9 tips to avoid holiday weight gain

Registered dietitians share their advice for keeping your weight in check throughout the holiday season.
“Don't be afraid to give away or throw out leftovers if they will negatively impact your health or mood,” said Lauren Harris-Pincus.
“Don't be afraid to give away or throw out leftovers if they will negatively impact your health or mood,” said Lauren Harris-Pincus.TODAY Illustration / Getty Images

Meal-time traditions are a big part of celebrating the holidays, so it’s natural to want to set aside any worries about weight gain this time of year. But that’s not always a recipe for success, Lauren Harris-Pincus, a registered dietitian and author of “The Protein-Packed Breakfast Club” told TODAY. “Holiday weight gain seems like an uninvited annual tradition, and many of us are already starting this holiday season with some extra pounds as a result of quarantine eating,” she said.

While the average weight gain in the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s is around two pounds, research suggests that overweight people may gain more. Even if it isn’t a drastic increase, if it’s not addressed, studies suggest that these pounds lead to more significant weight gain — and related complications — over time. Here are nine things dietitians say you can do to prevent those holiday pounds from creeping up on you.

1. Pay attention to signs of hunger and fullness

Harris-Pincus recommends enjoying your food and savoring your family favorites with portions that leave you satisfied but not stuffed. “It's not a contest to see how much you can fit in during one meal,” she said, adding that it’s helpful to “pace yourself, slow down, chew thoroughly and really taste your delicious meal.”

2. Practice mindfulness meditation

On a similar note, Cynthia Sass, a registered dietitian and virtual plant-based performance nutrition coach, told TODAY that she thinks the most important tactic to support balanced eating during the holidays (and year-round) is to practice mindfulness meditation. “Even five minutes a day has been shown to reduce cortisol, a stress hormone known to drive appetite, curb impulsive eating — and overeating — and heighten awareness of hunger and fullness cues.” If you're new to meditation, Sass recommends an app, like Headspace or Calm, or searching for guided meditation videos on YouTube.

3. Save the splurges for holiday celebrations

There’s no need for guilt when you’re enjoying your favorite desserts, but Harris-Pincus said you may be better off if you don’t eat them on repeat afterward. “Don't be afraid to give away or throw out leftovers if they will negatively impact your health or mood,” she said.

Keri Gans, a registered dietitian, author of “The Small Change Diet” and podcast host of The Keri Report, agreed that the period between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day doesn’t need to be a free-for-all. “Enjoy your favorite holiday foods on the actual holidays and try to resume your normal, healthy eating routine every other day in between,” she said.

4. Survey the scene

Amy Gorin, a plant-based registered dietitian in the New York City area, told TODAY that being choosy can help. “My number one tip for the holidays is to survey the food at a party before you load up your plate,” she said. “At first glance, you might want the fried chicken, the gingerbread cookies and the ice cream cake. But take a look at everything on offer. Then add the top few must-haves to your plate.” She also recommended filling only half your plate with your holiday favorites, and then adding veggies or fruit salad to the other half. “You will likely be satisfied with tasting your favorite foods, but not trying everything that catches your eye.”

5. Develop a portion strategy for baked goods

Gorin told TODAY that when you’re celebrating at home, loneliness — and comfort food eating — can quickly kick in. If you’re seeking coziness, making homemade baked goods can be better than buying them, she said. “If you’re making cookies, only bake a handful of them in the first batch,” she suggested. Then freeze the rest of the batter. “You can portion the batter into individual balls or section them into a silicone ice cube tray. Then bake just one or two at a time. This way, you really can’t eat a dozen cookies all at once.”

6. Fill up on fiber during meals and snacks

“Consuming more plant-based whole foods will crowd out higher calorie options and keep your energy levels more stable,” said Harris-Pincus. Options include fruits, veggies, whole grains, nuts, seeds and pulses. “These foods are full of fiber, so they’ll keep you satisfied and nourished throughout the season.”

Sass also recommended serving lentil- and bean-based dishes (like lentil soup, herbed lentils, lentil loaf, smoky black beans or white bean and vegetable stew) instead of meat. “Replacing meat with pulses reduces the risk of heart disease, type 2 diabetes and obesity,” she said, adding that pulses are true superfoods. “They're the highest fiber food group on the planet and they're packed with plant protein, antioxidants, vitamins and key minerals many people tend to fall short on, like potassium and magnesium.”

7. Eat more non-starchy veggies

At the holiday table, starchy sides get a lot of attention, but Sass advised including more dishes made with non-starchy vegetables, such as sauteed green beans, roasted cauliflower and garden salad in your menu plans. “The fiber and water content of non-starchy veggies are filling, so these foods can help displace larger portions of starchier holiday staples like mashed potatoes and pie,” she said.

“You've probably heard this tip before, but it really holds up: Cover half of your plate with non-starchy veggies and a quarter each with lean protein and higher carb foods,” she said. “This balance is the perfect compromise because it doesn't require forgoing your favorite foods.”

8. Don't overdo the drinking

Many Americans have already been drinking more since the pandemic started, and the holidays shouldn't be an excuse to go overboard. Alcohol can add to the calorie surplus of the holidays, and on top of that, it can interfere with your sleep. When you’re under-rested, it influences the hormones that stimulate your appetite, as well as those that signal fullness, so you’re hungrier the next day. A sleep deficit can also alter the way you think about food, so you may end up having stronger cravings for less healthful fare.

To keep the festivities on the healthier side, women should aim for no more than a drink a day and men should only have two drinks daily. “Choose one glass of wine, beer or perhaps a vodka with seltzer. Or even consider choosing sparkling water on some nights instead,” suggested Gans. She also recommended limiting fancy cocktail recipes that have added sugars, which will help on the calorie front.

9. Stay active

Despite the additional commitments over the holidays, it’s important not to let exercise slip from your routine, especially if you find the holidays stressful or feel lonely, down or anxious during this time of year. Regular physical activity can ease these feelings, improve your sleep and help you reach or maintain a healthy weight. “No matter what,” said Gans, “make sure you try and carve out some time daily and get your body moving, whether it’s on a yoga mat, a virtual spin class, a gym workout or simply a long walk.”