You may get more than presents under the tree this year.

Weight gain over the holidays can be scarier than the ghosts and goblins at Halloween, but it may not be inevitable. We may go into the holiday season thinking, “The holidays are only once a year, it’s OK for me to indulge and live a little.” The problem with this mindset is that the holidays are not just Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day. Our holidays start with Halloween and usually don’t end until just after the New Year. This is a months-long string of big meals, parties, edible gifts and getting together with friends, family and coworkers over drinks.

How much weight do we really gain?
It is commonly reported that Americans gain, on average, 5 pounds or more over the holidays. Sounds daunting, right? Well, how about this for a little holiday cheer: Research shows our holiday weight gain is actually more like 1-2 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. While some people may gain more and some people won’t gain at all, 1-2 pounds instead of 5 may seem like a walk in a Winter Wonderland.

Is that really a problem?
Some may not think that 1-2 pounds is a serious amount, but research shows that people usually do not lose the weight they gain over the holidays and winter season. This extra couple of pounds a year could lead to a weight gain of 10-20 pounds in the next 5-10 years. Those 10-20 pounds can contribute to the development and progression of chronic conditions
such as diabetes and heart disease.

How can I keep weight gain in check?

1 – Limit liquid calories
Holiday parties and gatherings usually include imbibing in beverages we may not often drink. Alcoholic or not, what we drink can add hundreds or even thousands of calories a day, on top of what we are eating. And it’s easy to go overboard because most beverages lack a satiety factor, meaning they will provide lots of calories but won’t make us feel full. Choose beverages that are low in calories like sparkling water, infused water, club soda, unsweetened tea or coffee, or diet soft drinks. Alcoholic drinks not only contain lots of calories but they can also lower our inhibition, causing us to make poor food choices or eat much more than we planned. If you choose to drink alcoholic beverages, stay away from sweetened mixers like soda and juice and practice moderation: one drink per day for women and two drinks a day for men.

2 – Stay away from the buffet
Part of your holiday enjoyment can be indulging in the foods you love and only eat during this special time of the year. However, this one simple tip may keep you from piling on the pounds. When you are at a party or holiday meal, fill your plate only once and choose only one “splurge” item. Load up on vegetables, fruits and lean meats, but leave room for grandma’s famous mac and cheese, if it’s your favorite. Once you’ve made your plate, remove yourself from the serving area. Many times we like to congregate around the food and in the kitchen, which makes nibbling and having “just a bite” of something all too easy. Vow to do your visiting away from the food.

3 – Don’t save calories
When you are looking forward to a holiday get together with your favorite foods and drinks, it may seem like a good idea to skip lunch to “save” calories so you can splurge later. However, research shows that when we do that, we may eat more than TWICE as many calories during that splurge than we would have if we had eaten our normally scheduled meals and snacks. Also, it is stressful for our body to consume a very large meal at any time, so don’t show up to the party starving.

4 – Start non-food traditions
Some of our most treasured memories during the holidays can be made spending time in the kitchen with loved ones making delicious holiday goodies. But those holiday goodies can pack on the pounds, even when we plan to give most of them as gifts. Start new traditions this year that don’t revolve around food. Plan to decorate a gingerbread house from a kit (that way you won’t be tempted to eat it), make Christmas tree ornaments, holiday wreaths or cards, or assemble care packages for nursing homes or the troops overseas. You can also find ways to incorporate some physical activity into your holidays. Plan a pre-Thanksgiving dinner walk/run with your guests or de-stress with an online yoga class. These activities can foster bonding just as much as baking cookies and can benefit us and others as well.

Allison Childress, MS, RDN, CSSD, LD, Ph.D. candidate, is a registered and licensed dietitian and is Board Certified in Sports Dietetics. She has worked as a clinical and outpatient dietitian specializing in cardiac, pediatric, geriatric and sports nutrition as well as weight management counseling. She is currently working as an instructor in the department of Nutritional Sciences at Texas Tech University where she is also the director of the undergraduate Didactic Program in Dietetics. Allison is completing her doctoral degree with a research focus in Food Addiction.