A Recipe for the Holidays

5 Tips to Help You Avoid Gaining Weight this Holiday Season

Posted Nov 24, 2014

With Thanksgiving just days away, you’ve probably thought about pulling out your favorite pumpkin pie recipe (or figuring out where you can pick up a pie). Visions of delicious sugar cookies or gingerbread men may already be dancing in your head. Perhaps, you even have a babysitter all set for the annual work holiday party and you know exactly which holiday dress you are going to wear. With these thoughts comes the inevitable fear about the pounds you could pack on during this season of indulgence and whether that holiday dress will still fit.

Believe it or not, the holidays can be festive without being fattening! Below are five tips to help you survive Thanksgiving through New Year’s while still wearing the same size pants.

1) Be realistic. Don’t head off to a cookie exchange intent on not touching a single cookie. And, don’t even pretend that you’re going to skip dessert on Christmas Eve. Deprivation and restriction lead to overindulgence more often than not. In fact, research suggests that it may be possible to have your cake and lose weight, too. In one recent study(1), half of the participants were allowed a regular breakfast (approximately 300 calories), but the other half were given a regular breakfast that contained something sweet (approximately 600 calories, with some calories coming from healthy foods and some coming from a donut, a piece of chocolate, or a biscuit). Participants in the first group, who were not allowed a morning sweet, initially lost weight but were unable to keep the weight off long-term. By contrast, the people in the “dessert for breakfast” group gradually but consistently lost weight across four months. The bottom line: losing weight or maintaining a healthy weight requires a realistic approach to what you eat – and a realistic approach may include a slice of pumpkin pie.

2) Stay active. When life gets busy, exercise falls to the bottom of many of our priority lists. Throw in chilly weather and less hours of light during the day and it can seem impossible to get motivated to exercise. However, keeping moving will not only help to reduce the stress of the season but will counteract some of the extra calories that may pass your lips. Just fifteen minutes of moderate exercise per day may be all you need to avoid weight gain during the holidays. If you eat a bit more per day across the next month and exercise for just fifteen more minutes per day than you normally do (burning approximately 100 calories per day), you are unlikely to notice much change in your weight. Further, if you maintain this daily exercise routine and eat less once you make it to 2015, you will burn about 36,500 extra calories next year—or lose about ten pounds. Not bad for fifteen minutes!

3) Make a plan. Eating well means eating in moderation. But, a plan for moderation is important. Otherwise a plate piled high with turkey, potatoes and stuffing that originally feels impossible to conquer will be wiped clear by the time you get to that second glass of wine. So, think before you eat. What are some basic “rules” you can establish for yourself to avoid overindulging? Maybe just one serving is the way to go. Or, skip the stuffing because you don’t really like it anyway. Filling up on fruits and veggies will help keep your caloric intake on the lower side and your stomach feeling full. Avoiding (or having small servings of) some of the least nutritionally valuable food options – the cheese platter, the bread basket, the gravy boat – and instead reaching for an extra serving of salad is a good way to go. The idea is not to feel deprived, but to make good choices.

4) Enjoy. Savor. Share. Food may be what you put on your plate and in your stomach, but the act of eating is about more than just consumption. Food should be fun. As Virginia Woolf once said, “one can not think well, love well, sleep well, if one has not dined well.” Overindulging often occurs when we do not dine well; when we do not enjoy our food and we do not share it with others but instead treat it as a chore or experience it as a source of angst. So, pay attention to what you eat – savor it even. Be grateful for the one time of year when you have turkey and all the fixings. (Does anyone cook a full turkey when it’s not Thanksgiving?) Feeling guilty about what we eat this holiday season will serve no purpose.

5) When all else fails, forgive yourself. The holiday season often starts to feel like a never-ending series of debates: to dessert or not to dessert; to have a glass of eggnog or skip it. But, it would be wise to not think about yourself as being “good” versus giving into temptation. Viewing some foods as off limits is setting yourself up for disaster. Research indicates that if you do give in, you will eat more of these foods than you would have if you didn’t label them as “forbidden” in the first place. This tendency has been given a very scientific and descriptive name by dieting researchers: the “what-the-hell effect” (2). If you are trying to eat well and then decide, “what the hell,” and eat whatever you want, chances are you will end up eating more than you would if you had never tried to restrict yourself in the first place. So, be reasonable and forgiving with yourself and try to avoid throwing up your hands in defeat.

Whatever you do this holiday season, avoid the all-too-common mantra, “I’ll wait until New Year’s.” Stay smart about how you eat (and how much you exercise) this holiday season and January 1st will feel a lot more festive.

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Copyright Charlotte N. Markey, 2014.


1. Jakubowicz, D., Froy, O., Wainstein, J., & Boaz, M. (2012). Meal timing and consumption influence ghrelin levels, appetite scores and weight loss maintenance in overweight and obese adults. Steroids, 10, 323–331.

2. Polivy, J., & Herman, C. P. (1985). Dieting and bingeing: A causal analysis. American Psychologist, 40, 193–201.