8 simple ways to avoid holiday weight gain
During the six-week stretch between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, many of us find ourselves asking the same two questions: “Does pumpkin pie count as a food group?” followed by, “Is it normal to gain weight over the holidays?”
Sure, some research suggests that holiday weight gain is a common experience, but that’s not to say extra pounds are inevitable. By focusing on a few simple strategies, it’s possible to stay on track and still enjoy this festive season—and by “enjoy,” we definitely mean “have creamy mashed potatoes.”
Read on for some expert-backed tips for helping you navigate holiday eating without missing out on foods you love. You’ve got this!
1. Stick to your meal schedule
Between chasing down package deliveries and booking Zoom calls with grandparents three time zones away, the holiday season can be hectic. When major aspects of your schedule get thrown out of whack, forgetting to eat a balanced meal is all too easy. You might be ravenous by the time you realize you missed lunch—and more likely to overeat in the hours that follow, says registered dietitian Jaclyn London, MS, CDN, WW’s head of nutrition and wellness. Even if the rest of your day is pure holiday chaos, try to maintain your regular meal and snack times. And don’t go too long without food and drink. “I typically recommend aiming to eat something every three to four hours, but find whatever consistent timing works for you and aim to stick to it,” London says.
2. Get some sleep
Real talk: Lying awake all night worrying about your holiday to-do list won’t actually help you get stuff done. What you need are ZZZs! People who skimp on sleep may experience increases in the hormone ghrelin (associated with hunger) and decreases in the hormone leptin (which triggers feelings of fullness), affecting food choices the following day. That may explain why high-quality sleep is correlated with better weight maintenance, according to a 2017 literature review in the journal Sleep Medicine Clinics. Add that to sleep’s many health benefits.
Feel like your brain clicks into overdrive at night? A bedtime mindfulness exercise may help you drift off by refocusing your attention on the present moment, according to a 2015 Sleep Medicine Reviews analysis. To practice, take 10 deep breaths—inhaling for a count of five and exhaling for a count of five—or try a guided meditation from Headspace (free on the WW app) when you hit the hay.
3. Move when you can
While physical activity can help minimize stress and boost your mood, it can help fire up your resolve to make healthier food choices, London says. And there’s no need to double up on workouts or add another sweat session to your week. This time of year, it’s all about getting active when you can! “Try walking while you’re doing something else—like catching up with loved ones on the phone or listening to a podcast,” London suggests. Even short stretches of movement here and there count toward your goals, whether you’re rearranging the basement to dig out holiday decorations or wobbling on ice skates with your nieces. Movement is movement!
4. Choose satisfying snacks
Snacks may be smaller than meals, but they can still play a significant role in how satisfying your overall diet feels, London says. So don’t settle for boring bites! The tastier your snacks, the less tempted you’ll be to, well, keep looking for snacks. Some fun, simple options include spiced frozen grapes, herbed veggie chips, and gingery edamame. To stay satisfied, London suggests mixing and matching so you get a combo of fiber with protein. Quick ideas include a crunchy apple with sharp cheese, a banana slathered with a spoonful of peanut butter, or carrot slices dipped in creamy hummus.
5. Drink water
Even slight dehydration can cause headaches, zap energy, and affect mood, according to a study in The Journal of Nutrition—not exactly a recipe for holiday cheer. To stay at your peak, consider toting a water bottle during these busy days so you can hydrate early and often.
Bear in mind that what you chug matters. While sugary beverages like soda and fruit punch technically count toward your daily water goals, they still contribute calories from added sugar to your day—and therefore can shrink your daily SmartPoints® budget quickly. Instead, London suggests mixing spirits with sparkling water and adding a squeeze of citrus, such as lime or grapefruit, for extra flavor. “Personally, I feel like a fruit-filled garnish of any sort makes everything more festive!" she says. “Sparkling water with a cocktail umbrella and cherry on top? Why not?”
6. Go big on veggies
Whether you’re serving yourself Thanksgiving dinner or prepping a quick lunch, filling half your plate with veggies is a relatively painless way to prevent extra pounds. “No matter what else you’re having, piling on the veggies naturally adds more bulk to your meal from nutrient-dense, fiber-filled foods that’ll help you feel more satisfied overall,” London says. So go ahead and portion out some stuffing with gravy, then serve up salad and green beans alongside it. The same principle applies to sandwiches: Meat and cheese are fine to enjoy if you like them; just stack some grilled or raw veggies in there, too. Another easy way to amp up your veggie intake: Swap the grains in your favorite side dishes with vegetables.
7. Don’t stress over stress-eating
Along with bringing joy, the holidays can quickly set your nerves on edge. And increased levels of the stress hormone cortisol may lead to more cravings for sugary carbs, London cautions. (Call it the holiday cookie conundrum.) For this reason, you might benefit from making a plan that can help you manage holiday stress if it strikes. One helpful first step in stressful moments might be to check in with your needs (“Am I actually hungry?”). Then, hit the proverbial pause button. “Putting a little space between recognizing that you’re stressed and taking action can help you reroute and respond differently,” London says. Try setting a 5-minute timer and switching gears to focus on something else you find calming, whether it’s an outdoor break, a text session with a friend, or a spin through your favorite Spotify playlist. Once time is up, get curious: Do you still feel the urge to eat, or are there other activities that might help you ease feelings of stress?
If you’re just having a day and nothing but a plate of nachos will satisfy, that’s totally OK, too. “Empower yourself to make that choice and truly own and enjoy it,” London says. Remember that long-term weight loss is a product of the choices you make most of the time, and no single meal or day will determine your success.
8. Spare yourself the guilt
Part of a healthy lifestyle is taking physical and mental breaks to do what feels purposeful and joyful to you. Give yourself permission to make informed choices during the holidays based on your personal preferences, prioritizing the foods you love and activities that you enjoy.
“Not everything about health and wellbeing can be measured or tracked,” London says, “so I’d encourage all of us to be kind and compassionate to ourselves this holiday season!”
Lucy Shanker is a copywriter at WW (formerly Weight Watchers). Beyond WW.com, the Chicago-born, NYC-based food and culture writer's work has appeared on Consequence of Sound, The Independent, Spindle Magazine, and more.
This article was reviewed for accuracy in July 2021 by Stephanie L. Fitzpatrick, PhD, senior manager for multicultural programs at WW. The WW Science Team is a dedicated group of experts who ensure all our solutions are rooted in the best possible research.