TW: There are some dieting behaviours discussed in this article.
While the holidays can be a wonderful time for celebrations, traditions, and seasonal rich foods, they are notoriously stressful. Unfortunately, this time of year can be riddled with intense dieting, food, and body talk. Plus there are often many conflicting recommendations on how to best navigate the madness. Maybe you’ve noticed messaging like, “Eat the pie!”; “Just enjoy the season!”; Or perhaps the opposite…“Tips to not blow your diet over the holidays”; “Avoid the common 2lb holiday weight gain.”
If you struggle with food and body image, giving yourself utmost permission to eat and reducing the fear around rich or “off limits” foods is totally appropriate. If you have a decent relationship with food and body image and have some healthy/realistic body comp goals or a health condition that requires a little more care with your winter lifestyle behaviors, the, “just eat the pie” messaging may feel unhelpful. If you want actual strategies to help you embrace and enjoy the season while also not getting off-track from your goals, this article is for you.
Think about what your priorities are this holiday season – not the ones you feel like you should have – but how you ideally want to feel and be. Make a list of your goals, the actions and behaviors that help support those so you can consider these throughout the season. Set intentions before parties/events. How do you want to feel tonight? What about tomorrow morning? No plans the following day and want to immerse yourself in all the food and drinks (read: booze)? Maybe that’s your night to really let loose. Have a tough workout planned the following day or a tight work deadline that requires you working extra hours? Sounds like you might feel your best staying well nourished, avoiding a hangover, and getting to bed early.
Don’t “Save Up Calories” Before an Event
Saving up your calories all day before a big meal or event is likely to backfire. When we wait until we are excessively hungry, we are actually more likely to do the very thing we’re trying to avoid: over-eating. Stick with a balanced meal and snack schedule with plenty of protein and fiber, and you may be more likely to make intuitive choices at the event. Keep in mind, sticking with a balanced meal/snack schedule doesn’t automatically equate to “eating less” at said event. It’s really a strategy to ensure variety and nourishment so you are more likely to make the choices you actually want to make, not ones made due to ravenous hunger or deprivation.
Alcohol may feel like the only way you can enjoy yourself around certain individuals at holiday gatherings, but habitual excessive alcohol intake is associated with long-term poor health outcomes and athletic performance deficits. Not to mention, alcohol is more calorie dense than carbohydrates and protein. The good news? Moderate alcohol intake likely does not impair athletic performance provided it is not consumed directly before exercise.(1,2) United States daily alcohol limits for general health is one drink per day for women and two drinks per day for men, although data on intake and optimal health is fairly mixed.(3)
If you’re trying to limit alcohol, consider the aspects of alcohol you like to ensure you stay on track with your goals. If you enjoy bubbles, try including sparkling water at events between booze or in lieu of. For those who enjoy beer or liquor, there are many alcohol-free beers and spirits that actually taste good. Consider club soda, citrus, and bitters as drink mixers more often than the simple syrups, cream, and sodas.
Meal Plan, Prep & Consider Your Cravings
Meal planning options that you actually want to eat is one of the best strategies to keep you well nourished in and out of the holiday season. It can be especially helpful during the holidays when there are often so many snacks/treats around the workplace and/or at home where it’s easy to grab the most convenient food option. Most folks tend to crave warm meals during the winter, so if your go-to loaded salad for lunch now feels underwhelming, try pivoting to a loaded soup +/- salad. It’s totally normal to crave different foods depending on the season. In regards to some of the rich, seasonal foods: sometimes you want the real-deal butter and sugar laden pie and fatty roasted meats and sometimes you may feel like you want to enjoy seasonal foods that are a little more nutritious. Both options are fine. If you’d like to occasionally lighten up some of these rich foods, don’t underestimate how simple recipe tweaks can really shift the nutritional profile without sacrificing a ton of flavor and texture. Saturated fat content can be reduced in meals by using less cooking fat and/or swapping out butter, lard, or coconut oil for unsaturated fats like olive, avocado, and canola oils. The vegetable portion of the dish can be doubled or tripled in a recipe for a fiber and vitamin boost. For example, roasted root vegetables seasoned with herbs and spices make flavorful, nutritious sides.
Be Strategic with Leftovers
Between all the gifted sweet treats and leftovers from gatherings, sometimes a single day of eating rich foods can feel like it lasts all winter long. If that feels a bit much to you, allow the freezer to become your best friend. Were you gifted a ton of amazing fudge but you already have plenty of cookies and chocolate around too? Freeze some of the sweets so you aren’t feeling like you need to quickly devour it all. Consider the same concept with leftovers. It’s basically a gift to your future self for emergency meals or when you’re craving something sweet. Try incorporating leftovers into other meals: meats can be incorporated into grain/salad bowls, cranberry sauce can be made into vinaigrette, and dinner rolls can be used as pre-workout or intra-workout carbs as mini sandwiches.
Set Food & Body Talk Boundaries
Food and body comments are an unfortunate reality for most, especially this time of year. Everyone has the right to enjoy any type and amount of food. I encourage you to honor your hunger, even if that means going for seconds on dessert or skipping out on dessert altogether if you don’t actually want it. If you struggle with how to respond to the questions and comments, see below scenarios for inspiration. It’s also important to understand that most people don’t have bad intentions with dieting/body talk because it is so normalized and engrained in our culture. Take that into consideration before getting defensive.
- “Oh, you can eat all that because you exercise so much. I gain 5lb just looking at it.”
- “I’m on a new low carb diet. Can’t eat most of the things here but I’ve lost 10lb so I’m super happy about that- have you tried it?”
- “Why aren’t you eating any of the stuffing I made?”
- “You’re eating ALL of that!?”
- “You’re only eating that? Gosh, I wish I had your control!”
- “Have you lost/gained weight? You look great!”
- “I’m sorry you feel that way about your body. Hey, how’s your dog doing after surgery?”
- “I’m so glad you’re feeling good on the diet, but that diet is not for me.”
- “I’m not a big stuffing fan in general, but I appreciate you taking the time to make it!”
- “Yep, and I’m PSYCHED!”
- “I’m not trying to control myself. I’m going with what feels good right now.”
- “I know you mean well and I appreciate the good intention, but let’s talk about something else.”
Perhaps you’ve noticed there aren’t black and white eating recommendations in this article. This is because balance is individualized. Focus on your own thoughts, behaviors, and goals to determine what it means to you and move through the holidays in a way that works for you.
- Molina-Hidalgo, C., De-la-O, A., Dote-Montero, M. et al. Influence of daily beer or ethanol consumption on physical fitness in response to a high-intensity interval training program. The BEER-HIIT study. J Int Soc Sports Nutr 17, 29 (2020). https://doi.org/10.1186/s12970-020-00356-7
- Shirreffs, Susan M. PhD; Maughan, Ronald J. PhD The Effect of Alcohol on Athletic Performance, Current Sports Medicine Reports: August 2006 – Volume 5 – Issue 4 – p 192-196 doi: 10.1097/01.CSMR.0000306506.55858.e5
3. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. (2020, December 29). Facts about moderate drinking. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Retrieved November 29, 2021, from https://www.cdc.gov/alcohol/fact-sheets/moderate-drinking.htm.