For me, the holiday season truly is the most wonderful time of the year—bring on the cheesy songs and lights! Parties and cookie swaps start popping up on my calendar and probably yours too. But treating those social events as an excuse for an all-you-can-eat buffet of holiday treats is not the best strategy if you want to be able to fit into your clothes come January.
I prefer to make it through the whirlwind of parties, indulgent foods and flowing cocktails without gaining weight. With the temptation to splurge all around, this can be easier said than done. But don’t worry, I’ve got you covered: here’s a plan that will let you enjoy the holiday treats coming your way without packing on holiday pounds.
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—Lisa Valente, M.S., R.D.
Breakfast is probably the easiest meal to keep consistently healthy this time of year—even if you’re faced with temptations at parties and get-togethers later in the day. Studies show that people who regularly eat breakfast are the most successful at losing weight. I love starting my day with plain Greek yogurt, fruit and some granola. That mix of satisfying protein, which adds staying power, and healthy fiber-rich carbohydrates, which can help keep your waist trim and keep you feeling full for longer, starts my day on the right track.
My favorite holiday dessert of all time is a pumpkin cake that my grandma made every year. Eating a slice of it reminds me of baking with her as a little girl (to start a new holiday baking tradition, try this Sweet Potato Pie with Cream Cheese Swirl ). It's easier for me to say "no" to average sweets, like store-bought candies and cookies, when I know I want to save for a more special, homemade treat.
And don’t try to cut out treats altogether this time of year. Not only is it unrealistic, but banning sugary foods completely may also lead to overeating, according to a study in Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences. One reason may be that removing access to sweet foods stimulates the release of a molecule in your brain called corticotropin-releasing factor (CRF), produced when you’re afraid, anxious or stressed, says Pietro Cottone, Ph.D., lead study author. And increased stress levels may lower your motivation to eat more nutritious foods, making it more likely that you’ll binge on junk food.
While it may be tough to get enough sleep even without the addition of a busy holiday schedule, getting a full 8 hours could help you maintain your weight this season.
Studies show skimping on shut-eye raises ghrelin, a hormone that revs your appetite, and lowers leptin, a hormone that suppresses your appetite, which may leave you hungrier throughout the day. I need all the help I can get against feeling hungry this time of year, and I remind myself of that when I’m staying up too late.
Another study out of Harvard University found that losing even just one to two hours of sleep may make you more inclined to reach for junk food the next day as your body craves more high-fat and high-carbohydrate foods.
If you put it on your plate, you’re probably going to eat it. A recent Cornell University study found that most people eat 92 percent of what is on their plate.
So to help curb any holiday overeating, be mindful of what and how much you serve yourself. One way I do that is to use smaller plates and bowls.
In one study, people who were given larger bowls served themselves 16 percent more food than people with smaller bowls, and also actually thought they were eating less than they were. Food looks bigger on smaller plates, so your eyes help trick you into feeling more satisfied with a smaller portion.
This is a busy time of year for everyone, but skipping exercise is bad for your waistline and your mental health. With holiday stress, I know I need all the help I can get. Research shows that regular physical activity can help reduce stress and depression. And a recent study in the Journal of Physiology found that exercising for 45 minutes daily during a period of "short-term overfeeding" (read: holiday feasting) may actually help fend off weight gain and other harmful health effects of overeating.
My favorite trick to staying active is making a date with a friend to walk or take a yoga class. We get to socialize while staying fit! Try scheduling your exercise as you would a meeting or appointment to help you squeeze it in. And you don’t need to spend hours at the gym: even 10 minutes is better than no minutes. In just 10 minutes, you can burn 100 calories on the treadmill.
Sometimes my healthy eating plan gets sidetracked and I end up leaving a party full of more cheese, wine and chocolate than I intended. It’s OK. These things happen. Instead of throwing in the towel and eating my way through the rest of the holiday season, I forgive, forget and get right back on track. Feeling guilty about overeating often leads to bingeing and eating free-for-alls.
Instead I try to "refresh" my eating habits with some clean-eating dinners that I know are healthy and full of good-for-me foods like vegetables and whole grains.
Remember: "treat" yourself wisely this time of year and you'll stay trim through the holidays. Bring on the parties!