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Stay Lean (But Not Mean) Over The Holiday Season

By Professor Gordon S. Lynch

Normal eating and exercise habits tend to be abandoned during the manic holiday period. What can we do to stay healthy and avoid gaining weight over the festive season?

              Stay Lean (But Not Mean) Over The Holiday Season

The time around Christmas and New Year is when you’re most likely to overeat and drink too much on purpose. Not surprisingly, it’s also the time when you’re more likely to put on weight. Unfortunately, the memories of all that holiday cheer may soon fizzle when you're faced with the prospect of taking the extra weight off again.

While I’d never say that you should deny yourself enjoyment of the festive season, with its array of culinary treats and beverages, what I think we all need to do is to practise some level of control.

Dodge the eggnog

Eggnog – a sweet concoction of milk, cream, sugar, eggs, cinnamon and nutmeg is a popular drink associated with the winter Christmas of North America.  Similar festive drinks can be found in Europe and elsewhere. There are also high octane varieties made by adding brandy, rum, whiskey and/or advocaat. I haven’t had eggnog for more than 10 years when I lived in the United States, but I remember it as being exquisite!

However, remember that just because eggnog is a beverage doesn't mean it doesn't pack a punch as far as energy content goes, particularly the varieties containing alcohol. So consume in moderation, or make it one Christmas tradition to avoid altogether. 

Food, food, everywhere food

All the small celebrations and social gatherings, from the morning teas to the drinks after work, are going to mean that it is quite likely that you are going to be within arm's length of fabulously tempting snacks most of the day. And most likely we're not talking about heaped fruit platters or piles of carrot sticks.

One tip is to keep your usual healthy snacks on hand and eat them according to your normal routine, that way you're less likely to be hungry and overdo it on the high fat snacks like potato chips and nuts. Keep an eye out for the vegie and fruit snacks if they're on offer, and if you're in charge of the catering, consider supplying some less indulgent snacks for everyone to eat. Finally, don't leave food lying around afterwards, particularly at work or home, where it can tempt you to pick at it all day long.

It's an eating, drinking marathon!

Around this time you’re likely to be treated to several large feasts in a row, so the key is to try to pace yourself from the word go. The aim is to be satisfied without feeling, at any point, like you're about to explode!

If you know that you'll be attending several functions, try the idea of sampling all that scrumptious food rather than tucking in to full-sized portions.

And think ahead. One tip is to drink a glass or two of water before you leave for the function and to have another glass of water when you arrive. In this way you’ll avoid quenching your thirst with an alcoholic drink and can sip your drinks slowly instead. It will also help slow down your food intake.

Avoid matching your friends drink for drink, or for that matter, canapé for canapé.  We all have different appetites, but often our tendency is to match other people's consumption in order to be sociable or just out of habit. But consuming more doesn't necessarily mean having a better time and you don't need to feel bad when saying "no, thanks". In the same way that it's socially responsible to keep your drinking under control, particularly when you're driving, it's in everyone's interest that we all eat healthily and in moderation.

Don’t overdo the desserts

To be honest, I don’t know if I can live up to this one simply because I love Christmas pudding and Christmas cake and everything else that goes with them!

Therefore, my message about desserts is simple and consistent with the broad theme of moderation. Wherever possible, limit the number of slices of iced Christmas cake and cut the kilojoules where you can. For example go for low fat custard on your pudding instead of full thickened cream. They’re simple choices but taken together they’re healthier options that can help you keep your weight under control.

Avoid stress

The festive season can be a stressful time for a variety of reasons, especially with all of the rushing around and often unrealistic expectations of having everything organised and in control! And unfortunately stress tends to make us eat more and less healthily and drink more alcohol.

While obviously easier said than done, it might be more prudent to step back and think about what this time of year really means for you and your family. There are lots of ways of celebrating and spending time together that don't require you to break the bank or require hours of preparation.

Rest is critical over the holiday season and we should use the time wisely to recharge, quite simply because life is not going to get any easier next year! Our health is critical for tackling the next set of life’s challenges, so being able to de-stress, rest and recuperate should be a welcome ritual around this time of year.

Try and keep active over the holidays

Around the festive period when I usually take my vacation, I find myself slipping out of my usual exercise habits. I’m off work, so I’m not training at the gym and not doing my usual walks up and down stairs to collect printing or to visit colleagues. That means I need to perform other activities that will help to balance the “energy in – energy out” ledger. With so many extra kilojoules entering my cakehole, I need to step up the activity stakes, just to stay even!

One idea is to round up the family and get active. It might be as simple as a family walk or it could be an impromptu football, basketball or cricket game, if the weather allows. Quite often these things only need someone to suggest them, and do a little organisation or coaxing, to get them happening. And by providing the example of being active, you'll be giving the kids another valuable present: the importance of exercise for life-long better health.



Roberts SB, Mayer J (2000) Holiday weight gain: fact or fiction? Nutrition Reviews 58: 378-379.

Peterson  (2009) American College of Sports Medicine’s Health & Fitness Journal 13(6): 52.

Yanovski JA, Yanovski SZ, Sovik KN, Nguyen TT, O'Neil PM, Sebring NG (2000) A prospective study of holiday weight gain. New England Journal of Medicine 342: 861-867.