Already suffering from nightmares that your favorite jeans won’t fit come January? Or that you’ll be sporting double chins in your New Year’s photos? Relax. Even if you’ve already indulged a little too much this year, you can still make it to 2016 without feeling totally bloated.
“It’s not the climate and lower temperatures that lead to overeating,” says Milton Stokes, MPH, RD, CDN, owner of One Source Nutrition, LLC, a nutrition counseling and consulting firm in Connecticut. The “winter weight gain” problem centers around behavior and the temptations we’re exposed to during these months of the year. Wanting cheesy casseroles and thick, hearty stews as soon as the temps drop are behaviors we’ve trained ourselves to repeat, says Stokes. “That old hibernation theory of needing more calories to get you through a harsh winter doesn’t hold up.” After all, he says, when we look across the country at places that don’t have harsh winters, people are still eating more this time of year.
Blame the link between “winter” and “weight gain” on it being a season when people come together to celebrate rich food, socialize frequently, drink more alcohol, and possibly lose workout motivation. “We’d like the celebrating to be about fellowship, family and getting together with people we don’t see often. But usually the event becomes about the food, buffet and desserts,” says Stokes. Here are nine tips to help you resist that extra Christmas cookie and stay motivated to make it until the new year without the gift of extra girth.
9 Ways to Avoid Winter Weight Gain
1. Celebrate maintenance, not just weight loss.
Research has shown that the average person only gains one to two pounds during the holiday season. But while a pound is about the average for his weight management clients, Stoke says, it’s not uncommon for people who are overweight or obese to gain a bit more. It may not seem like much, but once that pound is on your frame, there’s a good chance it stays there permanently, Stokes says. And if that happens every year, then 10 years later, you’re 10 pounds heavier. Stokes suggests creating a plan that you can manage and be happy with until eggnog season is over. If that means your goal is to maintain your weight, be OK with that! If you’re trying to lose weight, know you’ll have to be extra vigilant with your diet and exercise plan.
2. Have that cookie — but not three.
From the time Halloween candy hits stores in early October, we’re bombarded with treats and temptations at every turn. What’s worse, we often act as if we’ll never see this food again except this one time of year! We treat holiday food and holiday eating like it’s “The Last Supper,” says Stokes. People go gaga for holiday cookies and sweets, specialty appetizers and heavy cocktails as if we can only enjoy them one month of the year. That often leads to overeating each time they’re in front of us, says Stokes. “I remind my clients that if you want a special food on a holiday, have it. Just don’t think you need three servings because there’s no other time of year you can have it. Don’t give food that much power over this [seasonal] event. Take the wind out of its sails,” Stokes says.
3. Be willing to say “no.”
If you’re serious about meeting your goal on the other side of the holiday season, make a habit of outlining what you’re going to eat each day and planning your workouts. That might involve setting aside more time for shopping, prepping food and cooking your meals for the week ahead so you’re not at the mercy of less-than-good-for-you leftovers, happy hour drinks on an empty stomach, or eating half the batter of brownie mix for your kid’s school party. And if it’s not in your predetermined meal plan, it’s OK to say, ‘no, thank you.’
Stokes says many of his clients have anxiety over disappointing food pushers. People think it’s a chaotic, out-of-control time where you have to surrender and eat the foods others are pushing on you, especially when you know they have good intentions. But be vigilant and persistent with your plan. “Give your family members the opportunity to hear you say that you don’t want it. If they feel rejected or sad, that’s their problem,” he says.
4. Accept slip-ups and move on.
If you ate something you didn’t plan on having that day — like your aunt’s famous holiday streusel — the best thing you can do is adjust your program and get back on track at your next meal. That might mean trimming your carbs in half at dinner or skipping your evening snack. If you had a workout planned already for that day, consider increasing the intensity or tacking on 10 more minutes if you can squeeze it in. “One meal is not going to break you. It’s not going to make you gain a pound of fat or muscle,” says Stokes. Also keep in mind that if you get on the scale and see weight gain, it could be fluid retention from eating salty seasonal foods. Don’t get discouraged by a gain and decide to ditch your goal until the new year — start fresh with your next meal.
5. Be wary of “open bar” situations.
Drinking alcohol packs a triple punch when it comes to interfering with weight loss. Besides having empty calories, some research has shown that alcohol stimulates appetite and lowers inhibition so you’re more likely to eat fried, fatty, salty foods you normally wouldn’t touch with a 10-foot pole. Stokes tells his clients to try to avoid alcohol at parties if they can, or, if they know they’re going to have a drink or two, not to do it on an empty stomach. When we’re super-hungry it’s hard to think clearly and forgo indulgent foods and high-calorie drinks. Skipping meals throughout the day to save yourself calories for drinking usually backfires and leads to overeating, so pre-plan the number of drinks you’ll have and deduct those calories from your daily total.
6. Stay present to prevent overeating.
It’s all too easy to get caught up in a beautiful spread of food at a holiday table and wolf down your meal so you can have seconds before it disappears. But the key to tuning in to your body and knowing when you’re full is to stay aware and present. Need a helpful reminder? Try preprogramming a message on your phone to pop up before you sit down to dinner. Use whatever will remind you to be mindful, enjoy the food, relax and savor everything to prevent overeating from happening in the first place. And if you find yourself eating too quickly, it’s OK to get up from the table, pretend you need to make a phone call or check on your kids, and just do something that removes you from that situation for one to two minutes, suggests Stokes. You’ll come back feeling recharged and refocused so you can finish your meal more mindfully.
7. Recommit to your initial goals.
Passing on treats day in and day out gets old (and exhausting). To stay motivated, remind yourself of why you wanted to follow a healthy eating plan in the in the first place, says Stokes. For his clients it’s usually connected to wanting to feel better, improve confidence, reverse health problems, and more. “A lot of clients I see have motivation-related issues. Write those reasons you started this healthy initiative down and carry them with you on a sticky note or put them in a digital calendar with a daily pop-up message that says something like, ‘I’m eating this way because I want to feel better and lose weight.’” Seeing reminders daily helps motivation.
8. Think about why you’re eating.
“A lot of the winter weight gain I see around the holidays is oftentimes about people feeling anxious, stressed, overwhelmed, lonely or sad — and food is a substitute for other things,” says Stokes. It’s easy to fall into emotional eating habits if we don’t have coping mechanisms for uncomfortable feelings, and the holidays aren’t necessarily a joyous time for everyone. “We’re supposed to be happy and come together with family members and we’re all supposed to get along. Recognize that it’s a lot of pressure,” says Stokes. Try to shift the focus back to friends and family and the people you enjoy spending time with the most. And if you need a break, take a few minutes of deep breathing to relax yourself in a quiet place. Then ask yourself if you really need that cookie, or you just needed a breather.
9. Don’t skimp on zzz’s.
The holiday season is all about cramming more things into the day — 25 percent more Stokes estimates, based on his experience with clients — whether it’s parties, shopping, cleaning, cooking, and so on. To get more out of your day, you either hire help or sleep less, he says. And most people usually ditch sleep. With sleep deprivation comes cravings, especially cravings for carbs, sweets and high-calorie foods. Instead, determine how can you delegate some tasks, let go, and get out of that umpteenth holiday party.
After all, something has to give. Try to anticipate and plan around a hectic schedule before it happens. Prioritize your to-do list so the most important goals are at the top — getting the sleep you need, making time for your exercise routine and planning healthy meals. All of those things together make for better health, which is what your ultimate goal is, right?
Originally posted December 2013. Updated December 2017.