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The Fat Trap

This time of year, the days are shorter, the air is colder, and somehow your clothes have become a bit more snug. Yep, it sounds like the holiday season and all the indulgence that comes with it.

Lindsay Morris
November 28, 2019

Why is it that we tend to gain weight in the fall and winter? Sure, all the scrumptious holiday foods and libations pack on pounds, but are there other reasons? Holiday weight gain is a well-studied phenomenon, and nearly everyone tends to gain at least a little extra around the waist this time of year. Surveys show people tend to gain two to five pounds on average during the winter months.

This may not seem like a lot, but most people don’t lose this extra baggage. Therefore, holidays may be one of the most significant contributors to your total annual weight gain.

That said, holiday weight gain is not inevitable.

While staying on top of your weight goals can feel daunting during the holiday season, multiple tips and tricks can help keep you healthy, happy, and weight-conscious during this time of year.

Beyond general diet tips, it’s best to make sure you’re getting plenty of exercise and limiting your intake of holiday treats. If you’re diligent, you may find that you’ve not only prevented weight gain but even lost weight during this celebratory season.

Snack wisely
During the holiday season, unhealthy snacks like cookies and other goodies tend to be available for you to take as you please. When treats are easy to access, you’re more likely to snack unnecessarily.

At home, this problem can be solved by keeping treats out of sight. However, that strategy is more difficult to avoid in situations that you cannot control, such as at your workplace or a family party.

Try to be mindful of your snacking habits. If you find yourself munching just because there’s food around — and not because you’re hungry — it’s best to avoid snacking altogether. However, if you are hungry and need a snack, opt for real foods. Fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seeds are filling snacks that don’t contain added sugars or unhealthy fats — both of which can lead to weight gain.

Get moving
When holiday activities ramp up, and we’re gearing up for some out of office time, workouts are one of the first things to slip. But even if you don’t have time for an hourlong spin class or your typical yoga session, put in what you can. Exercise has several mental and physical benefits, and the science suggests it can counter some of the metabolic effects of overeating, even if it doesn’t wash out all those extra calories you’re consuming. Resist the all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to workouts and do what you can when you can — even if that’s just a quick routine in your living room. It may be especially helpful to enlist a friend. One study found that doing so led to increased activity, particularly if the workout partner provided encouragement and support. So grab a pal and go for a quick walk or make a weekly date to attend a group class. If you can’t meet up in person, have a virtual check in to encourage each other to keep moving.

Be mindful of your eating
People are often in a rush during the holiday season, which frequently leads to multitasking during meals. Studies show that those who eat while distracted are more likely to overeat. This is because they’re unable to pay attention to their body’s fullness signals.

To prevent this, eat mindfully and minimize distractions — including work and electronics. Try to chew slowly and thoroughly, which will allow you to recognize your body’s fullness signals better and consume fewer calories. It can also be helpful to take a few deep breaths before you start eating. This can induce relaxation and help you keep your full attention on your plate, rather than your to-do list.

Find a healthy comfort food
December and January are usually filled with cold days, which leads to us cuddling up on the couch and catching up on Netflix shows. Chilly weather also makes us crave comfort food like pasta, nachos, and pizza. If you end up eating this way every day during the holidays, you are going to gain weight.

Now is an excellent time to eat healthy comfort food that you can indulge in. Try food like turkey chili, oatmeal, and vegetable stir-fry. These foods will “stick to your ribs” and keep you full for a long time.

Be mindful while you’re eating by chewing slowly and thoroughly enjoying the flavors of the foods. This will help you eat slower.

Meal prep
With the hustle and bustle of the holidays, most of us don’t have time to cook a homemade meal every night. The temptation is to grab fast food on the go. Instead, cook one or two days a week and use this time to prep several days’ worth of meals in advance so that you don’t have to cook on busy days. Use your slow cooker to make ahead stews, soups, and other nutritious one-pot meals. Keep fruit on hand for snacks.

Sleep deprivation, which is quite common during the holidays, may cause weight gain. This is because those who do not sleep enough tend to be hungrier, consume more calories, and exercise less.

Additionally, inadequate sleep has been linked to lower metabolism. This may be caused by alterations in your circadian rhythm — a biological clock that regulates many of your bodily functions.

Know when to call it a night and aim for the recommended seven to nine hours of sleep each evening.

Drink wisely
If you usually have seven drinks per week and then innocently turn that into 11 drinks for the holiday season, the extra 16 drinks (four drinks per four weeks of the holidays) equals about 1,600 calories. Not so innocent anymore.

These extra drinks may also lead to poor sleep and higher consumption of food. The calories may not sound so bad, but they contribute to weight gain. Instead, plan the nights that you will be indulging in alcohol and skip the nights that are not all that festive.

If you feel out of place without a drink, try sipping water or club soda, so you have something to carry like everyone else.

When possible, stick with the recommended caps of one drink a day for women, two for men, and try to avoid sugary mix-ins, which can worsen the impact of alcohol, among other things.

Don’t save calories
It’s common to try to eat lightly to save calories for the holiday meal, but this plan can backfire because when you’re beyond hungry, it’s hard to stay in control of your food choices. Instead of eating ultra-lightly or even fasting, try having a late but satisfying breakfast or brunch. Since holiday meals tend to be on the early side, you may not need to eat on your regular schedule, so a meaningful brunch might be enough to keep you content and energized until you hit the main affair. Your non-holiday meal should include the winning combo of protein and fiber — the nutrient duo that helps tame hunger. Some examples: A yogurt parfait or smoothie made with Greek yogurt, berries and a portion of nuts or nut butter; a salad made with greens, leftover roasted veggies, canned tuna, and a drizzle of dressing; a grain bowl with the grain and veggie portions reversed (to boost your veggie intake) made with chicken or turkey. This format keeps things light but filling so you can stay in control of your holiday choices. It’s also a good structure for meals on your non-party days.

Weigh yourself
It’s hard to notice when you’ve gained a pound or two, but your scale can pick up these small gains, which is why weight monitoring can be such an effective way to prevent weight gain. In one study among more than 1,000 adults, daily weigh-ins over a year led to small but significant weight loss, even though participants weren’t instructed to lose weight. Another study among college freshmen found that routinely hopping on the scale wasn’t linked with any difference in mood, body dissatisfaction, or unhealthy weight control behaviors (like excessive exercise or food restriction). Indeed, if the scale produces anxiety, makes you question your worth or causes any disturbances to your emotional well-being, it’s not the right tool for you. But if you can look at the numbers without judgment, the scale can provide useful feedback and help prevent weight gain.

Break out the swimsuit
Because we’re more fully clothed this time of year, we don’t care about our bodies as much. Goodbye, bathing suits and short shorts. Hello, chunky sweaters, leggings, and boots. We have six months left until swimsuit season, and our exercise plan and diet are out the window.

To prevent gaining a couple of clothing sizes during this season, consider trying on your summer clothing every so often. Seeing tightening waistlines can be motivation enough to keep your figure in check, even while you’re enjoying your cozy sweaters.

Avoid being SAD
The changing seasons may be messing with our psyche. Some people experience a mild, moderate, or severe version of seasonal affective disorder (SAD), a type of depression related to the changes in season. Most people with SAD experience symptoms beginning in the fall and continuing through the winter months. This decrease in mood and energy can naturally lead to less physical activity and an increase in coping mechanisms such as unhealthy eating and drinking.

If you find yourself experiencing any level of seasonal depression, consider visiting a counselor and coming up with a game plan for how to cope during the fall and winter months.