Most of the average American’s annual weight gain occurs between October and February, research from the University of Hawaii shows. People simply can’t resist holiday smorgasbords; and even if you fancy yourself a “gym guy,” chances are you can’t, either.
We won’t waste space telling you to avoid party treats and decadent meals, because we know you’re going to indulge anyway (we are, too). Besides, the holidays are no time to point fingers. But we can give you some advice to mitigate the damage to your physique, so that you won’t be mistaken for a mall Santa when you go to return gifts in your new red sweater. All you have to do is follow this plan and enjoy yourself.
Step 1: Budget for binges
It’s a given that you’re going to cheat on your eating, but trying to predict when will help you be more aware of your straying ways, and limit them. There are 39 days in the holiday season between the week of Thanksgiving and New Year’s. Assuming you eat five times per day (including meals, snacks, and workout nutrition), you will consume about 200 meals during this time. As a general rule, you need to adhere to your diet 90% of the time to see results. This means that you need to eat at least 180 “clean” meals over the holidays, leaving you with no more (or less) than 20 cheat meals.
Now look at your calendar. Plot out as many cheat meals as you can anticipate needing. When is your big office holiday party? When does your family visit? Let big celebrations like Thanksgiving count for at least two cheat meals, since these binges can last hours and easily double your usual caloric intake. Also, try to group your cheat meals into the one or two weeks when you expect to do most of your partying, such as the week of Christmas and New Year’s. Then you can make an effort to be extra faithful to your diet in the weeks leading up to your biggest cheats, when you don’t have as many engagements.
Another thing to remember: leftovers. They don’t count as your Thanksgiving Day cheat if you’re still picking at them days afterward.
Step 2: Prepare to party
Even though the point of cheat meals is to stop being a stickler and enjoy yourself, you still want them to do as little damage as possible to your abs. One solution is to eat healthy before you go out so that you simply aren’t as hungry when you’re surrounded by junk later, and therefore won’t indulge to the same degree.
Never go to a holiday party on an empty stomach. Eat something before you leave that will increase satiety, prevent cravings, and slow the digestion of foods you eat later so you can avoid blood sugar crashes. A salad is perfect. A study published in the Journal of the American Dietetic Association showed that eating three cups of salad reduced subjects’ caloric intake by 12% at a subsequent meal. Need a more portable and convenient option? Grab an apple and string cheese. The fruit provides water and fiber, making it a high-volume food that will take up room in your stomach, and the string cheese gives you fat and protein, which is satisfying and slows digestion.
When you get to the buffet table, resist the breads, cookies, crackers, and cakes. They have no fiber, so they’ll do nothing to fill you up, and their simple, starchy carbs cause blood sugar spikes that zap your energy and encourage fat storage. Instead, eat shrimp, smoked fish, cheese, and raw vegetables (and opt for hummus over ranch or blue cheese dressing). Make the centerpiece of your plate whatever main meat dish is being served. Ham or roast beef are high in protein and devoid of carbs.
Where you stand at a party can be as dangerous as the food itself. You start talking with somebody near a bowl of potato chips and, before you know it, you’ve emptied the bowl. Don’t linger by the buffet—engage with people as far from the food and bar as possible.
Step 3: Time your training
There’s a saying, “You can’t out-train a bad diet,” meaning that no matter how hard you work in the gym, you’ll still get fat if you eat junk. This holds true, but it doesn’t mean hard workouts can’t lessen the impact of diet cheats. Whenever possible, train before eating a big meal. Lifting weights increases your insulin sensitivity, meaning that your body has to work less hard to control blood sugar in the presence of lots of carbs and calories. More of the food you eat will be sent to your muscles to replenish glycogen and start the process of recovery, rather than sit in the fat cells around your waist.
Supplements can enhance this effect: Cinnamon extract, alpha-lipoic acid, and resveratrol all improve insulin sensitivity. Consider using probiotics as well. Restocking your gut with healthy bacteria helps you digest extra food.
Another benefit to pre-party lifting is in the way it helps you metabolize alcohol. Booze is never a muscle-friendly beverage, but it affects muscle protein synthesis (the process by which your body builds muscle in response to training) the worst 24 hours after exercise. This means that you’re better off training this afternoon and drinking tonight than getting wasted tomorrow, just when your muscles are beginning to rebound from your workout.