Amanda Gilles is a performance dietitian. She helps athletes get results through nutrition at Mayo Clinic Sports Medicine. We asked her to share her approach and expertise with those of us who are sprinting through the holiday season. Gilles is empathetic about the pitfalls; her favorite holiday pastime is getting together with her family to make — and eat — lefse.
Q: Is it true that most people gain about 5 pounds over the holidays and then don’t lose it all?
A: While this can occur, most people gain only an average of 1 pound during the holiday season, but once that weight is added, it’s much harder to lose, and it really starts to add up over the years.
Q: Is there one culprit like Christmas cookies, or is it the duration of the party season that makes weight gain seem inevitable?
A: Unfortunately, or fortunately, depending on how you want to look at it, I don’t think we can put the blame on any one item; we won’t make cookies or eggnog the villain. It’s more likely the culmination of several end-of-year factors: numerous holiday parties and gatherings; rich, indulgent foods; excess treats at the office; and fewer opportunities for getting outside and moving due to our shorter, colder days up here in the North.
Q: What are the best strategies for not gaining weight?
A: There are a couple. Movement is the first. Try to sneak in extra movement through the day by doing things like parking farther away from the office or taking the stairs instead of the elevator. I think it can be overwhelming at the end of the year to start any kind of new fitness routine, but even just trying to incorporate 15 minutes of exercise, every day, adds up to 7½ hours of exercise over just a month. It may not feel like a lot at the time, but every little bit adds up and can help the cause. Also, try to embrace winter activities like ice skating, skiing, snowboarding and snowshoeing, which will help you burn calories and have fun. My next strategy is to make sure to eat breakfast every day. I think, when we can, we should try to control the controllable. Focus on lean protein, healthy fats, whole grains and fruits and vegetables for a really well-balanced start to your day. It helps your body kick-start your metabolism and sets a good tone.
Q: Anything else?
A: I like to think about volumetrics. Put the emphasis on vegetables and fruits that fill you up, and not out. Fruits and vegetables have a very low number of calories, while taking up a lot of space in your stomach, which helps you feel full and satisfied, not to mention it will boost your intake of vitamins, minerals, antioxidants and fiber — all those nutrients that make us feel good through the holidays. My last tip is to manage your stress. The holiday season, with shopping and travel and finances — it’s very easy to fall victim to stress, which, left unchecked, leads to extra weight gain around the middle. Deep breathing, yoga, taking a walk with a friend, or keeping a gratitude journal are all helpful techniques, and can all help us, in a way, to keep track of our weight.
Q: Does anyone actually lose weight over the holidays? Should that be a goal?
A: I will say it is possible. There are 39 days between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, which means about 234 meals and snacks, assuming you eat three meals and two snacks a day. That’s a lot of opportunities to stay on track with your fitness and health goals, while still allowing for occasional indulgences, which won’t totally derail your diet. Try to live by your diet about 80 percent of the time, focusing on food that nourishes the body, and then 20 percent of the time, letting yourself enjoy more indulgent, feel-good food. However, with that said, I think it’s a more reasonable goal for this time of year to just maintain your current weight. If you happen to lose weight, hey, that’s a big win, but I wouldn’t add weight-loss goals to an already stressful holiday season.
Q: Any last advice as we strap in for the season?
A: I think a lot of people have an all-or-nothing mentality, and they set these lofty goals for the holiday season. Keep your goals small and sustainable so you’ll feel successful and healthy. Don’t over-restrict. If your great-grandma’s pecan pie makes an appearance at a holiday gathering, I think you absolutely should have a slice, and enjoy it! I think the key there is portion size. Should you eat the entire pie? No! A small slice helps you not feel too restricted, which could cause you to overindulge somewhere else.
Bruno Povejsil is a freelance writer and social media strategist.