Thinking Of Going Off Plan For Big Holiday Meals? Think Again.

by Dr. Mike Israetel, Co-founder and Chief Sport Scientist | Nov 21, 2016

Fundamentally, the upcoming holidays are about one thing: the enjoyment and celebration of life. That means enjoying special times with your closest family, friends, and yes, your favorite holiday foods.  And while no one is going to debate that those special holiday meals are some of the most delicious, they can bring some anxiety about dreaded holiday weight gain.

The big problem is that while this anxiety doesn’t actually help you make logical decisions about holiday eating, it definitely saps you of the peace of mind that’s pretty much a prerequisite for enjoying the holidays to their fullest. What DOES, however, allow you to have that peace of mind about your holiday eating is to form logical decisions that concord with your long term physique and performance goals in advance. Coming to these decisions in advance of the holidays (read: just about now) can allow you to avoid suffering through the uncertainty, doubt, second-guessing, temptation, shame and guilt that has all too often come with holiday eating. By sticking to your decisions, you can get the most out of holiday eating and accomplish the first priority of the holidays; enjoyment. And guilt free enjoyment at that.

As far as the team of expert coaches and scientists are RP see things, there are three possible logical approaches to holiday eating:

A) No Deviation From Strict Dieting

B) Controlled Deviation from Strict Dieting

C) Enjoyment of Maintenance

Let’s talk about the advantages and disadvantages of each approach so that you can choose the one that’s right for you.

Option A basically has you sticking to your strict meal plan through the holidays. No stuffing, no turkey, and no Christmas ham. By sticking to your dieting, you bypass any worries of gaining unwanted weight, but you pay for it in getting just about zero food enjoyment out of the holidays. This lack of food enjoyment is in almost every case going to carry over at least a little bit to reducing the fun you have with family and friends, so it definitely comes at a price. We’d only recommend this route if you have a serious competition coming up right after the holidays (for which you need to diet to make weight). Otherwise, this is not the top choice. But it’s not the worst choice for most people, as that one is next.

Option B sounds kind of like a win-win. You get to eat some tasty holiday foods and stay on track for your physique goals… you get to have your cake and have abs too! The big problem with this approach is that while SOME very rare people can pull it off no sweat, for most of us this is by far the worst option. Perhaps the only thing worse than no mashed potatoes with gravy is just enough mashed potatoes and gravy to drive your cravings for more tasty holiday food through the roof. For many very tempting things, “just a bit” only makes cravings worse for most people, and “not at all” is a better approach. If you really think you can pull off Option B, go for it, but we’d recommend you stay away from its illusory promises of “best of both worlds.’ You’ll likely find that its promises in reality quickly turn to extremes of temptation and cravings.

Lastly, there’s Option C, which we at RP consider by far the best. If you don’t have a competition that needs you to weigh much less shortly after the holidays, we highly recommend you choose this approach. If you do choose this route, the goal is to keep your body mass about the same through the holidays or gain just a tiny bit, while eating ALL of your favorite holiday meals and not holding back. And with just a few key tips, you can pull this off no problem.

Tips for Enjoying Maintenance through the Holidays:

  1. DO NOT Skip Holiday Meals
  2. DO NOT Skimp on Holiday Meal Portion Sizes
  3. Adjust your Non-Festive Meals
  4. Keep Training HARD!

1.) Some folks like to make deals with themselves where they allow themselves to have fun with a few holiday meals, but skip other ones so as not to go overboard on the total holiday calories and gain too much weight. But unless you’re invited to like 10 holiday parties, this is not likely to be necessary. So long as you’re eating no more than about 5-7 special meals during the season, skipping any isn’t even worth considering. A bit later in this blog post we’ll take a look at some basic calorie math to put you at ease if you’re skeptical.

2.) When you’re eating special festive meals (like Thanksgiving and Christmas dinner, for example), don’t hold back on portion sizes and food types and ENJOY YOURSELF to the belt-bursting fullest! The whole point of holiday eating is too indulge, so have at it! Worried that this will cause too much weight gain? Check out the next tip.

3.) Because your holiday meals will be so deliciously caloric, in order to keep your weight in check, you’ll have to adjust your non-festive meals during the holiday season. Why adjust these meals and not the holiday meals? Well, you eat the holiday meals with the specific goal of enjoying them. While you might enjoy your regular meals, you don’t exactly eat all of them specifically for maximal enjoyment, but rather to fuel your athletic performance and support your health. Why not let both meals do what they do best and modify your goal-oriented regular meals to support your goals rather than rigging your holiday meals for that purpose and losing out on their very special enjoyment value. For example, if you’ve got extra work to do and then the weekend is full of fun plans, you do more work on the week to finish up and then enjoy without worry on the weekend… you don’t just do your regular work on the week and then do extra work on the weekend… dampening your fun weekend plans. Just the same way, the holiday meals are for all-out enjoyment, and the regular meals are for physique control! So how do we go about modifying our regular meals? All we have to do is make our regular meals higher in lean protein and veggies and a bit lower in carbs and fats. That’s it. This lowers our meal calories while keeping their anti-hunger properties, allowing you to dip a bit below maintenance for your average regular non-festive meals. Your festive meals will be WAY above maintenance calories, but because they are so outnumbered by regular meals, the sum is likely to balance out and no net weight gain is usually the result! Mind you, you DO NOT have to starve yourself on every non-festive meal. Eat plenty! But by focusing on lots of lean protein and veggies and keeping the carbs and fats perhaps to 50% of their usual per-meal servings, you make a big calorie dent while still supplying your body with the fuel and building blocks it needs.

