Truth time: The average American gains about a pound between Halloween and New Year's, according to a New England Journal of Medicine study. While a pound or two doesn't sound like a lot, if you put on just two pounds a year over the course of 10 years, you'll be up 20 pounds—something that experts refer to as "creeping obesity." Avoid the holiday weight gain, and you'll avoid the creep (and a so-uncomfortable, too-snug waistband). Read on for easy, no-diet tips to keep the pounds from piling up—while still celebrating and enjoying the season.
Hydrate your plate
"Water-rich foods, like fruits and vegetables, help to keep you hydrated and feeling fuller, longer," said Rima Kleiner, RD, a Greensboro, NC–based nutrition expert. "High-water foods also tend to be loaded with dietary fiber, vitamins, and minerals like potassium, which helps counter the bloating sodium in salty or processed foods which holiday parties are rife with."
And don't forget to drink lots of water, too.
"When your body is thirsty, it can exhibit similar symptoms as when it's hungry—growling stomach, hunger pains, feeling tired," said Ilyse Schapiro, RD, a nutritionist in private practice in the New York City area.
Work in a workout
Exercise will not only help control your weight, it'll improve your mood and sleep and enable you to better deal with holiday stress.
"Every day during the holidays seems busy, so whatever your holiday plans—working, shopping, baking, parties, carpooling—try and start your day with some sort of exercise," said Sara Haas, RDN, spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics. (Squeezing it in first thing will keep it from getting knocked off your to-do list.)
Aim for 30 minutes a day of moderate aerobic exercise, such as brisk walking, swimming, or biking, per national guidelines.
Lose the booze
"Liquid calories add up fast—plus when you drink, your inhibitions are down, and you may be more likely to take that extra plate of food or extra dessert," said Tara Todd, RD, a registered dietitian at St. Louis Children's Hospital.
If you're going to imbibe, stick to wine, light beer, or single alcohols like vodka mixed with no-calorie club soda or diet soda. Steer clear of super sweet margaritas, daiquiris, and holiday-themed martinis, which can pack several hundred calories each, added Lauren Harris-Pincus, RDN, a New Jersey–based registered dietitian. And be sure to intersperse alcoholic drinks with water to slow down consumption.
BYOA (Bring Your Own Alternative)
"One way you can ensure you'll have a healthy option to enjoy at a party is if you bring it yourself," said Anika Christ, RD, senior program manager of Life Time Weight Loss at Life Time Fitness.
Veggie and fruit platters, shrimp cocktail, or hummus with whole-grain pita are all safe party-friendly nibbles, or go for a more substantial dish, like one of our superfood sides.
"Of course, you'll want to try small samples of other options, but make your own healthy dish the main part of your meal," said Lee T. Murphy, RDN, a lecturer in the Department of Nutrition at the University of Tennessee-Knoxville.
Power up with protein
"Start your morning with a protein-rich breakfast, such as eggs or Greek yogurt, to fuel your busy days of shopping and decorating," Kleiner said.
A study from Saint Louis University found that dieters who ate eggs for breakfast lost 65 percent more weight than those who had a bagel breakfast with the same number of calories. Opt for protein-rich but low-fat foods at parties, too, Kleiner said: Shrimp, salmon, poultry, beans, and eggs will satisfy and fill you up so you don't keep coming back for more. A bonus for seafood: It's also rich in heart-healthy omega-3s.
Ruin your appetite
"Never show up at a party hungry," said Jessica Dogert, RD, registered dietitian at Fitness Formula Clubs Lincoln Park in Chicago.
Sit down to a healthy salad or sandwich before you head out to a holiday party—especially if an actual meal won't be served—so you're not famished once you arrive and wind up making puff pastries your meal.
"If you arrive hungry, it will be hard to minimize your snacking—and you'll be less able to make smart choices about what to eat," Dogert said.
Avoid going on autopilot
We're all guilty of making several meandering trips around the appetizer table at a party because it's the social thing to do. Instead, fill your plate just once, and sit down—out of sight of the food—before you eat anything.
"I always see people taste and eat while making their way down the buffet," said Shari Portnoy, RD, a registered dietitian and certified fitness trainer in New York City. "Often they have the amount of calories for a meal before they even get to the end of the line."
Peruse, then choose
Don't load up your plate with the first yummy-looking items you see at the buffet.
