It is reported that the average American experiences a 7-pound weight gain between Thanksgiving and New Year's, then spends the next several weeks trying to lose as much of the excess as possible. Unfortunately, many people are unsuccessful in their weight reduction efforts, and wish that they had not added the holiday weight in the first place. Most would agree that it is better to prevent unwanted weight gain than to remedy the situation later.
But just how can we approach the festivities and abundant food supplies so prevalent throughout November and December to avoid overeating? I have a few suggestions in that regard, and I also recommend an exercise emphasis during this critical time of year. In reality, regular exercise is more necessary during the less active winter season than during the more active warm-weather months.
Twelve Strategies For Avoiding Holiday Weight Gain
1. The first suggestion, which should be followed year round, is to drink water frequently throughout the day. Our bodies consist mostly of water, and it is unquestionably our most essential nutrient. Drinking cold water serves as a mild appetite suppressant and burns calories to warm it up to body temperature. I have made it a habit to take a drink every time I pass a water fountain. If water dispensers are not available, try keeping an insulated plastic water bottle nearby and drinking from it at regular intervals.
2. The second suggestion is to eat low-calorie fruit and vegetable snacks rather than high-calorie foods such as donuts, muffins, pastries, sandwiches, or various fast-food or vending machine selections. Although apples, oranges, pears, carrot sticks, celery sticks, pepper slices, and cherry tomatoes may not be your first choice, they can be highly satisfying and prevent the calorie overload that might otherwise occur with normal snacks and large holiday meals.
3. The third strategy is to eat high fiber foods, such as prunes, to aid gastrointestinal transit processes. These and other dried fruit, such as figs, dates, apricots, and raisins, are ideal for satisfying the sweet tooth and have an extremely low fat content. Abundant around the holidays, dried fruit presents an excellent alternative to less healthy and more fattening foods such as cookies, cakes, pies, pastries and candy.
4. The fourth strategy is to eat less for lunch on days that you have dinner events. While you don't want to reach the buffet table semi-starved, it makes sense to eat somewhat less for your noon meal when you are likely to eat somewhat more for your evening meal.
5. The fifth recommendation is to make wise decisions in your food selections, especially at banquets and parties. Don't be afraid to be different. Choose less fattening entrees, such as broiled fish or baked chicken. Select healthier soups and salads, and consider light salad dressings. Use butter and cheese sparingly, and request your meals without gravies or rich sauces.
6. The sixth recommendation is to say no to dessert sampling. Many holiday dinners and parties come with a variety of delicious desserts, and you may be tempted to sample several of them, even if just to please the people who made them. Be polite but adamant. Simply say that all of the desserts look superb, but you have vowed to eat just one dessert per day to avoid too much of a good thing and resultant weight gain. Most of your friends will understand and many may even follow your wise example.
7. The seventh suggestion is to exit food-laden events at a reasonable hour. In addition to sleep deprivation that runs rampant during the busy holiday season, staying longer at parties usually leads to greater food consumption and unnecessary calories. Participate fully in the festivities, but be one of the first to call it a night for your health's sake.
8. The eighth suggestion is to avoid or at least limit alcohol consumption. With all the other high-calorie foods typically eaten during holiday gatherings, alcoholic beverages can only make matters worse. Keep in mind that alcohol contains almost as many calories per gram as fat, so the fewer alcoholic drinks the better from a weight gain perspective.
9. The ninth strategy is to do some daily aerobic activity to condition your cardiovascular system and to burn extra calories. For example, a 30-minute walk requires about 200 to 250 calories depending on your bodyweight and walking pace.
10. The tenth strategy is to do 2 or 3 sessions of strength exercise each week to condition your muscular system and to burn more calories. Although 30 minutes of strength training also requires about 200 to 250 calories, the greater benefit is an accelerated metabolism all day long. In a Tufts University study, a season of strength training produced a 7 percent increase in resting metabolic rate and a 15 percent increase in daily calorie requirements among the senior men and women who participated.
11. The eleventh recommendation is to find a family member, friend, or co-worker who will agree to help you implement your holiday program for avoiding weight gain. Your partner in prevention should be someone who not only talks the talk, but also walks the walk. Ideally, this individual should be both an encourager and an example with respect to holiday eating and exercise behavior.
12. The twelfth recommendation for holiday survival is related to human survival. While it is tempting to say that the holidays come only once a year, and to rationalize that you can lose the extra weight through your New Year's resolutions, the reality is a more serious health problem. Most people don't lose all the extra holiday weight, which is one reason 75 percent of all Americans are overweight and almost 35 percent are obese. Because overweight individuals are more susceptible to many physical problems, including low back pain, heart disease, diabetes, and some types of cancer, we should take preventive measures during the holiday season. But even for those who can lose the added weight, it may be more difficult to reduce undesirable cholesterol levels or arterial plaque deposition resulting from several weeks of eating high-fat foods. So take a sensible approach to eating and exercising during the holiday period. Be serious about good health habits throughout the year, and try to make the next few weeks an unusually good experience from a fitness perspective.
Wayne L. Westcott, Ph.D., is Fitness Research Director at the South Shore YMCA in Quincy, MA., and author of several books on fitness including Building Strength and Stamina, and his most recent publication, Strength Training Past 50.