There's plenty to love about the holiday season. The decorations, the sense of togetherness and, for many, the food. Whether enjoying hors d'oeuvres and drinks with colleagues or getting the family together for a hearty feast, food and fancy-free are abundant across these final few weeks of the year.
Yet, while we should be enjoying these times, these plentiful meals and events are often feared by those monitoring their diet and nutrition. The "holiday weight gain" is a longstanding villain to athletes and fitness enthusiasts, instilling this belief that indulging in holiday feasts and traditional snacks can do a number on your waistband practically overnight.
What if I told you, though, that holiday weight gain lore is nothing but a fairytale?
Yes, you read that right. Massive weight gain as a result of holiday feasting is a myth that's often blown out of proportion. You can happily maintain your waistline while also enjoying the tasty meals of the season. It doesn't need to be difficult.
That said, if you are worrying about your weight around this time of year, there are a few things to remember. Here are a few debunked folktales surrounding the holiday weight gain, as well as a few tips to help you get the most out of your holiday without sacrificing your nutritional progress.
3 Holiday Weight Gain Myths, Debunked
Myth 1: You gain 5-10 pounds from all that feasting.
Okay, I'll admit. After chowing down on turkey, mashed potatoes, green beans, macaroni and cheese and other delectable dishes, I've felt the occasional bloating or heavy stomach — and I doubt I'm alone on this front. While it might seem like you've just laid a foundation for irremovable weight, you need to understand why your gut feels this way after a hefty holiday dinner.
Think about the dishes served at the holidays — they're very carb-heavy. Any time you eat more carbs than usual, you store the leftovers as glycogen, which gets stored away in your muscle tissue. If you're holding more glycogen than normal, you're bound to feel a little heavy, sluggish and bloated to the point that you've presumably taken on 5–10 pounds in one sitting. Plus, an uptick in carbs can also lead to water weight, as each gram of stored glycogen can hold roughly 3 grams of water.
Now, this isn't to say you haven't gained some weight as a result of this overindulgence, but the numbers are far smaller than this horror story of a waistband change. A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine measured the bodyweight of almost 200 adults on separate occasions around the holiday season, discovering that the actual average amount of weight gain was roughly 0.80 pounds, or 0.37 kilograms. While losing nearly one pound does take some effort, it's nowhere near as intimidating as thinking you just engulfed a change plate during the family get-together.
Myth 2: You'll be better off not eating beforehand to make room for big meals.
We've all believed this notion at least once — fasting ahead of a gargantuan meal in order to save space for the tasty servings ahead. Sure, this mentality and practice can allow you to save some room in your daily caloric intake for a larger meal, but you need to remember that you're essentially starving yourself with the hope that you'll be able to control your habits once the turkey or ham has been carved. Sadly, the believed willpower is rarely maintained in these circumstances.
Staving off hunger before a big holiday meal can lead to more overeating and snacking throughout the festivities as you try and curb that ravenous feeling within your stomach. While you might think you're quelling those rumbles by munching on crackers and charcuterie, combining those calories with a dense holiday meal could lead to more intake than perceived. It's best to eat a balanced meal plan as you lead up to the big feast, as this can help squash any ravenous habits and leave you with less chances to overindulge.
Myth 3: "Healthy" recipes can ease your weight gain worries.
One of the (many) reasons holiday meals are cherished across the board is the fact that these dishes carry notes of heartiness and give off that homey feeling of comfort. Sure, the recipes can be altered for a more nutritional background — I'm a big fan of using Greek yogurt in place of mayonnaise for certain dip recipes — but swapping out "healthier" ingredients for the sole sake of clean eating can leave you saddened, dissatisfied and wanting more. This want can lead to further snacking to appease those tastebuds, resulting in more overeating and squandering the initial cause of a healthier recipe.
There's nothing wrong with experimenting in the kitchen or catering to different dietary needs, but with foods synonymous with the holidays like mashed potatoes, green bean casserole, candied yams, turkey and more, there are more enjoyable routes to take.
As you can see, there are plenty of myths and misconceptions around eating at the holidays, and indulging in the season's treats and tastes is not the most blasphemous act when it comes to your fitness journey. Despite these debunked tales above, though, the holidays are not a hall pass to let your nutrition squander.
Below are some helpful tricks to make sure you enjoy the feasts while still catering to your fitness needs.
5 Tips for Eating Smarter This Holiday Season
Moderate your carb intake, but don't avoid carbs altogether.
As stated above, it's fairly difficult to avoid all carbohydrates around the holiday season. So, one of the best solutions to getting around the bloating and sluggishness is by moderating your carbs. Instead of two spoonfuls each of stuffing, mashed potatoes and mac and cheese, cut back these helpings or opt for something like steamed broccoli, creamed corn or other tasty sides.
A good trick is to use smaller plates that don't allow for ample real estate when creating your dinnertime layout. This can help you trick your eyes into thinking you have a full dish, all while still limiting your intake.
Mix in some physical activity.
I'm not suggesting you head out and run a full marathon after your feasting, but those neighborhood turkey trots and family 7-on-7 games can do wonders for your holiday nutrition. Mixing in some physical activity can help you body expel retained fluids in the form of sweat, thus creating an outlet for that excess water weight. Some simple activities include going for a walk post-dinner, getting the family active for a game of charades or just moving your feet throughout the kitchen to help with cleanup. It doesn't need to be an RPE 9 workout, but getting the body moving, even a little, can help with limiting the post-meal drawls.
Manage your stress and sleep levels.
Weight gain is not just a result of your diet, and around the holidays stress can easily take the wheel in the form of rushing from one family gathering to the other, thinking about gift shopping and more. Remember to take some time for yourself and walk into each feast with a clear head — your waistline will thank you.
Additionally, with all the parties and gatherings at this time of year, you could be left with a compromised sleep schedule. Try your best to maintain a well-regimented routine when nightfall hits, and this can help defend against late-night snacking, overindulgence or nibbling on that extra sugar cookie for the added energy boost.
Stay hydrated — with water.
Drinking water might seem counterintuitive to the water weight you're undoubtedly going to take on with the added carbs, but consuming H2O is ideal for your holiday nutrition since it helps flush out excess water and sodium — another unavoidable ingredient when it comes to holiday-themed meals. Plus, water can help you balance out some of those sugary holiday drinks and help prevent against dehydration, which also plays a role in your body's willingness to retain fluid.
A good benchmark to aim for when drinking your water in tandem with holiday eating is 64 ounces. So, the next time your uncle or co-worker offers you a hearty mug of seasonal eggnog, choose to hydrate with this simplistic beverage, instead.
Above all else, have fun.
The holidays are a time to enjoy good company and good food — and you won't be able to do that if you're constantly worried about what you're consuming, how it will affect your diet and when you'll be able to work off those excess calories. Mental health and personal happiness go a long way in fueling your personal fitness journey, and by following the above tips — as well as understanding the myths surrounding holiday dieting — you can leave each party and gathering with a better mindset that you haven't done anything wrong.
So, take that slice of pumpkin pie from grandma. Sample your cousin's green bean casserole. Take that last cookie from the tray, if your heart so desires. Just be aware of what you're consuming and have a plan set in place to make the feasting festivities a seasonal occurrence, rather than a normal regimen.