An Uncommon Guide to Avoiding Holiday Weight Gain

by | Nov 24, 2014

Photo by Bunches and Bits {Karina}

It’s official. Holiday season is here.

Starting this week health conscious people everywhere are bracing themselves for two solid months of parties, feasts and festivities.

To even the most dedicated foodists, it can be overwhelming.

Even though my #1 philosophy is that life should be awesome and you shouldn’t restrict yourself from things you enjoy, it can be helpful to enter the holidays with a plan to keep your healthstyle more or less on track.

These are the steps I personally take to make sure I don’t begin the New Year trying to make amends for the holidays.

9 Essential Steps to Avoiding Holiday Weight Gain

1. Don’t panic

First and foremost maintain a mindset of growth and learning. This means remembering that your food choices don’t equal your value as a person, and staying positive even when things don’t go exactly as you plan.

The holidays are challenging for everyone on the eating front, and self-compassion goes a long way toward letting you come out healthy and happy on the other side.

Don’t let one or two frustrating events spoil the entire season.

2. Pick your battles

In the spirit of cultivating a growth mindset, be realistic about what you can and can’t tackle. While, “I’m not going to eat a cookie for the entire holidays” is unrealistic for most of us, “I’m not going to eat any cookies at the office” is entirely doable.

I recommend taking a good look at your calendar and evaluating which events are worth a bit of a food splurge. You can use whatever criteria you want for this, from the quality of the food to its sentimental value.

What’s important is that it’s worth it to you.

Two special occasions per month is a reasonable target. You can dial this slightly up or down depending on your goals and how important the holidays are to you, but if you’re celebrating multiple times a week it could be problematic.

Once you have chosen your truly special occasions don’t worry about them anymore. Look forward to enjoying them guilt-free. We’ll use the following steps to make sure the damage is minimal.

3. Plan your attack

Now that you’ve chosen what is worth splurging on, you have also decided what isn’t. For me this is work-related events and meals shared with my side of the family (I love them, but they aren’t the greatest cooks).

When these are events that I can’t gracefully opt-out of, it’s important that I know what my plan will be before heading in.

Always remember that food isn’t the reason you’re attending, and try to focus on people and activities instead. That said, when planning for food, there are a few key factors to keep in mind:

For shorter, cocktail hour-type gatherings my priorities are making sure I eat beforehand or making concrete dinner plans afterward. That way a glass of wine or two won’t trick me into believing that subpar food is my only option.

For longer events and dinners where escaping food is impossible, I optimize my food choices for health and make peace with the fact that this won’t be the most rewarding meal of my life.

In these cases, my number one priority is eating vegetables. I try to fill up on as many as I can, so at least the evening isn’t a net loss health-wise. My second priority is eating some kind of protein or meat, so I’m satisfied enough to avoid the uninspiring desserts that will inevitably appear later.

Finally, at events like this I stick to lower alcohol drinks (e.g. white wines, lighter beers) and completely avoid cocktails, which are often as sweet as soda. For me, cocktails are a splurge and I’ve already decided this event wasn’t worth it.

Using these techniques I am able to survive the evening and look forward to the more foodist-friendly events already on my calendar.

4. Anticipate obstacles

Executing your plan may be easier said than done. For instance, buffet-style meals can be particularly challenging for many people, as there are no clear boundaries to stop you from overeating.

If holiday events are difficult for you, chances are you fall victim to the same traps over and over again.

Do you skimp too much on dinner then lose it at the dessert table?

Do you eat a dozen hors d’oeuvres before the real meal even starts?

Try to anticipate these obstacles and set up an alternative course of action.

In the buffet example, the sheer number of options can often overwhelm our better judgement. Avoid this by committing beforehand to only eating one (satisfying) plate of food.

When it is time to serve yourself examine the entire table of options before making your decisions, then choose the tastiest items you can find that match the foodist plate. Once you’ve made your selections, eat them slowly and mindfully.

Setting up your alternative plan before the event prevents you from having to make decisions in the heat of the moment and reduces your reliance on willpower.

5. Be realistic

When planning your attack and anticipating the obstacles, it is absolutely essential that you are realistic about the situation and your abilities, or your plan will certainly fail.

I don’t know anybody who can make it through multiple hours of drinking on nothing but raw carrots and celery, so don’t make that your goal. Be smart about your strategy and honest about your limitations, and make sure that your plan will work in reality, not just in theory.

If you feel like you’re guessing about what your options will be, try to find out more about the event itself and what to expect.

If you aren’t confident about your ability to execute the best plan you can think of, consider recruiting a friend for more ideas and moral support.

6. Tighten up home court

Eliminating unintentional and totally not-worth-it splurges is a huge part of winning the holiday game. But even then there’s a lot of extra sugar to contend with.

That’s why during the holidays it is more important than ever to lean on your Home Court Habits to keep you on track.

Remember that you’ve already decided that your HCH are things that make your life awesome (right?). If you have enough impactful habits, you should normally be able to get away with doing “most of them, most of the time” and maintain your weight and health.

During the holidays make sure to maintain as many HCH as possible, and do “all of them, most of the time.”

This is the best possible thing you can use your willpower on during the holidays.

7. Celebrate your victories

Being a foodist is very different from the typical, “Screw it, I’ll just make up for it in January” attitude most dieters adopt each winter. Living this way isn’t a single challenge, but many small challenges that add up to big advantages.

