Ahhh the holidays are a wonderful period of celebration, family and gratitude. Unfortunately there's something about cold, wet, dark days and long nights that scream out for comfort filled meals and the inevitable overeating. Let's face it, there's extra calories lurking around every corner—frosted cookies at the office, eggnog at your neighbor's, jelly doughnuts for Hanukkah or chocolates in your stocking. All these extras add up. By imperceptible degrees, the stealth fat inserts itself around your middle and suddenly you're moving to the next belt hole and wondering why your jeans are so tight. Yikes!
So what's the harm in a little holiday weight gain, especially if it's just a few pounds? But here’s the deal: according to researchers at the NIH, most Americans never lose the weight they gain during the winter holidays. The pounds add up year after year, making holiday weight gain an important factor in adult obesity. But you don’t have to fall into this trap. Below are my top 12 tips for enjoying the time-crunched, temptation packed holiday season sans the sugar and stress so you can outsmart the holiday weight gain:
1. Think outside the cereal box & start the day with protein.
Still think Wheaties or your favorite cereal/granola is the breakfast of champions? Think again. Most boxed cereals are loaded with refined grains, sugar and/or artificial sweeteners that massively spike your blood sugar levels. And that spike is followed by an equal and opposite crash, meaning you'll be hungry in a couple of hours and on the prowl for more sugary snacks. If you’re only going to do one thing, then make sure to eat some protein at breakfast as that will set you up for “normal” blood sugar for the rest of the day. The simplest and easiest way to do this is to whip up a low glycemic smoothie with a fistful of greens, 10 oz unsweetened nut milk, one frozen banana and a scoop of whey or hemp protein. If you don’t have protein powder at hand, you can always use a handful of raw almonds, cashews or any type of nut butter to amp up the protein content. Other smart breakfast options include eggs scrambled in grass-fed butter/ghee with some peppers or plain Greek yogurt with a handful of fresh berries and walnuts.
2. Nosh on pre-party snacks before heading out.
Your fingers won't be quite so likely to wander to the calorie laden hors d’oeuvres tray when you are already full with protein-rich "safe" foods. Try any of these options: celery/carrot sticks dipped in hummus; 12 almonds; tuna stuffed cucumbers; or apple slices dipped in raw almond butter, yum!
3. Crowding Out.
Adding in nutrient dense foods such as dark leafy greens will provide your body with sustained energy to tackle your demanding to-do holiday list, and also "crowd out" nutrient deficient crap masquerading as "food" and sugary sodas/energy drinks that cause wildly fluctuating blood sugar levels. Bottom line: You simply can’t eat five fruits/vegetables a day and still have room to binge on cookies and ice cream at the end of the day. It’s really that simple! The easiest way to get these nutrient dense foods in your diet is to whip up your own signature green smoothie elixir. You can make a gazillion combinations of the basic green smoothie by adding in 2-3 pieces of fruit, 2 cups leafy greens (think kale, spinach, chard) and 2 cups water or nut milk. So experiment and find the flavor profile that makes you come alive! Bonus Tip: Did you know the pure exhilaration of trying something new will actually decrease your need for and dependence on artificial stimulants like caffeine and sugar? Go forth and seize the possibilities, but I must warn you that you may experience massive improvements in physical well-being, mental acuity and motivation, plus a full portfolio of fun!
4. Hydrate, hydrate, hydrate.
You may sometimes think that your body is asking for sugar, when in fact it’s dehydrated and really craving water! Try this simple delicious cravings-buster lemonade: In 8 oz. of water, add the juice of ½ lemon and 5 drops of Stevia. You could also try a warm cup of green tea, sweetened with Stevia with your meals—you'll find this often does the trick and you won't crave that post-meal holiday dessert.
Also, if you're going to indulge in holiday cocktails/wine, aim to drink 2 glasses of water for each glass of alcohol; you won't feel as dehydrated and you'll drink less as you fill up on water. Of course ideally, you want to avoid drinking too much alcohol at holiday parties. It's not just about liquid calories but about control; if you drink a lot, you won't have as much control over what you eat. If you feel out of place without a drink, try sipping sparkling water or unsweetened cranberry juice, so you have something to carry like everyone else.
5. Sweet vegetables to the rescue.
Experiment with sweet vegetables such as carrots, corn, onions, sweet potatoes, beets and winter squash that have a deep sweet flavor when cooked and will quell your holiday cravings. Roast some slices or chunks of sweet potatoes rubbed with coconut oil, salt and cinnamon for a yummy sweet treat, courtesy of Mother Nature.
