By Dr. Mercola
Many people regard the holiday season as a time for well-deserved breaks and festivities. Included in that merry-making is typically a myriad of sweets, carb-heavy comfort foods, cocktails and more than a few excuses for skipping the gym.
As a result, the average American gains close to one pound during the six-week period from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day.1
This may not sound so bad, but if you don’t lose it you’ll be up 10 pounds in a decade without even noticing it. If you’re already overweight or obese, which two-thirds of Americans are, the weight gain tends to be more substantial – around 5 pounds each year.
This weight gain amounted to more than half of individuals’ annual weight gain, whether they were overweight or not, which means the holiday season really is the time of year when you’re most likely to put on the most extra weight, even though it’s only several weeks long.
This isn’t written in stone, however, and there are plenty of actions you can take to not only prevent holiday weight gain, but even to lose weight during the holidays if you need to.
6 Top Tips for Preventing Holiday Weight Gain
1. Keep a Food Diary to Plan Meals
Most people who keep a food diary note what is eaten after it is eaten. By that time, any poor decisions would already have been made. Instead, try keeping a proactive food diary. That is, start your day by writing down exactly what you plan to eat, and then stick with it. While it’s ok to allow yourself a treat here and there, make sure it’s one you “planned for” in your diary that won’t throw off your entire day’s meals.
Also useful, while jotting down your daily food, make notes about how good you’ll feel while eating these healthy foods, and how they will help you achieve your ultimate goal of losing weight or not gaining weight, etc. The old adage is that if you fail to plan, you are planning to fail.
2. Eat When You’re Hungry
Have you ever tried to “make up” for what you know will be a gorge-worthy holiday meal by eating nothing leading up to the big event? It is likely that when you arrived at the festive occasion, you were so famished that you devoured everything in sight. This is a big mistake that will only make you eat more in the long run.
A far better bet is to eat reasonable meals beforehand so that you feel satiated and are less likely to overindulge on sweets or stuffing. In fact, eating a bowl of broth-based soup before a meal is likely to result in your consuming 20 percent fewer calories total (including the soup!).2
3. Eat Your Fat First
Fat will help you to feel full while also stimulating your metabolism. So “snacking” on your portion of these foods first, before helping yourself to all of the starchy sides and desserts, may help you keep your cravings and total food intake in check. Good examples of fat are olives, olive oil, coconut oil, butter and nuts — macadamia nuts are particularly useful as they are high in fat and low in protein.
4. Go for a Walk
A brisk walk after your meal has several significant benefits. First, it will get you away from the food, making it less likely that you’ll help yourself to seconds or overindulge in dessert upon your return. Second, while supporting your digestion and metabolism, the physical activity will help to lower your blood sugar levels and insulin (i.e. the fat-storing hormone).
5. Recondition Your Brain
Make no mistake: the highly processed foods – cookies, cinnamon rolls, bread, crackers, boxed stuffing and more — so common at holiday feasts are engineered to appeal to your primal drive for calories, fat, sugar, and salt.
From the intense advertising to the lab-tested recipes, the junk food system is orchestrated to keep you buying more junk in lieu of real food. As you consume more and more of these highly processed products, you lose touch with the foundations of healthy eating – and your kids may grow up never knowing the value of a home-cooked meal. Your brain will also become conditioned to crave these unhealthy foods, making it nearly impossible to resist them.
When you eat sugar, for instance, it triggers production of your brain’s natural opioids — a key ingredient in the addiction process. Your brain essentially becomes addicted to stimulating the release of its own opioids as it would to morphine or heroin.
One way to help “reprogram” your brain so you don’t feel powerless to resist unhealthy foods is with the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT). When your body’s energy system is disrupted, you are more likely to experience distractions and discomforts related to food, and more likely to engage in emotional eating. Instead, if you engage your body’s subtle energy system with EFT, the distracting discomforts like food cravings and hunger pangs often subside.