"Instead, do a once-over of the food options to plan out what exactly you want to spend your 'calorie salary' on," Murphy said. "Decide what foods you really want to eat, and forget the rest."
An easy way to make sure you get the good stuff: Fill up half your plate with veggies or salad and then use the other half for small portions of indulgent treats.
While it sounds counterintuitive to eat more when you're trying to avoid gaining weight, "eating every 3 to 4 hours keeps your metabolism revved up and saves you from overeating later in the day," Murphy said.
After your nutritious breakfast, make sure you include snacks with both lean protein and complex carbohydrates (Schapiro suggested veggies and hummus or a small whole wheat tortilla-turkey roll up) every few hours so that you won't be ravenous and overeat at meals.
Chew on this
A 2011 study found that women who chewed gum for a total of 45 minutes after lunch had fewer cravings for snacks later in the afternoon and ate less. Harris-Pincus suggested popping a piece of sugarless gum or a mint to keep cravings at bay.
"Plus, the mint flavor in your mouth also makes the items you might potentially eat taste a bit different—think drinking orange juice after brushing your teeth. Yuck!" Murphy said. "So you're less likely to overindulge."
Leave the leftovers
Every holiday party always has so much food that there are often lots of leftovers—and inevitably the host will try to pawn some off on you. Politely decline taking any so you don't have fattening foods following you home. Hosting the party?
"Send your guests home with the leftovers, so you're not tempted to eat them," Schapiro said.
She suggested making them more enticing to your guests by decorating cardboard take-out containers ahead of time with holiday stickers and tying them with red-and-white baker's twine.
Carry a clutch
Yep, the style of your handbag can actually keep your appetite in check.
"Instead of carrying a shoulder bag or crossover to your next holiday party, opt for a clutch-style bag that you actually have to hold in your hand," Dogert said. "Keep a low-calorie cocktail or glass of seltzer in the other and your hands will simply be too full to reach for unhealthy treats."
If you do want something to eat, you'll have to put down your bag, making the act of eating a deliberate and more mindful choice.
You've heard before to aim for at least 10,000 steps per day to help keep your weight in check. But here's something you might not know: Just getting up from a sitting position to take a lap around the living room can make a big difference. A study published in Diabetes Care found that people who took more breaks from sitting throughout the day had slimmer waists, lower BMIs (body mass indexes), and healthier blood fat and blood sugar levels than those who sat the most, regardless of how much exercise they did. Try standing while doing tasks like wrapping gifts, prepping food, and folding laundry.
Think in threes
Bites, that is.
"Here's a simple rule to follow no matter what you're craving: When you really want to indulge, limit yourself to three bites," Harris-Pincus said.
Why? The first bite is going to be just as good as you think it will. The second bite will be good, but not as good as the first bite. And by the third bite, whatever you're isn't going to get any tastier, so you might as well stop.
"Slowly savor those three bites and you should be satisfied," Harris-Pincus said.
Focus on fitness, not food
Host your own holiday get-together where you invite family members to go ice skating, skiing or sledding before coming back to your home for a healthy meal.
"You'll create lasting memories without the lasting calories," Christ said.
Even main event days like Thanksgiving can be revamped this way: "Instead of eating all day, organize a family football game, or sign up for a Turkey Walk/Run," suggested Rachel Begun, RDN, a nutritionist and natural chef in Boulder, Colo. "Then everyone can happily enjoy Thanksgiving dinner without experiencing food coma."
Get into the spirit of giving
"You can still make your favorite cakes, cookies or desserts—just make sure to share them with co-workers, family, and friends instead of keeping them home where they will simply tempt you," Christ said.
Or forge a new holiday tradition: "Make non-food gifts or better yet, spend an afternoon working at a soup kitchen with your kids," says Begun. "It will take the focus off of preparing and eating food, and sends a really great message to your kids."
Give time to yourself
It's great to give to others during the holidays, but often we do this at the expense of our own well-being.
"When we feel stressed and overextended, we are more likely to reach for that tray of cookies sitting on the kitchen counter," Begun said.
Give yourself the gift of some downtime for you—whether that's an afternoon spent hitting the spa or simply going for a walk or reading a book. Feeling calm and centered will keep you focused on what the holidays are really about (hint: way more than food).