The holidays are a time meant for celebration, which often involves special traditions — including food-related ones. “But if you’re trying to lose or maintain weight, you may worry that a holiday season packed with festivities might get you off track,” says Caroline Andrew, MD, medical weight management specialist at HSS. These concerns may be magnified for people who know they tend to turn to food when they’re stressed, especially since all the hubbub brings with it additional to-do’s. Luckily, finding comfort and joy can be simpler than it may seem. What you need, Dr. Andrew says, is a plan.
Here are some of the do’s and don’ts Dr. Andrew shares with her clients around the winter holidays. “Of course, you can bring them out of storage any time you’re facing a food-focused event like a vacation or weekend getaway,” she says. “These strategies can help you avoid unwanted weight gain any time of year.”
A good place to start, says Dr. Andrew, is finding ways to ease stress and anxiety when they bubble up (or before). “That may mean meditating, taking a hot bath or shower, listening to music or calling a friend to catch up,” she says. “Even just 10 minutes can help you feel more relaxed and make it less likely that you turn to food for relief.” If you’re having trouble finding time to unwind, mark a daily 10-minute stress break on your calendar and tag it with an alert—then treat it like you would a doctor’s appointment and don’t miss it.
Some people skip meals to “save up” calories for a big holiday dinner or party, but this strategy may backfire and lead to overeating later. Instead, try time-restricted eating, or limiting your intake to an eight-hour window of time each day. “This has been shown to be an effective weight maintenance strategy,” says Dr. Andrew. Or try having a lighter breakfast and lunch at your usual times, making sure they incorporate a lot of vegetables and proteins with minimal carbs. For example, you might have a Greek yogurt for breakfast, a green salad with grilled chicken and light dressing for lunch, and then let yourself enjoy the evening feast.
At every dinner or party, it helps to have a plate of salad or vegetables before anything else. These low-calorie and high-fiber foods will help you fill up before you dive into the higher-calorie options. Next, have some type of lean protein. If you are going to have carbs (such as potatoes, chips, rice, pasta, bread or a sweet dessert), save them for the end of your meal. By then, you’ll be less hungry and the protein you’ve eaten will slow your digestion a bit, so you’ll feel full for longer afterward.
An easy way to cut calories is to avoid drinks like regular soda, juice, coffee drinks with added sugar and alcoholic beverages. If you do decide to drink alcohol, choose spirits mixed with something without added sugar, such as seltzer or diet tonic water, rather than beer, wine or mixed drinks. Or stick to a drink has only about 100 calories per serving.
Do keep in mind that alcohol can lower inhibitions and make you more likely to indulge, so limit yourself to one or two drinks, and have a glass of water after each one. (In general, try to aim for six to eight glasses of water per day.)
Controlling diet and weight is a balancing act. Completely cutting out dessert and sweets over the holidays (or any other time, for that matter) is simply unrealistic and may lead to binging or simply eating more than you’d like to. “If you are really craving a piece of cake, let yourself have it!” says Dr. Andrew. “Remind yourself that this won’t be your last dessert ever and try to put the fork down after one slice—or a few bites, if you’re satisfied by that.”
When we’re presented with a spread of tempting options, we may feel the need to try every single thing. If that sounds familiar, remind yourself that there will be plenty of delicious food at other meals down the road. (This is not the last fruitcake you’ll ever see!) Or wrap some food to take home and freeze it to enjoy later.
Also, don’t feel pressured to say yes to every offering of food. Try to check in with yourself to make sure you’re actually interested in eating whatever is in front of you. When your cousin says you have to try her famous chocolate cake, it’s okay to say that you feel full, or that you are trying to be careful this night/week/month/year, and although it looks incredible, you are going to pass this time.
Ever have trouble remembering what you ate at a party? All the conversation, the many mini plates of this and that and the general hubbub can make it easy to lose track. In such cases, a mindful eating strategy may help, says Dr. Andrew. Carefully choose your food, then sit down somewhere quiet and take a few deep breaths before you start to eat. This can help you gain awareness of where you are and what you are about to take in. As you eat, focus on each forkful: how it smells, how it tastes, how hungry or satiated you are feeling in the moment. (This is good to try at home, too, which means no more TV dinners!)
The more you exercise, the better, and everything counts. New recommendations say even short bouts of exercise (less than 10 minutes) are beneficial for your health. After a big meal, enlist some friends or family to join you for a walk, or get off the subway a stop early and walk some of the way home. On weekends, go skiing, biking, swimming or do any activity you enjoy. If you have an injury, ask your physical therapist or physician what you can do, and if you’re not fond of exercise, ask for a gift certificate for personal training or a gym, so you can find your bliss.
Remember why you are trying to lose or maintain weight. Are you preparing for surgery or trying to decrease your joint pain? Whatever your reasons, write them down and pull them out when you need a reminder of why you’re following the tips above.
Finally, try not to be too hard on yourself. Most people will eat more than they planned to at some point during the holidays. If you do, don’t let it completely derail you. Just try to get back on track the next day.
Also keep in mind that it can be really challenging to manage weight on your own, and what works for one person for weight loss does not always work for the next. Don’t hesitate to reach out to your doctor or a registered dietitian for guidance.
Finally, be sure to enjoy your time with family and friends. “Having a plan for the holidays can help you feel more in control of your eating and help you manage weight,” says Dr. Andrew. “But do try to prioritize some fun.”