I bloody love mince pies. And Christmas cake. And pfeffernüsse. And mulled wine. Come to think of it, I’m a huge fan of all Christmas foods and drinks, and I can’t imagine ever skimping on any of them. I used to mindlessly overindulge every Christmas to the point where I got fatter, felt gross, and was tempted by extreme ploys to rapidly get back on track (new year, new you, right?). This experience is common, for lots of us gain weight between late November and early January and then retain the unwanted extra mass. As the years go by, these intermittent spells of excess energy intake can subsequently drive weight gain and associated health problems. Fortunately, in recent years I’ve learned to find a middle ground in which I can happily enjoy my favourite festive foods without gaining an ounce, so today I’ll share some simple tips on how to avoid holiday weight gain while still enjoying yourself this Christmas.
- If you limit your intake of calorie-containing items to an 8- to 10-h window each day (e.g., 10AM to 7PM), you’ll probably eat less without trying.
- Starting your meals and snacks with about 500 ml water will likely reduce how many calories you subsequently consume.
- Having a fist-sized portion of protein-rich foods (e.g., eggs, dairy) at breakfast might help you reduce your daily calorie intake while also supporting your muscle mass.
- Eating protein- and fibre-rich foods first at meals can help control your blood sugar and appetite.
- Using a small plate and/or small cutlery (e.g., go for a tsp over a tbsp) might reduce your eating speed and thereby your food intake.
- Going for a walk after meals is good for your metabolic health, even if it’s only 15 mins.
- Doing resistance training over Christmas will help you ensure any weight you gain is healthy weight.
- Extending your sleep over the holidays is bound to reduce your appetite and support your ability to make healthy food choices.
Try time-restricted eating to avoid weight gain
I explained why time-restricted eating is helpful in a previous blog on how to shed fat quickly, but it’s worth revisiting here.
To implement time-restricted eating, limit your intake of calorie-containing items to 12 h or less each day. For instance, restricting your intake to between 10AM and 8PM each day would be a 10-h “eating window”. When people with sub-optimal metabolic health (e.g., obesity) try time-restricted eating, they tend to eat fewer calories, lose a bit of fat, slightly lower their blood pressure and triglycerides, and improve their fasting blood sugar, all of which nicely oppose the effects of holiday overeating.
The great thing about time-restricted eating is that you don’t need to change what you eat and drink, only when you do so. Many people therefore find it more appealing and doable than trying to overhaul food choices. However, time-restricted eating probably does affect your nutrition choices too. For example, as lots of us are prone to indulging in processed foods and drinks late at night (leftover Yule log, anyone?), finishing your eating window by at least a couple of hours before bed might reduce your intake of these items and thereby enhance your diet quality. Bonus.
In general, an eating window of 8 to 10 h each day works very well – shorter than that and you might find it hard to keep up, longer than that and you might not maximise the benefits you experience.
Start your meals and snacks with about 500 ml water
Moving now to individual eating occasions, simply having a couple of glasses of water before meals and snacks can help you avoid overeating. In middle-aged and elderly obese adults, for example, drinking 500 ml water 30 mins before a meal reduced calorie intake at the meal by 13%. This finding has been replicated several times by other scientists, and over time preceding all meals with 500 ml water can substantially improve the success of weight loss diets.
Have a high-protein first meal
In North America and countries in northern Europe, most people eat a small breakfast, a bit more at lunch, and lots at dinner. Protein intake at meals often follows this pattern too. If this is true of you, you’ll probably fare better by spreading your protein intake more evenly between meals. As it’s clear that higher protein diets meaningfully improve weight loss, you might want to do this by increasing the protein content of your breakfast rather than reducing the content of your dinner.
