For many of us, holiday fun also means putting on weight, though not as much as you may think. On average, seasonal revelers gain less than 2 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year's, according to University of Georgia nutrition researcher Jamie A. Cooper, PhD, who studies holiday weight gain.
It's so little that you might not even notice it, but an easily overlooked pound "feeds into the phenomenon of "creeping obesity," says Cooper. "If you're a healthy body weight when you're 20 and you gain 1 to 2 pounds per year, by the time you're 50 you're 30 to 60 pounds heavier, and you don't really know how it happened."
That doesn't mean you have to miss out on reasonable amounts of your favorite holiday foods. "If you get an extra 500 calories in on Thanksgiving or Christmas Day, you're not really going to gain much of anything during the holiday season," says Cooper. "But if you have a couple hundred extra calories most days of the week because you're eating cookies that are out at work, or you're drinking more, or you're going to more parties, all of those small caloric surpluses will add up. That's what's really causing that holiday weight gain."
What about banking bonus time at the gym to offset the extra intake? While maintaining your exercise routine throughout the busy holiday season is important for stress levels and your health, workouts aren't an excuse to overindulge. "We found that people who were regular exercisers—and continued to exercise during the holiday season—were not protected against holiday weight gain," says Cooper. "They still gained just as much weight as nonexercisers.
"The [number of] calories you burn during exercise is small compared to the damage you can do when you're eating at a party," adds Cooper. A 3-mile walk burns about 300 calories, she notes, which is wiped out by a couple of sugar cookies.
That said, the bottom line is that you can enjoy the delicious treats the holiday season has to offer. Simply making smarter choices and planning ahead can help you stress less about your waistline and focus more on the festivities.
6 Ways to Savor the Season without Packing on Pounds
Holiday parties don't have to be a free-for-all. Follow these tips to navigate everything from the buffet to the cookie tray without wrecking your diet.
- EAT UP BEFORE YOU GET DOWN It's tempting to skip eating before a party, but that can backfire. "Have a small snack before you go so you're not starving," says nutrition consultant Dawn Lerman, MA. Reach for some satisfying lean protein, fiber, and healthy fat, like yogurt with granola and fruit, so you'll be less enticed by the buffet.
- BE A BUFFET NINJA Follow the "one trip, one plate, no tower" rule—a frequent trick for dietitian Kristin Kirkpatrick, MS, RD, LD, manager of wellness nutrition services at the Cleveland Clinic Wellness Institute: Make one pass at the buffet, using one salad plate, and no stacking. Then step away. And when you contribute something to a holiday potluck, make sure it's healthful so you're sure to have a good option.
- WATCH THE BOOZE "Most people don't realize how many calories there are in drinks and think, "I just had a couple of drinks,"" Lerman says. "But that can be more calories than an entire meal." The old trick of alternating cocktails with water really does help keep calories in check.
- BE CHOOSY Holiday indulgences should merit their calories. "If a cookie just came out of the oven and it's warm and gooey, have one," says Lerman. But if it's a tasteless, store-bought leftover, don't bother.
- TAKE TREATS TO GO Sometimes we eat out of obligation when someone is offering a treat, especially if it's homemade or a family recipe. "Say, "Thank you—this is so nice. I'm not hungry now, but I'm going to save this for later,"" Lerman suggests. "Then take it home and put it in your freezer. You're not throwing it away, you're not saying no, you're not insulting anyone, and you can still try it another time."
- SHIFT YOUR PERSPECTIVE "The holidays are about connecting with people. It's not just about eating," Lerman says. "Take the time to put your fork down and talk to people, because that's why you're there in the first place."