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Holiday eating strategies from 5 people who lost more than 600 pounds

This common sense advice will help anyone enjoy holiday foods without bingeing or creating bad habits.
/ Source: TODAY

On Thursday, many Americans will sit down to a meal that could be a whopping 3,000 calories. While just one bad day of eating might not lead to weight gain, Thanksgiving marks the start of an often overindulgent holiday season.

But, putting on weight over the holidays doesn’t have to be inevitable. These five weight loss all-stars have shed a combined total of 626 pounds and have been maintaining their losses. They share advice on how they enjoy beloved holiday foods without gaining weight or creating bad habits.

1. It’s a holiDAY

“I always tell everyone it is a holiday not a holaweek or a holamonth,” Erica Lugo told TODAY. Lugo lost 160 pounds and is a new trainer on the upcoming season of USA's "The Biggest Loser." “For one day I can enjoy myself and not go crazy.”

When Erica Lugo started her weight loss, she weighed 322 pounds. After two years, she lost 160 pounds and now she focuses on building muscle.
When Erica Lugo started her weight loss, she weighed 322 pounds. After two years, she lost 160 pounds and now she focuses on building muscle.Courtesy Erica Lugo

Too often, people give themselves permission to overeat starting at Thanksgiving and continuing at every office potluck, lunch out, Friendsgiving, gift exchange and family gatherings.

“It's often not just ‘one day’ for many of us,” Dr. Kevin Gendreau, told TODAY via email. The family medicine doctor is maintaining his 125 pound weight loss. “Before you know it, you’re eating unhealthy foods three to four times per week and you’re back into your fat jeans by the New Year.”

2. Eat before the party

Often people skip eating on holidays rationalizing that they’ll save their calories for the big meal. But that often causes hungry people to consume loads of calories.

“People think ‘OK I am going to save all my calories for one meal’ and what happens is that just triggers a binge. You just have this mentally where it is 'All right, game on,'” Lugo said. “You can’t skip a meal.”

Kevin Gendreau started gaining weight when faced with the stresses of college and his father's experience with an aggressive cancer. It wasn't until his sister received a cancer diagnosis in 2016 that he realized he was choosing an unhealthy lifestyle.
Since losing 125 pounds, Kevin Gendreau has transformed his health. He no longer needs medication for high blood pressure and cholesterol and reversed his diabetes.Courtesy Kevin Gendreau

Gendreau said he often eats a healthy snack, such as nuts, prior to leaving the house so he isn’t ravenous.

“Snack on a handful of almonds, an apple, scrambled eggs, a cup of carrots, snap peas and hummus or green tea — and don't forget a big glass of water,” he explained. “Fill up on something healthy so there’s less room for the garbage.”

3. Be mindful

After losing 124 pounds, Justine McCabe remembers holidays where she restricted her calories so much that she barely enjoyed anything — and, she remembers holidays when she ate so much she felt sick for days. That’s why she tries to be mindful.

“Be intentional with your eating,” McCabe told TODAY. “Don’t use the holidays as a cheat time.”

Justine McCabe before and after weight loss
After losing 124 pounds, Justine McCabe has learned to enjoy holiday eating with mindful eating. Courtesy Justine McCabe/@Hairstargetsfit

Gendreau agrees. He finds that while watching football or hanging out, he might snack even though he isn’t hungry.

“Don’t let boredom lead to weight gain," he said. "Slow, mindful eating is key."

4. Keep moving

Lugo often participates in a turkey trot or other holiday exercise activity prior to Thanksgiving dinner. Hannah Lester, who lost 112 pounds, doesn’t make any changes to her exercise routine, but keeps up her good habits.

“I just try to stay consistent,” Lester told TODAY via email. “I don’t want to slack off during the holiday season.”

Since losing 112 pounds, Hannah Lester has learned to enjoy what she eats but in smaller portions.
Since losing 112 pounds, Hannah Lester has learned to enjoy what she eats but in smaller portions. Courtesy of Hannah Lester

Gendreau does the same — he sticks with high-intensity interval training throughout the holiday season.

Lugo also includes family exercise, such as walks or flag football, after dinner.

“Just because it is a holiday doesn’t mean you have to stop all activities,” she said.

5. Manage your stress

Lugo has noticed that when she feels stressed or overly tired, her willpower isn’t as strong. She’s more likely to snack or overeat.

“Control your stress levels," she explained. "The higher your stress, the more that your body signals your brain to want to eat. Go to yoga. Breathe a couple of times."

6. Don’t deny yourself

Lester has a hard time passing up her mom’s shortbread cookies and Chex Mix. So she doesn’t.

“It’s all about portion control," she said. "Instead of three cookies, I just eat one."

Lugo agrees. She loves sweets and enjoys a small piece of pie and a cookie. Janielle Wright, who lost 105 pounds, finds that small portions help her maintain her weight.

“I know that too much of anything isn’t good, so I’ll have the foods I love in moderation," she told TODAY via email. "That’s definitely key."

7. Use a smaller plate

On holidays, it’s easy to heap food onto a huge plate and eat all of it. But Lugo found an easy solution.

“If I am handed a huge plate, I am going to fill that whole plate,” she said. “When I pick a smaller plate my portions tend to be way smaller.”

Wright also uses the smaller plate approach and says she never eats anything without portioning it out first.

“I put out everything in a small plate, never eat straight out of a package," she said. "When the plate is empty I stop."