- Most people gain just 1 to 2 pounds of fat during the holidays, and this is easily avoided or lost if you know what you’re doing in the kitchen and gym.
- One of the best ways to avoid excessive fat gain during the holidays is to eat one large meal per day, and stick to low-fat, high-protein, high-fiber snacks the rest of the time.
- Keep reading to learn seven more effective ways to avoid fat gain over the holidays (including how to manage your alcohol intake).
Every holiday season, you see the same kinds of articles make the rounds:
“How to avoid holiday weight gain”
“How to keep off the pounds this Thanksgiving”
“20 tips to avoid weight gain during the holidays”
Each article follows the same stock format, sharing stats about how many pounds of weight you gain between Thanksgiving and New Years, and then giving you a long list of hackneyed weight loss tips like “ditch the added sugar,” or “chew your food slowly,” or “drink water before meals.”
And if you’re anything like me, you look like this after reading the first paragraph:
It’s not that the stats are wrong or the tips are useless, but at this point, you probably know that eating more calories than you burn is the root cause of weight gain, and the only way to not gain weight is to not eat so much.
Of course, during the Holidays, this is easier said than done.
You’re surrounded by a cornucopia of delicious, calorie-dense food and separated from your normal routine, which makes it remarkably easy to overeat.
So, what should you do about it?
What’s the “hack” for avoiding weight gain over the holidays?
It’s this: accept that you’ll probably gain a little weight, use some simple strategies to limit the damage while still enjoying your meals, and lose the weight after the holidays with proper dieting.
Before we get to these strategies, though, let’s examine the whole idea of holiday weight gain in more detail.
Table of Contents
The short answer?
Not as easy as you might think.
The idea that people gain lots of body fat over the holidays has become axiomatic—it’s just accepted as fact that you’ll probably put on three, five, or more pounds.
What’s more, many people have been led to believe that holiday weight gain is the chief driver of weight gain in general. That is, they think that each holiday season they gain a little weight that they never lose, and this adds up over years and decades. Thus, they put themselves under extreme pressure not to gain weight over the holidays.
It turns out that first point is mostly wrong, but the second point is mostly right.
Research shows that in reality, most folks only gain one to two pounds of body weight in the six weeks between late November and early January (which includes Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s).
For example, a study conducted by scientists at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development weighed 195 healthy men and women at regular intervals from late September until the following March.
They found that on average, people gained about 1 pound between mid-November and mid-January. A year after the study began, the researchers weighed 165 of the participants again, and they found they were 1.4 pounds heavier on average than they were the previous September.
That’s not even enough to notice a difference in your appearance.
Unfortunately, though, just looking at the average weight gain in these studies hides an important fact: people who are already overweight or obese tend to gain much more than people who are at a healthy weight.
For instance, the same study on 195 adults I mentioned a moment ago found that 14% of the participants gained 5 or more pounds during the ~6 weeks from Thanksgiving to January (about a pound per week), and that weight gained during the holiday period accounted for about half of their annual weight gain. These people also tended to be the most overweight at the outset of the study. (The Matthew effect strikes again!)
As you’ve no doubt heard before, most people never lose the weight they gain during the holidays. Even though they only gain one or two pounds, these small increases compound over time and turn into 20, 30, or more pounds over a few decades.
While that sounds bad, it’s also not surprising or inevitable.
The studies mentioned so far were on regular Americans, whose diets are generally poor on any day of the year, holiday or no. Most people overeat most of the year—the intensity just picks up during the holidays—so you’d expect them to gain more weight during this time. The reason they never lose the weight is they still slightly overeat the rest of the year.
Here’s the good news:
If you’re reading this article, you probably know a bit more about proper diet and exercise than your average bear. And if the average person (who doesn’t put much thought into their diet or exercise habits) only gains 1 to 2 pounds of weight, someone like you can eliminate, limit, or quickly reverse any fat gain over the holidays if you’re proactive.
Keep reading to learn how.
