Trying to lose weight any time of year can be tricky. But it can be even more challenging during the holidays. It’s one thing to have a big event to contend with, but the holidays encompass an entire season of events, not just one day or even one week, explains Linda S. Nikolakopoulos, a registered dietitian. “This one-month season often includes lots of festivities and social gatherings, and there tends to be food and drink at each and every one.” For many dieters, it can feel like a constant onslaught of temptation and frustration.
So, many people with weight-loss goals are left wondering: Should they keep going with their efforts over the holidays? Or hit pause and pick up after the season’s over? According to experts, the answer depends on your specific situation. Here’s how to decide what’s right for you.
For some people, the right choice will be to continue weight-loss efforts over the holidays, because there are some pretty big pluses to not taking a break.
You’ll maintain momentum. Not having to restart your healthy habits again, which can be even more difficult than prior efforts, is a big pro, according to Laura Bishop-Simo, a registered dietician nutritionist at The Ohio State University Wexner Medical Center.
You’ll reach your goal sooner. Keeping up with your efforts also means you’ll be where you want to be faster, Bishop-Simo points out. You’re also less likely to gain the typical 1–2 pounds of holiday weight.
You’ll prove you can do it. “The biggest pro of continuing weight loss during the holidays is that you’ll probably never find a more challenging time, which means this is a great opportunity to learn and put your new skills into practice,” says Lindsay Allen, a registered dietitian. “You’ll be forced to plan ahead, find healthy alternatives to your favorite desserts, and practice mindful eating at events and parties. If you can get through this, the rest of the year will be a breeze.”
If you do decide to power through with your weight-loss plans during the holiday season, use these strategies to make the process feel a little bit easier.
Try not to deprive yourself. “Feelings of deprivation can backfire,” Nikolakopoulos says. “Sometimes over-restricting can lead to obsessing about foods, which can then lead to overeating. This, of course, is not the end result you’re hoping for.” So if there’s a dessert or favorite dish you really want to try, have some and practice moderation.
Fill up on protein first. In a social situation, survey the party snacks for anything high in protein, Allen recommends. “Protein is the most satiating macronutrient of all. By eating protein-rich foods first, you’ll fill up,” That way, you’re less likely to overdo it with foods that don’t contribute to your goals.
Never go to a party hungry or ravenous. “Eat plenty of healthy food during the day or even have a small meal before the party” Allen suggests. “The key to making smart choices is not being too hungry. Our biological drive for food will take over when we’re too hungry and this will almost always lead to poor choices.”
Remember that one instance of overeating won’t blow it. “Overeating a few times is not especially harmful, but it is uncomfortable,” Bishop-Simo points out. “Who wants to have abdominal discomfort or pain when you can be enjoying your family and friends?”
Continuing with a diet over the holidays might just not be an option — and that’s OK. Maybe you have too many social engagements, not enough time to cook meals at home, or a very hectic work schedule. Here are some reasons it might be better to take a break.
Temptation is strong. “The biggest con of losing weight during the holidays is the amount of temptation that will surround you,” Allen says. Some may find it’s simply too much, and they’re better off not restricting themselves during this time.
Maintenance may be more realistic. For some people, a goal of maintaining the status quo over the holidays is healthier. “A more realistic goal might be to maintain your current weight and aim to prevent unwanted weight gain over the holidays,” Nikolakopoulos says.
You might feel left out. Feeling like the odd person out at holiday gatherings, or like you’re heavily restricting yourself, can be a big bummer. If you anticipate feeling this way, then taking a diet break might be the right option for you, Bishop-Simo says.
If you do decide to take a weight-loss break over the holidays, there are some ways to ensure you don’t do a complete 180 with your efforts.
Stay active. Bishop-Simo suggests going on walks with family and friends during or after festive gatherings. “It doesn’t need to be intensive, but keeping yourself moving is good not only for your body, but your mental health as well, and we all know the holidays can get a little stressful.”
Keep your non-festive meals the same. “It’s a good idea to not completely throw in the towel,” Nikolakopoulos says. Aim to continue on with your healthy eating habits in your day-to-day meals, while allowing yourself to enjoy small amounts of holiday treats at the social gatherings.” One thing that can help here is remembering all the effort you’ve already put into your journey. “Try to avoid unraveling all that hard work and having to start all over again in January.”
Eat with intention. “If grandma only makes her apple pie during the holidays, enjoy, but savor it,” Allen suggests. What does it smell like? What’s the texture like? Which specific flavors can you taste? “An easy way to avoid overeating is to stay present, which is a very important step in the process of mindful eating.”
No matter what you decide to do, aim for some balance. “A main component in attaining healthy weight goals is striking a balance in both the types and amounts of food and drink being consumed,” Nikolakopoulos says. “This allows for room to enjoy some of those holiday favorites while being mindful of the portions and, importantly, not feeling deprived.”
And, whether you’re on a diet break or forging ahead, be gentle with yourself and take it one meal at a time, Bishop-Simo recommends. “If you ‘mess up’ at one meal, that doesn’t mean the whole day is a throwaway. Do what’s best for you in the long run; no one knows you better than you know yourself.”