Having enough protein at each meal tends to reduce levels of a hunger-promoting hormone (ghrelin) and increase levels of satiety hormones (cholecystokinin and glucagon-like peptide 1). These hormonal changes increase how full you feel and reduce hunger and the total number of calories you’ll subsequently consume, and they also tend to improve the stability of your blood sugar levels. But you don’t just consume fewer calories after high-protein meals, you also burn more energy digesting and metabolising protein than the same number of calories from carbohydrate or fat. Furthermore, boosting your protein intake supports the size and strength of your skeletal muscles, which themselves require substantial amounts of energy even at rest.
So, start your eating window with a bolus of protein. Ideally this would contain at least 0.4 g protein per kg bodyweight, which is typically roughly equivalent to a fist-sized portion of a protein-rich item. Ideal sources of protein at brekkie include whole eggs, dairy (there are good reasons we use whey protein in Long Range Fuel), meat, or even fish. Pass me the smoked salmon and eggs.
Fill up on protein- and fibre-rich foods first at meals
As highlighted in our free e-book, it’s also smart to start individual meals or snacks with protein-, fat-, and fibre-rich items. Doing so can both substantially improve your blood sugar responses to what you eat and reduce how many calories you end up taking in.
Start your meals with a chunk of protein-dense goodness and a big pile of vegetables, and you’ll surely end up chowing down a smaller amount of sugar-laden processed foods later.
Use a small plate, small cutlery, and take your time
Another handy damage-limitation ploy is to use a small plate. While this trick doesn’t make everyone eat less, it does reduce how much some of us eat in certain settings, and it’s unlikely to hurt! The same goes for cutlery. Compared with using a larger spoon, using a small spoon leads people to eat smaller mouthfuls, reducing energy intake. This is in part driven by the small spoon slowing eating rate, for interventions to reduce how quickly people polish off meals consistently reduce how much people eat. I get that nobody wants to eat Christmas dinner with a teaspoon, but there are bound to be some occasions when you can apply this (e.g., when tucking into Christmas pudding).
The moral of the story is that you should take your time to savour your Christmas grub!
Walk after meals
After big meals, go for a stroll. Even if you only walk for 15 mins, stretching your legs will almost certainly improve your metabolic responses to what you eat. If you walk outside during daylight, you’ll also experience a host of other positive effects too, as I described here.
Do resistance training
By doing smart resistance training, you’ll maximise the odds that the calories you eat will be shuttled into fat-free mass (e.g., skeletal muscle, bone). This means that if you end up going overboard and gaining a bit of weight, resistance training will boost how much of the weight gained is fat-free mass, improving your metabolic health and making it easier to subsequently shed fat.
I gave an example of a generic resistance training programme in this post. But please remember that something is better than nothing: If you’re squeezed for time and want to prioritise spending time with loved ones, as little as 5 mins of bodyweight strength training per day can only help!
If you have a job, chances are you’ll be taking your foot off the accelerator at work this Christmas. Assuming you use an alarm to wake on time for work, time off work gives you the chance to sleep in, which you should almost certainly take advantage of. While this subject hasn’t been thoroughly explored and there are some discrepancies between the findings of different studies, when people who habitually don’t get enough sleep take the opportunity to sleep in they tend to have lower appetites and fewer cravings for processed foods, they end up eating a bit less sugar, and they metabolise the food they eat in more healthy ways.
To extend your sleep, try the following:
- Ditch your alarm or set it as late as you can.
- Get outdoors into daylight as soon as possible after waking.
- Dim the lights and/or turn overhead lights off about 2 h before bed.
- Switch off your smartphone, TV, computer, and other related devices by at least 30 mins before you plan to hit the hay.
- Go to bed when you’re sleepy.
Hopefully this blog has given you some practical ways to avoid holiday weight gain while still enjoying yourself this Christmas. You don’t need to try to implement all these tips at once, and you shouldn’t beat yourself up if you let yourself go – we’ve all been there, and a single day of indulgence isn’t the end of the world! The key is simply to get back on track rather than letting the wheels come off entirely.
Have a wonderful Christmas!