Summary: Most people only gain 1 to 2 pounds during the holidays, and you can reduce or quickly reverse this weight gain by using the right dieting strategies.
You’ve probably heard all of these tips before:
- Limit your food choices
- Eat simpler, less appetizing foods
- Be more mindful of your portion sizes
- Wait 20 minutes before you serve yourself seconds
- And so on . . .
While these recommendations can help you avoid overeating in any situation where you’re presented with lots of tasty food, like traveling, you’ve probably found they have limited utility during the holidays. “No plan survives contact with the enemy” and all of that.
Part of the fun of the holidays is “letting down your guard” and enjoying yourself. This doesn’t mean uninhibited gluttony, but it also doesn’t mean irrational self-denial, either.
So, instead of giving you a laundry list of trite tips that you’ll probably abandon when confronted with a glistening turkey, warm cookies, or a chilled glass of eggnog, here are some counterintuitive but very effective methods for limiting and reversing weight gain while enjoying holiday treats.
Having the right mindset and expectations going into the holidays is one of the best ways to avoid “falling off the wagon” and “blowing yourself up,” as fitness folk call it.
You should accept that you’re going to gain some bodyweight, even if you gain very little if any body fat.
This is because much of the weight you gain will be due to water and glycogen storage and simply having more food in your stomach, so don’t be surprised when you step on the scale the morning after Thanksgiving or Christmas and see a much bigger number than you did the day before.
Luckily, this weight also goes away within about a week after you return to your normal diet.
Now, it’s likely that some of this additional weight will be bona fide body fat, but again, you can lose this quickly with proper dieting and exercise.
(And if you’d like specific advice about what diet to follow to lose weight, take the Legion Diet Quiz.)
The trap many people fall into is telling themselves they’ve “blown it” after one of these weigh-ins and proceeding to throw caution to the wind. In their mind, they’ve already wrecked their diet, so they might as well go “all in” and deal with the fallout later.
Ironically, research shows that people who try to follow very strict dietary rules in all circumstances are the most likely to fail their diets. It’s the people who tell themselves they “won’t eat any added sugar” or “won’t eat any calories after 7 p.m.” or “will eat 1,500 calories per day every day except Thanksgiving and Christmas” that tend to succumb to binge eating the most.
We want to avoid this, and one effective way is to look at the holidays like a “diet break,” rather than a succession of “cheat days” interspersed with your regular “healthy” diet.
That is, let yourself eat a bit more junk food and slightly larger portions than you normally would, but also keep in the keystone habits of healthy eating (which you’ll learn more about in a moment).
So, first and foremost, look at the holidays as a time to ease off the gas a little and relax about your diet, and don’t overreact if you gain a bit of weight (or even a lot). Most or all of it will quickly vanish after you start eating normally again, and any remaining fat gain can be quickly dieted off over the next few weeks.
Summary: Let yourself eat a bit more and a bit “unhealthier” than you normally would during the holidays, be okay with gaining several pounds of body weight; and remember that this isn’t all fat and will quickly go away after you return to your normal diet.
Food is a central part of the holidays, and sharing meals with your friends and family is something to savor.
That said, if food is foremost on your mind going into the festivities, you’re going to eat a lot more than you should.
Thus, it’s best to think of food as incidental to the overall holiday experience, rather than the chief attraction.
On the one hand, don’t severely restrict your food intake for days in advance, ruminating on how you’re going to “spend” your calories during the holidays. On the other hand, don’t force yourself to eat like a runway model while everyone else enjoys generous portions.
Both approaches involve an unhealthy fixation on food—mental energy that could be better bent toward other activities that don’t involve eating, like picking out and wrapping presents, picking up and decorating a Christmas tree, going to farmer’s markets, visiting friends and family, playing board games, splitting firewood, and so forth.
Summary: Don’t look at food as the primary attraction of the holidays. Instead, look at it as incidental to the overall experience.
There are generally two schools of thought among fitness enthusiasts about how you should eat on feast days, usually Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s in the US:
- You should eat filling, healthy, low-calorie snacks the rest of the day and especially immediately before your big meals, so you aren’t as tempted to overeat.
