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5 Holiday Weight Gain Myths

A biggie: That you must police your every single bite

One problem with having a diet mentality around the holidays (or really, anytime) is that it makes you overthink what you're eating, taking away the pure enjoyment of these once-a-year treats. Another issue is that it is a setup for thinking you need to "make up for" that bite of stuffing or sip of nog, and that can lead to unhealthy yo-yo dieting. Below are five misconceptions that should leave you feeling better about just enjoying the season and all it serves up for you.

Myth #1 You’re destined to enter 2021 in bigger jeans.

Nah. If you gain weight over the holidays, it’s unlikely to be much, research shows. But that doesn’t mean you’re imagining your tight waistband: Salty, sugary, fatty foods—and alcohol—cause bloating and water retention, which can make you look and feel as if you’ve put on a few, even if it’s temporary, says Dana Angelo White, a registered dietitian and certified athletic trainer. “True weight gain is only from fat or muscle, but water weight shifts can be pretty aggressive,” she says. Most of that will disappear once you resume regular, healthy habits, says Dawn Jackson Blatner, R.D.N., author of The Superfood Swap. Drink plenty of water, snack on fruits and veggies, walk on your lunch breaks—you know the drill—and you’ll go back to your normal soon.

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Myth #2 Seasonal treats are the biggest reason you overeat.

Mom’s sweet and salty pecan pie is irresistible, but it may not be the main reason you eat past the point of comfort during the holidays. The company is a big factor: We tend to eat more when we’re socializing than we do when we’re alone—possibly as much as 48% more, research has found. To avoid munching unconsciously around others, tweak some of your habits. Instead of chatting over the cheese board, move your conversation to a room without food, Blatner says. Rather than lingering after dessert, suggest a family walk or a game of cards. If you’re at a restaurant, ask the server to take your dish away once you feel full. You can also center your get-togethers more around activity (like ice-skating) than around food.

Myth #3 Working out extra hard can cancel out any overdoing it

You can’t really sweat away those festive treats, and you shouldn't feel like you have to. When researchers at Texas Tech University followed people, half of whom were active, for the six weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year, they found that both groups gained about the same amount of weight. More important, perceiving exercise as a way to cancel out overeating is an unhealthy mindset, Blatner says. “Eating your favorite foods isn’t something you should be punished for,” she says. Try to mentally separate food from exercise and to embrace staying active for all its benefits beyond anything the scale may say. Squeezing in a walk or time on your yoga mat can boost your energy, improve your digestion, and help you manage stress. That’s a win on multiple levels during the hectic holiday season.

Myth #4 It’s good to detox or fast after the New Year.

It's so not good to do either! Making a sharp turn from sweets and stuffed meats to a juice cleanse is a setup for disaster. “These highly restrictive regimens are just crash diets in disguise,” Angelo White says. “They can wreak havoc on your metabolism and lead to overeating and rebound weight gain.” And they’re not necessary: Most of us lose about half of any holiday weight within a month, research published in the New England Journal of Medicine found. This is mainly because people go back to their regular eating habits, Blatner says. Losing the rest, if you want to, calls for intentionality, not misery. Meet a friend for a walk instead of a fancy coffee drink, swap in sparkling water for wine for a while, and eat a variety of colorful produce. Such small tweaks can get the job done and are a lot easier to live within the long term.

Myth #5 You should definitely replace higher-fat, higher-calorie holiday foods with “healthier” versions.

Sure, use Greek yogurt instead of mayo in your dip or less sugar in your sugar cookie recipe if it feels like a purely positive swap. But if the “healthier” version of your favorite holiday dish seems restrictive, depressing, or diet-like, you may wind up doing extra nibbling and snacking later in the day, Blatner says. One study found that people who bought foods labeled as “light” could eat 13% more calories than those who ate full-fat versions. It’s better to stick to a sensible portion of the traditional celebratory food and really savor each bite—eating slowly and mindfully not only enables you to enjoy your food more, but also helps you eat less of it, according to the U.S. Department of Health & Human Services.

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