4.) If you stop training altogether or skip a bunch of training sessions during the holidays, we won’t lie to you… weight gain will be likely, and it’s likely going to be fat. But if you hit the gym and hit it hard during the holidays, you’ll not just be treading water… you’ll be building muscle! Sure, lots of cardio is not often a bad thing, and if that’s your thing, hit it hard! But the benefit of weight training is that it not only helps to burn off holiday pounds but it helps you use those very same festive meals as raw materials for building new muscle! With high volume weight training, those holiday meals are working TOWARDS your goals, not again them! That sounds pretty awesome, so when the holidays come… maybe not the day OF Thanksgiving and Christmas, but certainly the many days before and after, our advice is to hit the gym and hit it hard!

So what’s our best advice so far, summed up? Eat all the holiday meals you have planned and don’t hold back. Eat well during the regular meals that surround the special ones and don’t just fall face first off of good eating habits (high protein, high veggie) when the holidays come. Train hard, train with lots of sets and reps and enjoy growing some holiday muscle while keeping your fat in check!

Before we let you run off to the holiday tables to do some serious work, we’d like to leave you with three things to remember if you start doubting the possibility of this plan:

  • Water weight always comes with holiday meals. If it means NOT sending your coach your weight or not even taking your weight the day after special meals, so be it. But if you do take your weight, just know that 5-8lb swings are not uncommon and almost all that weight is water! So if you’re up in weight a bit in the day or two after big holiday feasts… don’t be alarmed! With a return to structured eating, water weight leaves as quickly as it came.
  • Let’s say you give yourself an allotment to be ok with gaining 5lbs of tissue (not water weight but actual weight) during the holidays. What kind of eating would that require if your diet is otherwise normal and you’re training hard? Well, that would be 5 special meals of about 3,500 calories EACH. EACH! That’s ON TOP OF your normal intake, not replacing it! So just imagine going through your day’s worth of maintenance eating… you’re not hungry or anything, and then having to eat 3,500 calories extra on top…. IN ONE MEAL. And to gain about 5lbs, you’d have to do that 5 times over the holidays. If you’re worried about gaining 10lbs of fat or more… give this point some thought… it’s NOT EASY if you keep training and eating normally outside of the special meals during the season.
  • Reality check… if it’s SO EFFING HARD to gain even 5lbs of tissue through the holidays, where do those horror stories of 10 and even 15lb holiday gains come from? Well, they aren’t made up, but a couple of elements have to align for such weight gain to result. First of all, most of those numbers are reported WITH water weight, not without. So all those 15lb reports are almost certainly 10lbs or less of actual fat. Second, most of the people gaining such amounts either don’t train to begin with, stop training during the holidays, or train much less. If you keep training hard, gaining is MUCH harder than it seems at first glance. Lastly, folks who gain that much weight over the holidays are often turning most every meal into a festive meal. Yeah, the calories from 5-10 big, awesome holiday meals can be kept in check with planned regular meals and hard training, but if damn near every meal you eat from the Wednesday before Thanksgiving to the day after New Year’s is a cheat meal… you’ll definitely gain quite a bit! The irony here is that once you start eating like this, holiday meals lose their “special” appeal and you might actually enjoy them less than if the rest of your diet was normal. But… if you keep training, don’t make every meal a cheat meal and keep water weight in mind, the chances of you gaining pounds and pounds using the suggestions in this blog post are very, very slim, so don’t sweat it! But if you do gain weight…
  • … then you can tighten up your diet during the boring, cold months of January and February and drop a few of the extra holiday pounds during that time. You’re wrapped up in 5 layers anyway, and there’s not a celebration in sight, so why mar the fun holiday times with overly restrictive dieting if you can have lots of fun instead and save the more restrictive eating for the post-holiday winter weeks?!

It’s been said that there is a time and a place for most things, and even though RP is a fitness company, we think the holidays are for big eating and big fun. So give this blog post some thought, choose your plan, and do your best. Leave the worrying, second guessing and guilt for another time of the year (possibly never). And if you want to make big fitness changes, you can start those in January no problem, and we’ll help you every step of the way. With that: load the barbells, grab your fork and knife weaponry, put on your cheesy holiday sweater armor, and prepare to attack the holiday meals and training sessions with full force!

Oh, and lastly… happy holidays to you and yours from Team RP!