It is supposed to be the most “wonderful time of the year!” The holiday season—which seems to start earlier and earlier as the years go by—is filled with great music, good friends, and delicious food. While most people enjoy (or tolerate) holiday music and spending time with family and friends, the delicious food part that can cause a sense of dread and stress for anyone, even the most self-disciplined person. According to recent medical studies, a person can expect to gain anywhere from three to 12 pounds between Halloween and New Year’s Day.  But there’s also research suggesting that the average weight gain during the holidays is only a pound and—good news—that same study also found that half of holiday weight gain is lost shortly after the holidays!

Many people expect to gain a little weight around the holiday season and are appropriately equipped to deal with the issue. Gym memberships, daily walks, and holiday-themed 5ks are all helpful. Of course it is no wonder that gyms, weight loss centers, and YMCAs see a big boost in membership and attendance once January hits. But how can you prepare beforehand for holiday feasts, especially if your weight and diet tends to be connected to your emotional and mental state?

Are You and Emotional Eater?

According to Susan McQuillan, MS, RDN, if you are an emotional eater, the holidays and the stress that comes with them can trigger overeating if you are not careful. “It is not always about the food,” she says, “for some people, just being with family during the holidays is enough to cause them to overeat.” If your family causes you stress and anxiety, try limiting the time you spend with them—or consider announcing a text-free day (or afternoon) occasionally to give yourself a break from upsetting family interactions via your smart phone. Try planning something enjoyable after a family gathering so you have something something positive to look forward to. Keeping busy, especially with nonfood activities before the holidays, can also be a helpful way not build up a lot of anticipation about how it’s going to go.”

Article continues below

Concerned about eating disorders?

Take one of our 2-minute eating disorder quizzes to see if you or a loved one could benefit from further diagnosis and treatment.

Take Bulimia Quiz Take Binge Eating Disorder Quiz

This doesn’t mean you should constantly worry and be stressed about eating specific holiday foods at gatherings and parties. Give yourself permission to eat anything you want, in small portions, as long as you start filling up on healthy food first. And don’t make the mistake a lot of people do around the holiday season: don’t starve yourself all day in anticipation of eating a holiday meal or party food. Eat normally and have a small snack before you go to keep your hunger under control.

When it comes to alcohol remember that it can decimate your will power. “Your liver metabolizes alcohol at the expense of fat so, over time, if you drink every day, fat accumulates,” says McQuillan. “Alcohol also stimulates your appetite and lowers you inhibitions so you not only overeat, you’re more likely to choose unhealthy foods.” Finally, be aware of the calories you drink. “Of course, alcohol contains calories of its own, empty calories that contribute to weight but contain no nutrients.” Mixers, too, especially fruit juice and soda (hello ginger ale!) can add lots extra calories and sugar to your day.

Disordered Eating During the Holidays

“Coping with holiday stress and weight gain is even more challenging for women who also struggle with eating disorders,” says Ashley Moser, Licensed Marriage and Family Therapist (LMFT) at The Renfrew Center of Charlotte, North Carolina. “It is extremely helpful to plan out your meals ahead of time, especially during the holiday season. Try and follow your normal routine throughout the day and when you know you will be attending a family function or a holiday gathering that will have a wide variety of scrumptious foods, mentally prepare yourself ahead of time. You need to remember that you won’t gain weight from one holiday meal, but at the same time you can set boundaries for yourself.”

She also suggests identifying a support person to help you survive the holiday season.  “The festive holiday season can be a lot to manage for anyone who is struggling with their weight or who are dealing with any type of an eating disorder,” she adds. “Having someone by your side who is aware of the kind of support you need can be extremely helpful.”

Sometimes the simple act of slowing down and taking time for yourself can make all of the difference in the world, according to Jona Genova, a wellness expert and founder of Samadhi for Peace. “Remember to exhale,” says Genova. “When we are stressed we tend to forget to exhale and this puts our body into a state of further stress. So, remember to take a moment, pause, and focus on your breathing. When you do this correctly, your stress level will immediately begin to drop and you will start to feel better again.”

If you have tried breathing exercises before with no luck, try these meditation resources.

Tips to Help You Avoid Overeating During the Holidays

Here are a few ideas to help you get through the holiday season without worrying too much about gaining weight:

  • Plan ahead. If you are invited to a holiday party or family gathering, bring something lightweight with you, like a raw veggie platter with a spinach and yogurt dip. And be sure to eat from that platter first before you dig into any holiday cookies, cakes or pies.
  • Drink lots of water. Some people will drink a glass or a bottle of water before attending a holiday get together, and that is a good thing to do. But when you arrive at the party, have another glass or bottle of water before you eat. That will help combat the “I am so hungry and must eat everything in sight” syndrome that happens to most people around the holidays.
  • Watch your alcohol intake. Speaking of staying hydrated, make sure you are drinking water between any alcoholic beverages. It will keep you hydrated as well as slow you down between drinks. As easy as it is to want to try all the foods in front of you, it’s equally easy to want to sample different alcoholic beverages: eggnog, punch, wine. Remember, alcohol can sabotage your self control and fool you into thinking you still have room in your stomach for a few more slices of pie.
  • Eat slowly. Are you one of those people who fill up their plates with so many goodies and eat them like it is a contest? Slow down, and remember it is not a race.  Eating too fast is a major reason why people overeat. It can take 15 to 20 minutes for your brain to send the signal to your stomach that you’re full and you need to stop eating. And if you are not careful, during that time period you can cram an awful lot of food into your stomach.
  • Be less sedentary. Don’t forget to keep moving. Not only is exercise good for your heart and bones, it’s good for your mental health! Even a short work out can stimulate the body to produce endorphins—the body’s feel-good hormones. Focusing on a yoga routine or jog around the park can divert your attention from current concerns and damaging self-talk and make everything seem less overwhelming. Unfortunately, when the colder-weather months are upon us, many people stop exercising and start to eat more. Don’t fall into that trap. Instead, set a goal of moving 30 minutes a day. Before you say that your schedule doesn’t have an extra 30 minutes, divide it into three 10 minute segments. Simply stretching in the morning and before bed and suggesting a walk to your loved ones can help.
  • Consider intermittent calorie cutbacks. Reducing your consumption of food either in advance of a family gathering or holiday party or the day after not only helps with weigh loss (and weight maintenance) but studies also show there are other benefits, too, including sharper mental acuity, says McQuillan. If you want to try this approach, McQuillan recommends having some “light” food on hand (like the hard-cooked egg, fruit and Greek yogurt) so you don’t go overboard when you eat again.  Aim to go 12 to 14 hours from your last meal to the next one. McQuillan offers this warning: “Fasting doesn’t work for a lot of people because they become ravenous and overeat at their next meal.”

Take some time to enjoy the holiday season and attend family gatherings and parties without the fear and stress of gaining too much weight.  When you plan ahead and have the right attitude, you will be able to focus on the fun, and no so much on the wrong foods.

Last Updated: Nov 19, 2018