- You should eat as little as possible during the rest of the day to create a large calorie buffer, so that even if you significantly overeat, your total calorie intake for the day still won’t be outrageous.
Which method you choose ultimately depends on your personal preferences and past experiences. Typically, what I’ve found is that people who aren’t very experienced with any kind of structured dieting do best with option #1. They’re used to “intuitive eating,” and would prefer to just stick to what they know works throughout the holidays.
People who are more experienced with meal planning and controlling their body composition tend to prefer the second option. They have a good sense of how much they’ve eaten, how much they need to eat per day to lose weight, and how to effectively lose weight after gaining some.
Now, while this may seem like it contradicts my earlier recommendation about not ruminating on all of the food you’re going to eat, it really doesn’t. It takes very little mental and physical effort to eat less on the days of your big meals, but this can significantly limit fat gain. In other words, it’s a low-effort, high-reward strategy.
What’s more, you’re probably going to overeat on feast days no matter how many healthy, filling, high-fiber snacks you eat beforehand, so you might as well just eat less early in the day and enjoy your big meal. In other words, you probably aren’t going to turn down dessert because you ate some carrot sticks and hummus a few hours earlier . . .
Finally, you’re probably going to feel stuffed after the meal and won’t want to eat anything else for the rest of the day anyway (assuming you eat mid-afternoon or early evening). Thus, if you don’t eat much before your big meal and little to nothing afterward, you can keep your total calorie intake under control without feeling hungry for more than a few hours (if that).
If you want to go with option #2 and create a calorie buffer, here’s a good rule of thumb:
Eat about 50% of your daily protein target throughout the day before the big meal. That is, if you normally eat 200 grams of protein per day, try to eat at least 100 grams of protein before you start inhaling goodies.
If you still feel hungry despite eating this much protein, eat some fibrous fruits and vegetables like apples, oranges, strawberries, and melon to tide you over.
Summary: If you want to eat a lot of calories during a holiday feast, you can limit fat gain by eating mostly protein and fibrous fruits and veggies throughout the day before and after the big meal.
One thing I’ve noticed is that the people who have the easiest time avoiding weight gain over the holidays are those who confine their overeating to one or two large meals per day and eat very little the rest of the time.
Conversely, the people who tend to gain the most weight are the ones who graze throughout the day on high-calorie foods like cookies, pastries, chocolates, candies, fatty appetizers, and alcoholic drinks. It never looks like they’re eating all that much, but their actual calorie intake is often significantly higher than that of the people who eat fewer, larger meals.
It’s easier to eat a large number of calories when you consume them throughout the day.
Think of it this way: which do you think is more difficult, eating 3,000 calories worth of turkey, mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, bread, and pie in 30 minutes, or eating 4,000 calories of the same foods spread out over 16 hours?
Confining your feasting to a single large meal puts a natural limit on how much you can overeat and how much fat you’ll gain. Research also shows that some people also feel more satiated eating three meals per day instead of six (a lower meal frequency instead of a higher one), but this tends to be very individual, so you’ll need to play with your meal frequency to find what works for you.
So, if you want to maximally enjoy holiday treats without gaining too much body fat, I recommend you let yourself eat one large, calorie-dense meal per day, but limit grazing the rest of the time.
If you want to have more than one large meal per day, that’s fine, but you’ll need to be more conscientious about how much and what you eat if you want to avoid gaining too much fat.
Summary: One of the best ways to avoid fat gain while still enjoying holiday goodies is to eat one big meal per day and avoid snacking on junk the rest of the time.
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If you’re like most people, you’re going to be surrounded with calories over the holidays.
Cookies, pastries, chocolates, candies, appetizers . . . all whispering “come hither” in their sweet and savory tones.
One of the best ways to resist their siren song is to not be hungry, and one of the best ways to do that is to eat lots of protein.