6. Carry Stevia to go.
The all-natural plant sweetener, Stevia, has zero calories, does not raise blood sugar levels and is 300 times sweeter than sugar. If you have sugar cravings and want to satisfy your sweet tooth safely, Stevia is your best bet. I like the Nu-Naturals brand as it doesn't have any bitterness, unlike some of the other brands. You can carry it in your holiday purse to sweeten your beverages and you'll find you'll be less inclined to indulge in those sugar plum cookies. Stevia is safe for diabetics or anyone watching their blood sugar level. It's also a powerful antibiotic, antioxidant (5 times stronger than green tea) detoxifier and immune enhancer to boot.
7. Maintain Yin/Yang balance.
Yin or "yoga" foods like green veggies and fruits have an airy, light, expansive quality. Yang or "weight-lifter" foods such as red meat, eggs and cheese make you feel grounded and focused. So, at your next holiday party, don't just hover around the cheese tray but aim for some shrimp cocktail (yang) coupled with fresh veggies (yin) to get that yin/yang balance and you'll avoid inexplicable cravings.
8. Spice it up.
Add a dash of cayenne pepper or red pepper flakes to kick your metabolism into high gear and stave off that holiday weight gain. Sweet spices like cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom naturally reduce your cravings for sweets. Cinnamon is a powerful herb for regulating blood sugar – sprinkle it where you can! Cardamom is another delicious spice with a pungent sweet aroma that is particularly good for digesting fats in sweet desserts, so add a pinch of cinnamon/cardamom in your hot chocolate to boost digestion and keep your metabolic engine revved up!
9. You snooze, you lose--weight.
Don't skimp on sleep to wrap gifts or make seven-layer cookies that no one should be eating. Researchers have found that sleep cycles are closely tied to hormones that affect appetite, energy, and metabolism. In particular, people who are sleep-deprived tend to have lower levels of the satiety hormone leptin that tells your brain you’re full and higher levels of the hunger hormone ghrelin that increases appetite. So, make sure you’re getting your 7 to 8 hours of restorative sleep to keep the holiday pounds at bay.
10. Move to de-stress.
Let's face it, the holidays are synonymous with stress. Just one snippy comment from a family member about your gift, your slinky black dress or the turkey stuffing you slaved over for hours and your stress levels go through the roof. When you are stressed, the excess cortisol (stress hormone) is designed to help you run away from a threat. The problem is that, today, our stressors aren't the kind you can run away from. But you can lower your cortisol levels just by moving your body with 20 minutes of walking, running up and down the stairs, gyrating your hips to hypnotic tunes in a Zumba class, or doing yoga or meditation. The key is to get any type of movement in daily and you'll be amazed at how effectively this quells the urge to reach for a cocktail or double chocolate chip cookie.
11. Get Slow.
The season is full of holiday shopping, parties and obligations, and somehow we spend our time doing things we don’t really want to do, yet feel we should. But the truth is, life on Earth is a brief gift. Prioritize those things that make your heart sing and de-prioritize those that are not imperative. If we must accomplish many things each day, we can still change the quality with which we do things. How can you transmute that sprint to the train into something delicious instead of the usual gripping and tightening experience? Where can you find ease in the midst of stress? How can you cultivate the art of going slowly?
Take a few moments before you climb out of bed in the morning to remember your dreams and to think about what you want from the day. Take the scenic route. Sit for a moment with your eyes closed when you start your computer. Check email only twice a day. Chew each morsel 20-30 times; it will force you to slow down and you'll feel full a lot faster than shoveling food in your mouth. Put your fork down in between bites and you’ll have more control over what you eat. Add one moment here and there for slowness; it can be done simply and will have a profound effect on your well-being.
12. Create a non-food menu to nourish yourself this holiday season.
Food can fill you, but not fulfill you. We have the capacity to awaken our feel good from the inside out instead of looking in the refrigerator or overindulging at holiday parties. What can you do to nourish your life and add sweetness from non-food sources? Remember to differentiate between physical versus emotional hunger and be aware of our culture’s obsession with sugar, reward and holidays. Around the holidays, the word “treat” is something that you feel guilty about, so redefine what the word “treat” means to you. Will gorging on sugary pies and cakes really make you feel good? Ask yourself, will this really make me feel good? And what am I really hungry for? Approach a treat as something that makes you feel wonderful and is nourishing to your body. Make it a conscious choice versus a fight.
Experiment with whatever helps you connect to your body and make a menu of these non-food ways that you can add sweetness and joy to your life. Perhaps get a massage or give yourself a much-needed hand massage after all that gift wrapping. Soak in an aromatherapy bath, go for a scenic walk along a trail or send your partner an, "I love you" text.