A Healthy Approach to Holiday Eating

Staying healthy both in body and mind while enjoying the holiday season can be a challenge. Here are a few guidelines for planning your celebration days.

Staying healthy both in body and mind while enjoying the holiday season can be a challenge. With back-to-back Christmas parties getting in the way of your training schedule and holiday treats tempting you everywhere you turn, it’s definitely a change to the routine. Even as athletes who generally eat to support our performance, many of us struggle to find a balance that works for us at this time of year.

Most of us start out with good intentions of continuing training and eating well, and somehow end up a month later making a “fresh start” with the same old New Year’s resolutions to train harder and eat better.

Some of us give up after the first overindulgence and continue the overindulgence only to welcome in the New Year feeling unfit, heavy, and a little bit disgusted in ourselves. For others the holiday season will be a cycle of restriction then binging with far too much thought going into food, a whole lot of anxiety and guilt thrown in.

Neither is a great way to spend the holiday season, nor are they going to have you feeling relaxed, satisfied, and happy with your body come New Year’s Day.

Remember the Big Picture

To avoid getting trapped into the binge-restrict cycle and welcome in the New Year feeling our healthy best, it’s important to have a little perspective and a plan. Christmas dinner is one meal out of the whole year. It’s not going to make a shred of difference to your long-term health, fitness, or body composition no matter what you do. Your body will not physically allow you to consume enough food to undo months of training hard and eating well.

Remember that it’s what you do on a daily basis that defines your results, not what you do on one day of the year. Yes, you’ll probably have a terrible carb hangover (or just a regular hangover) the next day, and feel bloated and sluggish if you overindulged, but it’s no reason to beat yourself up and continue the overindulgence.

Make a Plan and Put It In Your Calendar

The problem with the holiday season is that it’s never just the one Christmas dinner, not only are there leftovers to contend with, but more troublesome is the lead-up month full of events involving delicious food and drinks.

It’s easy to see why we can get ourselves into trouble, and is why those of us who struggle with naturally finding balance, need a plan to follow in order to force some balance into the festive season.

Take a look at your schedule over the holiday season and come up with a realistic plan about how you’re going to manage your training and nutrition. This might sound a little OCD, but when you put something in your calendar you make it a priority and it more often than not happens.

Mark in your non-negotiable training sessions, making sure they fall on days you can 100% commit to. You may find you have time for more training, but at the bare minimum you’ll have these non-negotiable sessions that you’ll get done no matter how festive things get.

Allow Yourself to Celebrate

Also mark in a few days that are going to be celebration days, where you know food and drink is going to be all about enjoyment (e.g. Christmas). Some would call them “cheat days,” but since they’re part of the plan you’re not really cheating, right? So it’s not something to feel guilty about. The idea of these days is to give yourself permission to celebrate without food being an issue.

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A celebration day isn’t an excuse to eat everything in sight just because you can. It’s about enjoyment of what you’re eating! I’m going out on a limb here in saying that indulgence is a natural and healthy part of being human. I mean, we have taste buds for a reason, right? The key point is the difference between indulgence and overindulgence.

A slice of pudding with ice cream and custard after a delicious roast with all the trimmings is indulging. But going back for seconds and thirds of the roast and dessert, then eating the remainder of the box of shortbreads and washing it down with leftover eggnog just because you might as well since “you already ruined your diet” is overindulgence.

The distinction between the two isn’t just in the amount consumed, but in the reason for the consumption. Overindulgence happens when we stop listening to our body’s reaction to the food we’re eating (the smell, taste, and texture of the food) and continue eating past the point of it feeling good. In a perverse way, guilt is often a driver of overindulgence.

The first few mouthfuls of anything are always the best, so eat slowly, savor your food, put your fork down between mouthfuls and enjoy the indulgence. It’s part of the plan, so nothing to feel guilty about.

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Think 80/20

Finally, here are a few guidelines for planning your celebration days. Ensure a minimum of 80/20 ratio of regular to celebration days, and avoid back-to-back celebration days. If it’s impossible to avoid back-to-back days, then try to schedule a workout in between to put some of those calories towards building muscle rather than being stored as fat.

Absolutely most importantly, the morning after a celebration day, get right back to your regular way of eating. No “one last slice” of Christmas pudding or, on the flipside, punishment in the form of starving yourself or long bouts of cardio to make up for the extra calories you ate. Simply wake up, take off your party hat, and put your healthy hat back on!

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