Specifically, I recommend you eat as much protein as you want during the holidays. In fact, it’s often a good idea to try to eat more protein than you normally do in order to suppress appetite and prevent overeating (especially between meals, for all of the reasons explained above).
Even if you gobble food like a front-end loader at meals, food comas have a funny way of clouding your judgement, and you may find yourself seeking out a sugary pick-me-up between meals.
Thus, in addition to high-protein whole foods like low-fat dairy, eggwhite, and lean meat, it’s also helpful to have some more dessert-like protein options such as Whey+, Casein+, Plant+, or Legion Protein Bars.
Not only will these supplements help you hit your protein goal for the day, they’ll help tame your sweet tooth and reduce the temptation to indulge in high-calorie snacks.
Summary: Eat as much protein as you want during holidays, and use protein powder and bars to satisfy your cravings between meals.
Many fitness gurus and “experts” love to pooh-pooh exercise when it comes to losing weight or avoiding holiday weight gain.
Their argument is simple: the measly number of calories you burn during exercise isn’t nearly enough to offset the influx of calories over the holidays, so you might as well not even bother.
This is wrongheaded for a few reasons.
Although exercise naysayers love to hold up studies like this one as evidence for the futility of working out, they don’t mention how much and what kind of exercise the participants were doing.
In this study, scientists at Texas Tech University measured the exercise habits, weight, and body fat percentage of 148 overweight men and women from mid-November to early January. They found that the participants that exercised gained just as much weight as those who didn’t and concluded that “exercise did not protect against holiday weight gain.”
Here’s the catch: the “exercisers” in this study did about 30 to 40 minutes of light to moderate physical activity per day—enough to burn around 150 to 300 calories. Are we really surprised this didn’t make a dent in their holiday weight gain?
Of course, if you’re physically fit and enjoy exercise, you can burn two to three times more calories than this in a rigorous weightlifting or cardio workout, which is enough to reduce fat gain over the course of the holidays.
You don’t even need to do formal exercise to burn lots of calories. Simply staying physically active by walking whenever possible, taking the stairs instead of the escalator, doing chores, or even chopping your own firewood instead of buying it pre-cut can burn thousands of calories over the course of the holiday season.
The second reason to exercise is simply to stay in the habit of doing so.
As you now know, you’re probably going to gain a little weight over the holidays, but this isn’t a big deal as long as you can lose it afterward. A combination of exercise and moderate calorie restriction is the best way to do this, but it’s going to be more difficult to get back into the habit of exercising if you give it up during the holidays.
Third, it’s important to remember that exercise—formal or informal—can also be a fun way to spend time with friends and family.
You can go on long walks or hikes, wage snowball warfare, go sledding, or do any number of other fun physical activities. Not only can these activities burn a fair number of calories, they also help take your mind of food (see point #2 above).
Summary: Exercising during the holidays can burn thousands of calories and help limit fat gain, will help you stay in the habit of exercising, and can be a fun way to spend time with friends and family and take your mind off food.
It’s not always possible—or socially acceptable—to bring food to a party, but when you can, it’s an easy way to give yourself (and your hosts) a healthier alternative to what’s available.
So, if you’re worried you “won’t be able to eat anything” at a party, and it’s appropriate and practical, bring a dish or two that are lower in calories and higher in fiber and/or protein. And if you feel awkward being “that guy/gal” who brings healthy food to the party, remember that you probably aren’t the only person who’s craving healthier fare.
Here are some easy, healthy dishes you can make that will fit the bill:
- Prosciutto Fig Balsamic Bruschetta
- Roasted Red Bell Pepper Hummus
- Baked Salmon Meatballs with Creamy Avocado Sauce
- Steak Veggie Rolls
- Crab & Avocado Hand Rolls
- Sweet Potato & Cauliflower Samosa
- Butternut Squash Kale Stuffing Muffins
- Easy Baked Chicken Nuggets
- Greek Lamb Meatballs
- Raw Chocolate Chip Cookie Dough Truffles
- Gingerbread Protein Cookies
- Protein-Packed Banana Bread
Summary: If you’re worried you “won’t have anything to eat” at a party, bring some healthy dishes that are lower in calories and are higher in protein and fiber.
