Let's get the elephant out of the room. We hear a lot about how the average person gains 7-10 pounds during the holiday season. According to Stanford's Be Well blog (should we go after them for using our name?) the average person gains closer to one pound during the holidays. One pound is very different than 7 pounds, but is still nothing to shake a stick at.
Let's take a closer look at what we consider to be the holiday season. First up is Halloween. Bags of candy laying around the house for a couple weeks. Next up is thanksgiving. 1-2 big days over the course of a weekend of stuffing ourselves. Right behind turkey day we get into the Christmas, Hanukkah, and New Years season. Everywhere you look, you will be presented with plates of cookies, chocolate, possibly alcohol, and other assorted snacks and treats.
Basically, from late October until early January we are presented with numerous opportunities for indulgence. Couple that with the fact that we are biologically inclined to pack on pounds during the winter (an evolutionary trait that helped our ancestors get through cold harsh winters before the invention of year round 70 degree environments) and you have a recipe for weight gain.
In the past decade '+' that I have been in this crazy healthcare world, I've learned a few strategies to help get through the holidays while still prioritizing health and minimizing the impact of the plethora of sugar, salt, and fat we are introduced to.
1) Remember what the holidays are.
What are the "holidays?" Moreover, what is the "holiday season?" Halloween, Thanksgiving, Hanukkah, Christmas, Kwanzaa, and New Years. The stretch from Halloween until New Years day stretches just over 60 days, yet the ACTUAL holidays only comprise 6 days of that stretch (14 if you include the 8 days of Hanukkah, and 13 days if you include Dec. 26-Jan 1 of Kwanzaa). That's it. 10-20% of the "holiday season" is comprised of actual holiday days. Yes, this time of year poses complications to even the most ardent of health enthusiasts, but the first strategy I recommend to people is to keep the celebrating to the actual holiday days themselves (or whatever day it is you celebrate with your family). For example, on December 24 and 25, enjoy the holiday, December 1-23 live your normal life. Don't fall for the "it's the holidays justification" that causes us to eat (over eat) for the entire time frame of October 31-January 1 at all the different holiday parties and events we go to. Enjoy the holidays but maintain discipline during the "season."
2) Don't beat yourself up.
Please, please, please, don't beat yourself up for eating the dessert, or the candy, or whatever it is that you ate on thanksgiving that you wouldn't normally otherwise eat. The key to maintaining a life long healthy lifestyle is to develop a good relationship with food and exercise. Obsessing over the cookie you ate, "punishing" yourself with a post holiday workout, or "earning" your food via intense workouts are all signs of a poor relationship with food. Eliminate the obsessive tendencies and the self deprecating thought processes that occur during the holidays. You had a few cookies? Oh well. You had an extra piece of pie on Christmas? Eh, no big deal. Remember, if you stick to strategy number 1 and are disciplined during the remainder of the "season" the effects of a couple days will be minimized. We don't punish ourselves for enjoying the holidays, nor do we shame ourselves anymore. Our body does that for us when we eat too much by reminding us how bad we feel from eating the extra pie.
3) Use caution with the post holiday fads and health challenges.
To piggy back what I said above about a good relationship with food and exercise, watch out for the post holiday trends that have become so popular lately. For example, last year I saw a lot of people begin a fasting protocol after the holidays. Fasting can be an excellent health strategy when used correctly, however, using fasting as a punishment of sorts for holiday indulgence is a dysfunctional behavior. In the proper context, fasting can be a great protocol for slight caloric restriction and has been shown time and again in different types of trials to be a key to overall health and longevity, but if done improperly (ie. fasting vs chronic starvation or fasting) can lead to unwanted and unintended metabolic consequences. Participating in New Years weight loss competitions can lead to more unintended consequences by leading to yo-yo weight loss and weight gain cycles. Remember, this is a long term game, not how quickly you can lose ten pounds. I've seen and personally participated in enough of those challenges for the past 15 years to see the patterns that develop as a result of them. Eating right and exercising are habits to be formed, not 30 day challenges. Exercise because you enjoy it. Eat right because it makes you feel better. Remember my rule on "diets:" if a diet requires you to take a supplement, it is not a complete diet.
4) Don't trust the scale.
In order to gain a pound of fat it requires an OVER consumption of nearly 3500 calories (not taking into account other contributing factors like macro nutrient ratios and glycemic index of course). Considering the average person will burn about 1000-1800 (basal metabolic rate) calories just by being awake and not counting any additional physical activity or exercise, you would have to eat an absurd amount of food to gain a pound of fat in a day or two. When you step on your scale on December 26 (don't) you may be shocked to see that you are 2-3 pounds heavier than you were the day before. You didn't gain 2-3 pounds of fat. You more than likely gained water weight from the salt and excess carbohydrate consumption. Don't trust your scale this time of year. It doesn't give the full picture. Stepping on the scale during this time of years depressing and it doesn't have to be. 1 Gram of glycogen (stored carbohydrate) can hold up to 3 grams of water. Salt also holds a great deal of water. The 3 pounds you gained on a single day is almost entirely water weight. Just get back on track with healthy habits and you will be fine.
Keep it simple. Maintain discipline and priorities during the Holiday "season" but enjoy the holiday days. If i had to encapsulate my thoughts on this topic into one basic conclusion, I would say that the major key point is having a healthy relationship with food rather than a compulsive relationship. As I said in the workshop series we concluded last week, the most freeing mindset regarding the holidays and food consumption is when you are able to make the switch from saying "I can't have that food," to "I don't want that food." Enjoy your holidays but stay disciplined. As Jocko Willink says, "discipline is freedom."
Stay tuned to our facebook page over the next few weeks and we will be sharing some of our favorite holiday recipes and other tips!