Keeping Off the Holiday Pounds

by Liz Friedrich, MPH, RD, LDN

It’s holiday time again! And that means festivities, time with friends and family, and one of life’s greatest pleasures, food. This time of the year, our tables are laden with family favorites, traditional religious and ethnic foods, and tasty holiday confections. But all this wonderful food can be a source of unnecessary stress if you are worried about your weight. The combination of frequent gatherings, social pressures, and mounds of high-fat, high-calorie food makes the holiday season a challenging time to eat healthfully or stick to a weight-loss plan.

Can you enjoy the wonderful culinary pleasures of the holiday season without overindulging in food and drink? Yes, you can, but it will take some effort. Unfortunately, there’s no magic bullet to keep your eating habits on track this time of year. But a little knowledge and a lot of forgiveness will go a long way in helping you deal with holiday temptations. To make it through the holiday season, readjust your thinking and give yourself permission to enjoy some of the pleasures of the season. Losing weight over the holiday season is probably not realistic, especially if you are a social person who goes to lots of holiday gatherings. So instead of trying to lose weight, plan not to gain weight. Enjoy tasty holiday treats, but in small amounts and less often. And don’t beat yourself up if you overdo it. If you can adopt this philosophy, chances are some of the “food stress” you feel will go by the wayside and you’ll enjoy your holiday season more.

Helpful strategies

The following tips can help keep your eating habits on track during the holidays. If you can embrace even a few of these, you’ll be well on your way to “maintaining, not gaining” as you start the new year.

Arrive at the party satisfied, not famished. Have a small snack before you head out to a holiday event, especially if you know you won’t be eating for a few hours. Eating before you go can ensure you won’t be starving and ready to eat everything in sight when you arrive. Some good snack choices are four ounces of your favorite yogurt, a small piece of cheese, or a handful of nuts.

Make trade-offs. Take a critical look at where you can cut corners every day to save calories. That specialty coffee you enjoy every morning could be loaded with fat and calories. Why not stick with traditional coffee during the holiday season so you won’t feel so guilty about the cookies you eat later in the day? And how about trading your dinner roll with butter for a piece of homemade fudge at your evening party?

Avoid banking calories. Sometimes people fast all day (often referred to as “banking” calories) in anticipation of a big pig-out. This strategy can backfire and result in overeating. Instead of banking calories, continue your normal eating pattern on the day of a big event, but eat a little less at each meal.

Survey the food landscape. Check out the array of food available before you take a single bite. Decide which foods seem most interesting and are worth the calories they contain. Focus on quality, not quantity, and enjoy small amounts of foods you really want to indulge in.

Spend your time socializing. The social interactions of a holiday gathering are more important than the food. Focus on greeting people you know and meeting those you don’t. Chat on the opposite side of the room from the food so you aren’t tempted to nibble the entire evening.

Drop out of the clean plate club. Don’t feel obligated to eat every morsel on your plate. If you leave a few bites behind at every party or holiday meal, the calories you save will really add up.

Eat your calories — don’t drink them. That tasty holiday punch or eggnog can be loaded with calories. For example, a typical four-ounce glass of eggnog has around 175 calories and 19 grams of fat. A cup of cocoa might have as many as 250 calories. Reduce your calorie intake from beverages by drinking water, diet soda, or unsweetened tea and unsweetened, low-fat coffee drinks.

Be the designated driver. Alcoholic drinks, especially those made with sweet mixers or juices, can do in anyone trying to watch his or her weight. A four-ounce margarita has around 180 calories — but does anyone really drink a four-ounce margarita? Probably not! Many party glasses hold 8–12 ounces and can contain 300–500 calories. If you don’t drink alcohol, you’ll save lots of calories, especially if you drink water or diet soda in its place.

If you do drink, try lower-calorie drinks. Small amounts of wine (around 120 calories per 6 ounces) or light beer (around 100 calories per 12 ounces) will help keep your calorie intake from alcohol as low as possible. And sip a glass of water between alcoholic drinks. This will limit the amount of calories you drink and help you stay hydrated.

Keep your portions small. Instead of a plateful of chips and salsa, have half a plate. Enjoy a few small sips of eggnog and just a couple of bites of the host’s signature dessert. If you know you can’t stop at just one piece of your favorite holiday sweets, try to avoid them altogether.

Bring your own tasty, healthful foods. When you are asked to contribute a dish, make it something low-fat, low-calorie, and delicious. You may be surprised at how quickly it disappears. After all, you aren’t the only one watching your weight and health during the holiday season!

Brush up on how to say no. Don’t be afraid to decline an invitation if you are concerned about overeating. Say no to a second party when you’re already stuffed from a first, or decline another drink or plate of food when you’ve had plenty. If your host gets offended when you decline his or her food, a gracious and polite remark such as “it looks great but I am stuffed and can’t eat another bite” should suffice.

Pursue new holiday traditions. If you can give up your holiday baking tradition, take some of the money you spend on baking and spend it on someone else instead. For example, buy a Christmas dinner for a needy family, or a gift for a needy child.

If you bake, remember that less is more. Make a single batch of your favorite cookies instead of a double batch. Freeze your goodies and eat small amounts of them over a few weeks rather than the whole batch in a few days. Consider giving away some of your baked goods, contributing to a school or church bake sale, or taking them along to a function where there will be plenty of people to help eat them.

Make exercise a priority. Don’t let your exercise routine get lost in the shuffle, even when things get hectic. Exercise will help relieve holiday stress and burn off the extra food you’ve been eating. The effort that you put into making your workouts a priority will pay off in the way you feel and look throughout the holiday season. If you can’t get to the gym, take a brisk walk, climb the stairs in a hotel, or pop in an exercise DVD. Sneak in exercise by walking when you are doing your holiday shopping or errands. If you are traveling, find a gym nearby and pay to visit as a guest — it’s money well spent.

Know your numbers. Women who get little or no physical activity should eat about 1,800–2,000 calories a day, and similarly inactive men should get about 2,000–2,600 calories a day. You may need more or less depending on your age and activity level. To find out your daily calorie needs, go to the “Daily Food Plans” section of and plug in the information requested, or, to the “Weight Management” section for table of daily calorie recommendations. Knowing your recommended daily calorie intake makes it easier to recognize that you are overdoing it when you take that extra portion of turkey and stuffing or eat two slices of pumpkin pie.

Record your food intake. Research shows that people who keep a food diary tend to eat less than those who don’t. Take a few minutes to write down what you eat every day, even when you’re busy. You’ll probably be shocked at how many calories you eat (and drink!), especially during the holiday season. You can jot down everything you eat on paper, or get more elaborate by using your smartphone or computer. A good online calorie tracker is available at For expert advice on making diet changes, look for a Web site that provides advice from a registered dietitian or find a registered dietitian locally.

If you fall off the horse, get back in the saddle. Overindulging at one event is not an excuse for throwing in the towel altogether. Stay focused on your goal of “maintaining, not gaining” during the season. And above all, enjoy the holidays!

Last Reviewed November 8, 2012

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Liz Friedrich is a nutrition and health promotion consultant based in North Carolina.

Statements and opinions expressed on this Web site are those of the authors and not necessarily those of the publishers or advertisers. The information provided on this Web site should not be construed as medical instruction. Consult appropriate health-care professionals before taking action based on this information.

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