Even if you follow the previous seven steps, you’ll still probably gain some weight, and some of it will probably be fat.
And that’s fine.
As you learned in the beginning of this article, the reason most people never lose the weight they gain during the holiday season is their regular, non-holiday diets aren’t that much better. They still eat too many calories and exercise too little.
Let’s say you really go hog wild over the holidays and gain three pounds of fat. If you know what you’re doing in the kitchen and gym, you can easily shed this in two to three weeks of proper dieting and training.
And it gets better: losing weight doesn’t require you to starve yourself, detox your body, cut out carbs, sugar, meat, or plants, chug meal replacement shakes, or resort to any other extreme or exotic dietary measures.
All you have to do is eat the right number of calories and sufficient protein every day, and you’ll lose weight. It’s that simple.
And the easiest way to do this is to create a meal plan and stick to it.
A good meal plan is like a GPS device for your diet—it takes all the guesswork out of what, how much, and when you should eat. All you have to do is follow the plan, and watch your body change.
If you want to know more about proper meal planning, check out these articles:
Or, if you don’t want to go to the hassle of making a meal plan on your own, we’d love to make you one. Just sign up for our custom meal plan service and we’ll create a completely unique meal plan made up of your favorite foods.
Summary: You’re probably going to gain a little bit of weight over the holidays no matter what, but you can easily lose it by creating and following a meal plan for a few weeks.
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You’ve probably heard that drinking alcohol while overeating is particularly fattening, and while there’s a kernel of truth to this, it’s not as big of a deal as many people make it out to be.
You can learn all about the actual effect of alcohol on fat gain in this article, but the long story short is this:
If you drink alcohol while overeating, especially while eating lots of fat, you’ll probably gain a little more body fat than you would if you didn’t drink any alcohol.
That said, having one or two (or three) drinks a few times throughout the holidays isn’t going to cause enough fat gain for you to notice.
If you have a handful of drinks throughout the holidays (say, a total of five), you probably won’t gain a lick of additional body fat.
Even if you push the upper end of “moderate drinking,” and have two drinks every day, you might gain 10 to 20% more body fat than you would if you’d drank less. For example, if you eat enough to gain 1 pound of fat over the holidays, adding two drinks per day might make you gain 1.1 to 1.2 pounds of fat—hardly an amount worth worrying about.
Studies also show that drinking in moderation is actually associated with lower body weight, not higher. While the mechanisms behind this aren’t fully understood, it may be due to alcohol’s positive effect on insulin sensitivity, or because moderate drinking can blunt your appetite.
The keyword here being, “moderation,” which tends to be in short supply during the holidays.
Although moderate drinking isn’t a big deal, repeated binge drinking is.
Not only can this contribute to fat gain directly, drunkenness often prompts people to overeat even more aggressively, leading to even more fat gain.
If you want to enjoy a few drinks here and there throughout the holidays, you don’t have to worry about gaining excess body fat. Just don’t bend the elbow excessively.
Summary: Moderate drinking isn’t going to cause enough fat gain to affect your health or appearance, but excessive drinking can.
Holiday weight gain isn’t that big of a deal.
What’s more, you can largely avoid this weight gain in the first place if you follow the tips in this article:
- Expect to gain some weight (and lose it again quickly).
- Focus on things other than food.
- Create a calorie buffer before big meals.
- Eat big meals, limit snacking.
- Eat lots of protein throughout the holidays, especially on “feast” days.
- Stay active.
- Bring some healthy-ish foods to parties.
- If you do gain some fat, follow a meal plan to lose it.
And if you want to drink alcohol over the holidays, just do it in moderation (usually defined as 1 to 2 drinks per day), and you won’t have to worry about any excess fat gain.
Now, go forth and slam some food.
What’s your take on holiday weight gain? Have anything else to share? Let me know in the comments below!
+ Scientific References
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