6. Try Intermittent Fasting
Our ancestors rarely had access to food 24/7 like we do today, and it makes sense that our genes are optimized for intermittent fasting. It takes about six to eight hours for your body to metabolize your glycogen stores and after that you actually start to shift to burning fat. However if you are replenishing your glycogen by eating every few hours, you make it far more difficult for your body to actually use your fat stores as fuel.Research has shown a beneficial glycemic effect from fasting that resulted in a lower gain in body weight than in non-fasting animals.3
Other research suggests fasting triggers a variety of health-promoting hormonal and metabolic changes similar to those that occur when you exercise. Fasting is historically commonplace as it has been a part of spiritual practice for millennia. Modern research has also confirmed there are many good reasons to fast intermittently, including:
- Normalizing your insulin sensitivity, which is key for optimal health as insulin resistance is a primary contributing factor to nearly all chronic disease, from diabetes to heart disease and even cancer
- Normalizing ghrelin levels, also known as “the hunger hormone”
- Promoting human growth hormone (HGH) production, which plays an important part in health, fitness and slowing the aging process
- Lowering triglyceride levels
- Reducing inflammation and lessening free radical damage
If you’re healthy and you do decide to give intermittent fasting a try, do so gradually (don’t try to do a 24-hour fast on your first day). Ultimately, you can opt for a 12-16-hour fast as frequently as you can. You can also consider fasting every other day, or simply delaying certain meals, such as skipping breakfast and exercising on an empty stomach.
There are many options, and you can discover what works best for you by listening to your body, and going slow; work your way up to longer fasts if your normal schedule has included multiple meals a day. You can also start out by ending your meals earlier in the evening or late afternoon and fasting overnight while you sleep.
I have revised my personal eating schedule to eliminate breakfast and restrict the time I eat food to a period of about six to seven hours, which is typically from noon to 6 or 7 pm. On the days that I exercise in the morning, I will have one scoop of Pure Power Protein about 30 minutes after the workout to provide nutrients, especially leucine, for muscle growth and repair. Interestingly, since adopting this approach for the past few months I have lost two inches from my waist size and gained three pounds, which means I have lost body fat and gained muscle mass.
Weight Loss Tips That Work Year-Round
Achieving and maintaining your ideal weight isn’t something to think about only during the holidays; it should be more of a year-round lifestyle. If you have ever struggled with losing weight and keeping it off, you already know what a challenge that can be. Dr. Richard Johnson of the University of Colorado has recently written a book called The Fat Switch, which presents a groundbreaking approach to preventing and reversing obesity. According to Dr. Johnson, based on his decades of research:
“Those of us who are obese eat more because of a faulty ‘switch’ and exercise less because of a low energy state. If you can learn how to control the specific ‘switch’ located in the powerhouse of each of your cells – the mitochondria – you hold the key to fighting obesity.”
There are five basic truths that Dr. Johnson explains in detail in this new book:
- Large portions of food and too little exercise are the result of your fat switch being turned on
- Metabolic Syndrome is the normal condition that animals undertake to store fat
- Uric acid is increased by specific foods and causes obesity and insulin resistance
- Fructose-containing sugars cause obesity not by calories but by turning on the fat switch
- Effective treatment of obesity requires turning off your fat switch and improving the function of your cells’ mitochondria
I highly recommend picking up a copy of this book, which has been described as the “Holy Grail” for those struggling with their weight. Dietary sugar, especially fructose, is a significant “tripper of your fat switch,” so my long-standing advice to keep your TOTAL fructose consumption below 25 grams per day still stands. However, most people would be wise to limit their fructose to 15 grams or less, particularly if you have elevated uric acid levels, which can be used as a predictor for fructose toxicity.
For the majority of people, severely restricting non-vegetable carbohydrates such as sugars, fructose, and grains in your diet will be the key to weight loss. Refined carbohydrates like breakfast cereals, bagels, waffles, pretzels, and most other processed foods quickly break down to sugar, increase your insulin levels, and cause insulin resistance, which is the number one underlying factor of nearly every chronic disease and condition known to man, including weight gain.
As you cut these dietary villains from your meals, you need to replace them with healthy substitutes like vegetables and healthy fats (including natural saturated fats!). You will probably need to radically increase the amount of high-nutrient, low-carbohydrate vegetables you eat. I’ve detailed a step-by-step guide to this type of healthy eating program in my comprehensive nutrition plan, and I urge you to consult this guide if you are trying to lose weight.
Next, you’ll want to add in proper exercise. The key to boosting weight loss and getting the most out of your exercise routine is to make sure to incorporate high-intensity, short-burst-type exercises, such as my Peak Fitness Program, two to three times per week. Several studies have confirmed that exercising in shorter bursts with rest periods in between burns more fat than exercising continuously for an entire hour. And because each session lasts just 20 minutes, there’s no excuse not to do it, even during the busy holiday season.
Sources and References
- 1 Nutr Rev. 2000 Dec;58(12):378-9.
- 2 Study presented at Experimental Biology 2007, May 1, 2007
- 3 Study presented at the American College of Cardiology scientific sessions, 2011, New Orleans, LA