Keep this in mind as you go through the holidays, and don’t forget to celebrate the small victories. This is important for a few reasons:

First, to form last habits it is essential that you associate positive feelings with healthy behaviors. Simply flexing your face muscles into a smiling position convinces your brain that good things are happening. So holding a smile on your face as you pass by the dessert table can make it easier for next time.

Second, focusing on each of your wins as you experience them gives you a feeling of progress, and makes your small actions more meaningful psychologically.

Feeling successful is far more motivating than “I wish I were thinner” or “I wish I had more willpower,” and can help you persevere down the stretch.

8. Learn from your slip-ups

With many small challenges comes not just small victories, but likely a few small slip-ups as well.


If one of your plans of attack doesn’t quite work and you end up with three peppermint brownies down the hatch before you can say “processed food,” it isn’t the end of the world.

Instead of skipping your workout and eating a pint of ice cream in the bathtub to console yourself, acknowledge the incident as a miscalculation and ask what you could have done differently to prevent it.

And no, the answer isn’t “be a better person” or “be stronger in the face of temptation.” Instead ask what strategies you could have used to have avoided being put in that situation.

For instance, you may have not eaten enough during dinner and still been legitimately hungry afterward. Eating more protein or veggies could have given you the fuel you needed to make it through the evening.

Or maybe you didn’t realize that your favorite pastry chef was going to be catering this event and it suddenly switched from not-worth-it to totally-worth-it. Maybe you could have adopted mindful eating strategies instead of succumbing to the what-the-hell effect, and enjoyed a much smaller portion.

Whatever the issue, it is something that needs to be acknowledged and addressed or it will likely happen again.

9. Adapt and adjust

As you build your holiday hacking skills you are certain to experience many successes and many setbacks. This is called learning, and it is the only way to make long-term progress.

Every year your circumstances will be slightly different. You’ll have different obligations, you’ll move, change jobs, get married, get divorced, have kids, they’ll grow up, etc. Life keeps happening.

Your strategies will need to adapt to the changing times, but the lessons you learn each year will stay with you.

Take the longview to get the most joy and the most health out of every holiday season.

Has your holiday eating started yet? Mine has.

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19 Responses to “An Uncommon Guide to Avoiding Holiday Weight Gain”

  1. AJ says:

    Such a helpful post, thank you! I plan to read this more closely later this week, but I was hoping to ask you a quick question: did you like the Dweck book? Is it a read that you would recommend?

  2. Annie says:

    Love the tips about not wasting calories on un-appetizing food – completely get that! Useful article, thanks

  3. Diane in NC says:

    “How to survive the holidays” articles are found in abundance this time of the year. Most of them tell you things like eat a meal before you go and fill up on raw vegetables (but no dip!). You go so much further covering realistic strategies, realistic expectations and a healthy mindset in this article. Thanks so much!

    • Tracy K. says:

      Your comment made me smile because I’ve tried the “raw veggies with no dip” so many times before an event and it never works! So I agree with you – the real strategies presented here are fantastic.

  4. Margaret says:

    Fantastic post that reasonably and thoughtfully examines real life holiday situations! I’ll be book making this one and being sure to splurge when the food is totally worth it. Thanks

  5. Great list, love it. I specially like numbers 3 and 4, I do plan on making a whole lot of different dishes this end of year season and although I am a bit on the heavy side, it seems quite humble and sane advice, choosing and planning does make a difference.


  6. Angela Teal says:

    Great tips and great post! I will tell you, my biggest obstacle is the pressure from the inlaws to eat things I don’t want to. Drives me nuts! Any suggestions for this? Thank you!

  7. Corne says:

    Hey Darya…

    These are some very good tips. I like how you keep it simple.

    The holidays are always a struggle and although it is difficult to keep all the good eating habits all the time, you definitely show us that there are easy ways to remain healthy.

  8. Tracy K. says:

    Great list!! I love the idea of examining what is really important and worth a splurge.

    I just signed up for 7 weeks with a personal trainer at my gym. Though I didn’t purposefuly plan it like this, the timing coincides wonderfully with the holiday season. I think it will make me more mindful of what I eat because I don’t want to counteract my effort by eating junk!

  9. amy says:

    Even though I’m trying to lose weight, my plan for the next two months is to maintain my weight and enjoy the holidays. I’m really noticing how when I don’t eat healthy, I don’t feel as good, so it will be interesting if that will help me keep temptation in check.

    Thanks for the great tips.

  10. Sherry A. says:

    Hi Darya,

    Great tips!

    How do you deal with loved ones that say, ‘You can AFFORD to eat that!’ or “It’s the holidays live a little.’ And, I’m thinking I’m living stronger and longer for not placing crap in my body, but obviously can’t voice that as to not offend people I love. How can you have others back off of what you place on your plate without looking like you have a food disorder because you’ve selected protein, vegetables and a small amount of stuffing. Any advice would be greatly appreciated!

    Thank you!

  11. suzanne says:

    Thank you for your tips on managing weight over the holidays! I like your focus on being realistic and being strategic. If you can just maintain, that is a great goal too. What will you be indulging in this season?

  12. Aunn says:

    You honestly read my mind. I need to avoid the weight gain this year! Thank you for these tips, I’m definitely going to take this into action!!

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