The good news: Most Americans don’t gain the 5 to 10 pounds during the holidays like you’ve heard. The bad news: What we do gain, we keep: According to research published in the New England Journal of Medicine back in 2000, most of us actually pack on just a pound or two … but we never take it off, gaining as much as 20 pounds in a decade.
That’s a convincing reason to keep your diet in check this holiday season, but don’t just fend off excess chub — use certain seasonal factors to your advantage and shed weight by the end of December. Save your New Year’s resolution for learning a new language or taking a longer vacation, because with these simple strategies, you’ve got science-backed strategies that will help you lose weight during the festive finish to the year.
Because you’re going to eat turkey
When the platter comes around, pile on the poultry: Filling a quarter to a third of your plate with turkey could be the difference in keeping weight off. Multiple studies have shown that when lean protein composes 25 to 30 percent of total calories, people gain less weight, and dieters lose more. In one study reported in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, participants reported less hunger and greater satisfaction, and ate 441 fewer calories per day.
Light meat or dark meat? It doesn’t really matter: A 4-ounce serving of white has 153 calories, and the same serving of dark meat has 180 — that 27-calorie difference equates to a quarter-mile of walking, or two fewer bites of mashed potatoes. The stuff to avoid is excess gravy and turkey skin: The added fat from these extras can shift the nutritional percentage of your plate, lowering the proportion of protein, and squelching the benefits.
Because you’ll actually eat your vegetables
Green beans, yams, cooked carrots — unlike most times of the year, Americans actually eat their vegetables during the holidays. When people eat foods that are less densely stuffed with calories — or foods you can eat a lot of for very few calories, such as vegetables — they feel fuller on fewer calories. In one study, participants on a low energy-density diet felt full after eating half as many calories as their counterparts who were eating a high-density diet. The same study authors found that adding just 200 grams of vegetables to a meal — two cups of green beans, for instance — was enough to make people full faster.
The tricky part: Watch how the vegetables you eat are prepared. While steamed or boiled green beans are low in calorie density (just 11 calories per ounce), creamy preparations like casseroles are twice as dense (one recipe is 25 calories per ounce). Scoop smaller portions of veggies prepped with sugar (like candied yams), gobs of butter, or loaded with cream.
Because you’ll warm up with a cup of tea
Green tea should come with a cape: It can fend off more than 10 types of cancer, reduce risk of liver disease, help control blood sugar, lower LDL (bad) cholesterol, raise HDL (good) cholesterol, battle tooth decay, and may also boost metabolism and help burn fat. In one study, participants who drank two cups of green tea per day lost an average of 2.6 more pounds over 90 days than members of the control group who did not drink tea. They also lost 1.9 cm in waist circumference compared with those who didn’t drink tea. Researchers credit the catechins in green tea for this benefit.
Green tea isn’t the only brew with benefits. Sipping any type of tea before a big meal can help you avoid overindulging. In a 2008 study at Penn State University, subjects who had hot liquid before eating consumed 134 fewer calories at the meal — a number that took into account the calories from the liquid.
If you choose a festive peppermint blend, the scent could also help you eat less. A study at Wheeling Jesuit University in West Virginia found that dieters who sniffed peppermint every two hours ate 1,800 fewer calories over a five-day period than when they didn’t smell the mint.
Because you can only attend so many holiday parties
Keep your weight in check by having cheat days, not cheat months. Three (or even six) days of overeating during the course of six holiday weeks won’t result in weight gain, says Kara Mohr, co-owner of Mohr Results in Louisville, Ky.
“We always say people would be much better off if they treated the holidays like days instead of a season,” she says. One day of indulgence here and there — on the actual holidays, like Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Thanksgiving, and New Year’s Eve, and at a few key parties — will never wreck your diet or physique, she says.
The problem: “Once you start on that slippery slope it becomes easier to give up and think, I’ll never get back on track now — so I’ll just pick things up in January or after the holidays,” Mohr says.
Instead of falling into that trap and gaining weight that could put you at a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes and even death, plan ahead: Pack your lunch, prepare weekly meals, and hit the grocery store for healthy foods on days that aren’t part of the holiday-scheduled indulgence. You can even get a head start on your New Year’s resolution: If you cut just 300 calories from your diet each day for six days a week over that six-week period, you can lose as much as 3 pounds over the holiday season (though results can vary). Eating 300 fewer calories is as simple as dropping two full-calorie sodas, or leaving three bites of food on your plate at the end of every meal.
Because you get to sleep in
Research shows that the less sleep you get, the more likely you are to be overweight. In a Case Western Reserve University study of more than 68,000 middle-age women, those who slept for less than five hours each night were 32 percent more likely to gain 33 pounds or more over the course of the 16-year study, compared with those who got seven to eight hours of rest.
When you don’t get enough sleep, your appetite hormones go haywire — the amount of hunger-prompting ghrelin in your body goes up, and your body’s level of satiety-signaling leptin goes down. When you’re sleep-deprived, you’re also more likely to crave sugar and other carbohydrates because of the quick boost of energy they provide. Getting extra shut-eye can help curb this effect, but be sure you don’t go back to your sleep-deprived ways on Jan. 3.
“It has to be consistent,” says Robert Reames, a spokesperson for Gold’s Gym International. Catching up on slumber during the weekend to compensate for four to five hours of shut-eye Monday through Friday isn’t effective for weight loss. “It helps, but you’re still sleep deprived five out of seven days a week,” he says.
Because you’ll consume more fiber from peas, corn and sweet potatoes
Fiber makes you full faster and keeps you feeling that way longer, so it’s no wonder that if you eat more of it you’re more likely to be trim. In a study conducted at Bastyr University in Seattle, researchers found that women who ate more than the daily average of fiber — 14 grams — tended not to be overweight, while those who ate less than 14 were more likely to carry extra pounds.
The good news: Getting 14 grams of fiber is simple at the holiday table. A cup of sweet peas contains a whopping 16.3 grams of the stuff. Sweet corn contains 4.2 grams of fiber per cup. A medium sweet potato delivers 3.8 grams, and a cup of broccoli packs in 5.1 grams.
Because you’ll have a glass of red wine with dinner
Raise your glass: A 2010 study published in the Archives of Internal Medicine found that women who drank in a light to moderate fashion were less likely to become overweight compared with nondrinkers. Red wine drinkers had the best effects.
The study tracked nearly 20,000 middle-age women for 13 years. During that time, nondrinkers gained an average of 8 pounds each, while women who drank two or three drinks a day gained just 3.4 pounds over the same period. The sweet spot, though, was drinking 15 to 29 grams of alcohol a day (1.5 to 2 drinks): Women in this group had a 30 percent lower chance of becoming overweight or obese during the study than did the teetotalers.