Tips to Stay Trim During the Holiday Season

Don't Allow this Season to Sabotage Your Health

Posted Nov 23, 2015

Now that the holidays are upon us, eating healthy becomes less of a priority for many people. During this cheerful season people often become lax about their diet and indulge on snacks and high calorie beverages that they normally would avoid. Just take a quick glance around the communal break room at work and it is easy to see why it’s so hard to stick to a diet during the holidays. Leftovers, homemade cookies and cakes are a force to be reckoned with. Sometimes “will power” is no match against the constant barrage of snacks and appetizers that decorate the buffet tables at every holiday party. Heavy cream sauces and buttery spreads are spooned and smeared over calorie-laden meats and breads. Overindulgence becomes the norm, and a “cheat” day becomes a “cheat” month. Eating out becomes a typical occurrence shared amongst friends and family, making it all the more challenging to eat healthy. And don't forget the beverages! Pumpkin lattes buried in whipped cream, hot chocolate loaded with marshmallows and creamy eggnog are just some examples of seasonal drinks that we crave, further sabotaging healthy dietary intentions. Further, when its dark and chilly, who wants to go out for a jog? And not to mention the overall stress of the season- no wonder many people gain weight and inches during this time!

From mid- November to mid- January many people gain an average of 1-2 pounds, with some gaining up to 5 pounds! This may not sound like a lot- however it typically is not subsequently lost once the New Year starts. Moreover, people who are already overweight or obese prior to the start of the season gain even more weight when compared to people who fall within a normal weight range.1,2 Besides just weight gain, metabolic changes can occur. Recent research shows that daily snacking of calorically dense high fat treats over the course of only 4 weeks can negatively impact metabolic markers of metabolism- which is a similar time frame of the holiday eating season. 3

Many find it so difficult to resist highly palatable foods during this time of year because they are very reinforcing and pleasurable. This makes us want more, causing it to be nearly impossible for some people to stick with eating healthy. Although it is not realistic to completely avoid every unhealthy option, it is important to be mindful of what you’re eating and not completely abandon your healthy lifestyle when the holidays come around.

Below are several tips to keep in mind so that you don't leave the holiday season heavier than when it started- while still fully enjoying this time of year.

1) Make friends! When at a holiday party, try striking up a conversation with someone you don't know. Research shows that eating with friends causes people to increase their food intake by almost 20%, but when engaging in a conversation with strangers, overall consumption is not impacted. 4

Source: vivienvivi0/pixabay

2) Always evaluate whether or not you are actually hungry. It is often the case that people eat when they are tricked into thinking they’re hungry, when in reality, they’re not. Environmental cues don't help! 5 Seeing a half eating tray of cookies may make you take one, even if that wasn't your original intention. Try to avoid putting yourself in situations where you know it will be difficult to resist the urge to eat- if you know the break room has an assortment of holiday leftovers, take your break somewhere else to make it easier to resist temptation.

3) If you do find that you are hungry, make sure you’re not ravenous when showing up to a holiday lunch or party. Eat a small nutritious snack prior to arriving, so when the buffet table is in sight, you are able to objectively pick what you want to eat, instead of just grabbing the first thing that catches your eye. Avoid heavy sides like green bean casserole and mashed potatoes and be selective on what you “use” your calories on.

4) Remember that appetizers are typically calorically dense, so chose only one or two that you really want to try- then fill the rest of your plate with crudités and fiber packed hummus. When there is too much variety, people tend to eat a lot more than they originally planned on. Also, make sure to walk away from the table while you are eating- this will reduce the urge to keep refilling your plate. Out of site- out of mind!

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5) Steer clear from calorically dense beverages- just one cup of eggnog delivers well over 300 calories! The same rings true for seasonally inspired martinis and alcoholic punches. If you want to splurge on a wintery drink, remember to drink water or seltzer in between so that not every beverage is sugar and fat laden. Educate yourself on the caloric content of typical holiday beverages- it will make you more aware of the liquid calories that will inevitably lead to weight gain.

6) When leaving a party and offered leftovers- be selective in what you decide to take home. Do you really need half a pecan pie or turkey stuffing tempting you every time you open your fridge?

7) Planning is key- make a shopping list and stick to it! Keep purchasing healthy items just like before the holiday season started. This is a great way to make sure you still have nutritious foods at home when it seems like only calorically dense options are available everywhere else. Just because it's the holidays doesn't mean that your cart should be filled with cakes and cookies every time you go shopping. Food-shopping behaviors are often carried over well past the holiday season, so be mindful of your buying. Many of the same junk food bought during the holidays remains relatively constant well into February- further contributing to poor eating behaviors, and in turn, weight gain.6

8) Stay active and exercise! Not only is it great for your body but it's also a way to alleviate holiday stress and anxiety.

This season has the potential to be a dietary nightmare for some, but it is possible to stay healthy, avoid excess weight gain and still enjoy this wonderful time of year!


1.            Hull HR, Radley D, Dinger MK, Fields DA. The effect of the Thanksgiving holiday on weight gain. Nutr J. 2006;5:29.

2.            Schoeller DA. The effect of holiday weight gain on body weight. Physiol. Behav. 2014;134:66-69.

3.            Kardinaal AF, van Erk MJ, Dutman AE, et al. Quantifying phenotypic flexibility as the response to a high-fat challenge test in different states of metabolic health. FASEB J. 2015;29(11):4600-4613.

4.            Hetherington MM, Anderson AS, Norton GN, Newson L. Situational effects on meal intake: A comparison of eating alone and eating with others. Physiol. Behav. 2006;88(4-5):498-505.

5.            Prinsen S, de Ridder DT, de Vet E. Eating by example. Effects of environmental cues on dietary decisions. Appetite. 2013;70:1-5.

6.            Pope L, Hanks AS, Just DR, Wansink B. New Year's res-illusions: food shopping in the new year competes with healthy intentions. PLoS One. 2014;9(12):e110561.

Appreciation is extended to Kristen Criscitelli for drafting this post

Dr. Nicole Avena is a research neuroscientist, author and expert in the fields of nutrition, diet and addiction. She received a Ph.D. in Neuroscience and Psychology from Princeton University, followed by a postdoctoral fellowship in molecular biology at The Rockefeller University in New York City. She has published over 70 scholarly journal articles, as well as several book chapters and books, on topics related to food, addiction, obesity and eating disorders. She also edited the books, Animal Models of Eating Disorders (2012) and Hedonic Eating (2015), coauthored the popular book of food and addiction called Why Diets Fail (Ten Speed Press), and recently finished her new book, What to Eat When You're Pregnant. Her research achievements have been honored by awards from several groups including the New York Academy of Sciences, the American Psychological Association, the National Institute on Drug Abuse, and her research has been funded by the National Institutes of Health (NIH) and National Eating Disorders Association.