alcohol, among other things.

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