Holiday Eating Survival Guide
by Head Coach Kendra Wenzel
Each year as I write this article, I notice that my approach to holiday eating can vary. When my goals are clear and I’m highly motivated, it’s easy to avoid excess or cut out junk. When I’m highly motivated for a performance goal, I’m usually also training enough that I can eat nearly anything I want without weight gain but I’m also not as tempted to eat more than I need. When my goals are unclear and my motivation is waning, social meals enter a repeating cycle of cathartic overeating, followed by a mild disappointment in myself. After all, if I’ve already blown it, why not have seconds, too? Oh, and another glass of wine. Over-eat, disappointment, repeat.
So, how do you get through the holidays (and the winter in general) without packing on extra weight?
Why is that you can eat just fine and control your weight the entire rest of the year, but that November, December and January are so difficult? First, the lack of daylight forces most workouts to early mornings, trainer time, shortened outdoor jaunts, and gym efforts. What’s the first thing you want to do when you get home from work? For most, riding the trainer just doesn’t rank right up there with kid time, making dinner and other more social activities. It’s simply more difficult to get the training done when it’s dark out. The second obstacle, of course, is that the weather stops cooperating. Four hour ride scheduled for Saturday? How about 38-degree temps and rain to accompany that effort? Finally, the holiday season brings frequent schedule disruptions in the form of parties, dinners, festivals, and performances. Plus you have to travel or host for the holidays, and mom just doesn’t understand why you need to ride your bicycle for three hours on Christmas Day (or the next day) when you could be visiting with your family. It’s the ultimate balancing act. It’s social togetherness versus a self-motivated ideal of improvement, performance and winning. For most humans, personal goals temporarily lose out to social contact nearly every time.
And what does all that family and work party togetherness revolve around?: Food.
You’ll notice I haven’t yet answered the question: “How do you get through the holidays (and the winter in general) without packing on extra weight?”
One answer is to make your training social.
The guys and gals who live alone and already look forward to spending 3+ hours on the trainer with the latest action movie on DVD likely aren’t having the problem of gaining weight in the winter. (Yes, I know at times you envy them, but you made your choices, and look how beautiful they are!) You may not be able to skip the company party or the kid choir concert in favor of training and you may not be able to blow off your mother to do a three-hour ride, but you can take advantage of the social time of year to schedule more social physical activity during time off from work. This is the time to schedule active family outings as well as get together with your active friends to train. Make training dates and trade kid care. Can't get in your interval workout? Take hikes, ski and do other activities that the whole family can do. An afternoon ski with the kids is still going to burn calories.
If you need to ride and you can’t, you’re going to have to cross train. Talk to your coach about how to match your needed training to what’s available to keep you motivated, such as group cross training programs (eg. Spin classes, CrossFit or boot camps) and yoga for instance. If you’re a cyclist in the middle of your off season, as long as you are getting in two quality days per week on the bike plus strength or cross training, you are doing well enough to maintain your weight provided you aren’t going crazy at the holiday buffet tables. If you’re a runner or triathlete, winter can be a great time to focus on form on the treadmill or in the pool or to join a masters training session or running group. Any of those activities can tie into your scheduled training with a few tweaks from your coach. The key is to stay on top of the process, rely on your coach and not get lost along the way.
Part of the value of your training plan is that if you follow it, holiday eating is usually only a nuisance rather than a hindrance. If you are sticking to your program’s structure and it’s minimum timing, you are likely to be burning enough calories that you won’t need to worry too much about what you eat as long as you aren’t going crazy every single time you step up to the dinner table. Still, if you need some help on the eating side, here are a few tips to make it go easier for you:
Moderating your moderation
Now, let’s talk about moderation. It’s so easy to say but difficult to do. Here are a few ways to help it happen for you. Part of the problem with holiday eating is that people go to the dinner table already full from the appetizers and treats spread. The first tip is to sample appetizers and then LEAVE the area where they are. Go visit the kid’s room. Go stand on the porch with your uncle. Offer to run the last minute errand to get the can of olives. Just get away from the place where you’ll hang out and graze. Offer to clear dishes rather than carve the ham, duck or turkey, where pre-eating is also difficult to resist.
Second, when it comes to dishing up the main meal give yourself a helping that covers your plate but isn’t necessarily stacked high. We’re talking small psychological tricks here! Spread the goodies out, take a healthy heap of salad if there is some (no, not the Jell-O salad but the real salad), and have your potatoes and gravy, but don’t pile it quite so high. Then, if you finish it, wait for a bit. Get yourself a big glass of water and sit down again. If you are still hungry, dish up some more, but chances are that you’ll be satisfied from what you’ve already had.
Another strategy for holiday eating is to have someone else load your plate. Your mom usually isn’t the best choice for this since she’ll usually just want to make you happy and load the plate nice and solidly. Instead, pick someone with a small appetite to set up your plate the way they’d do theirs and then give it to you. It’s sometimes easier to face a plate of food that’s presented to you as in a restaurant rather than one you’ve loaded yourself. If you have a partner, you can even load each other’s plates. That way you’ll want to be nice to each other and eat all the good stuff, but only so much you won’t fatten each other up!
Finally, understand your triggers at holiday functions. If you get quiet during family debates by filling your mouth with food, try heading out to help with dishes instead. Chances are you’ll still be able to hear just as well from the kitchen!
Everyday eating through the holidays
I know, holidays like Christmas and Thanksgiving are just two days of the year, and the problem isn’t just those two days, but the whole succession of days of office treats and social gatherings that make controlled eating more challenging. If you blow it for a couple days, don’t punish yourself by starving; just get back to eating and working out normally. Alternatively eating heavily and severely restricting yourself sends you into a pattern where the body may actually hang on MORE to the food you eat next time.
Eating holiday treats doesn’t usually pack on pounds if you are training regularly; it just makes them more difficult to shed. Stressing over being inconsistent doesn’t help. Try rewarding yourself with other non-food items when you manage to stick to your eating goals. Skipping the goodie plate in the office might mean five new songs for the i-Pod to one person or saving up for a massage to another.
Sticking to your training plan
Even if the weather isn’t cooperating for a ride, most gyms are open full hours every day but Christmas, and they’ve got kid-care, too, so there’s really no excuse to not squeeze in the spinning, treadmill run and weight workout. Even if you don’t have your bike, you can handle at least an hour on one of those huge stationary bicycle seats. Don’t think even a squeezed in hour really matters? An hour of spinning or running can work off 400-700 calories. Get that in three times during a family holiday visit week and that’s 1200-2800 calories burned. That calorie count could encompass several bottles of wine, desserts, or second helpings. It all counts. Plus, your energy level and attitude will be better adjusted. If you follow one day’s excess with a workout the next, it will get you back on track and proud of yourself for getting back to it so quickly, which will prime you to be better to yourself next time as well.
A common theme in all of this? Keep your attitude positive, stay active and keep looking forward. And if you need just a little more motivation: every day you stay on track, you pull a little farther ahead of your competition.