How To Stay Lean During The Holidays

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They look pretty cheery now, but how are they going to feel when the holidays are over?

We’re right in the middle of the season of boozy parties, formal festive gatherings, and the constant flood of random treats being placed within your reach. This time of year presents a real challenge to someone trying to get lean, or stay lean.

While it’s often a good idea to relax your fat-loss expectations around the holidays, it’s still possible to limit the damage to your body while enjoying yourself throughout the season. And learning how to deal with the social pressures of your day-to-day life gives you a tool that you can use all year long.

Here’s How To Keep Lean Over The Holidays:

Get That Workout In

It can be really easy to skip workouts when your holiday schedule is jam-packed. Get it in early in the day, if you can, before the holiday eating and festivities begin. Not only will you keep working at building muscle (the best way to stay lean!), but the higher post-workout insulin levels allow you to utilize the extra carbs you’re eating for muscle recover and repair.

In my experience, you also tend to make more sensible eating decisions after working out because you don’t want to destroy all your efforts in the gym by going nuts at the Christmas party. By making the trip to the gym first, you’ll feel like a health conscious and body-aware person that wants to nourish his or her body with good food.

Occasionally people get so proud of hitting the gym that they decide to reward themselves with some hefty eating. Be aware if that’s something that seems to be true for you and make a conscious effort to resist that urge.


Don’t try to fight those “calories in” by hitting the treadmill though. While cardio increases your calorie expenditure slightly, you won’t be able to outpace your meager calorie burn from jogging (or cycling or rowing or the elliptical) with the speed that you’re able to deliver excess calories to your mouth with a fork.

Do a weight training workout instead.

Building muscle will help boost your metabolic rate in a sustainable way because muscle burns more energy (calories) than fat.

That’s not to say that traditional “cardio” is a waste of time, but its benefits pale in comparison to weight training or HIIT (high intensity interval training).

As a bonus, weight training sessions can be done more quickly, especially if you do shorter rest intervals or work in a circuit.

HIIT is designed to be fast and challenging, and is an efficient way of burning fat in a short period of time. And time is definitely something you’re limited with during the holidays.

Make the Right Drink Choice

If you drink alcohol, this is the time when it seems to be most socially-acceptable and the pressure can be the greatest. Alcohol can be very damaging for fat loss, not only because of what it contains, but because it tends to loosen your inhibition to molest the contents of the buffet table.

Your body puts off all metabolic processes, like fat-burning, until it deals with processing the alcohol you’ve consumed. Throw in excess calorie consumption in the form of cookies, chips, fruit cake, and pumpkin pie and you’re heading for trouble.

Choose the type of alcohol that you enjoy, but be wary if what you enjoy is egg nog or sweet rum mixes. Those drinks have sugar and fat in addition to alcohol so they’re more likely to add up quickly.

Plain drinks without added sugar like vodka or gin with water or soda water (or on the rocks) are the best option. You can add lemon, lime or mint for flavour and festive spirit. Wine and beer are popular and reasonable choices, but remember that the quantity adds up fast.

Before heading out to a party where you want to drink (you don’t always have to!), decide how much you’re planning to have and try to stick to that number. If nothing else, it sends a subconscious signal to your mind to keep track of what you’re consuming.

Lastly, try to drink a glass of water between each alcoholic drink. Not only will you fill up faster (and cause you to spend more time in the washroom rather than consuming more alcohol and eating more food!), but you’re less likely to get dehydrated and end up with a hangover. Always a bonus for post-party recovery!

Drink Up To Recover

Water can also help with the recovery process. Drinking water can help decrease your appetite when you’ve been overindulging and can prevent the dehydration that comes with drinking alcohol and dancing until 3am to silly Christmas songs.

Plus, if you’re dehydrated you might be tired and suffer from headaches, which is not going to make it easier to hit the gym or make good food choices.

Getting water in will also help get your digestive system back in gear if you’ve overtaxed it with a bit too much food.

Choose Treats Carefully!

I enjoy a treat as much as the next person, but I’m very selective about what I choose to consume. And make no mistake, it’s always your choice what you consume. No one can force you to eat Aunty Betty’s Christmas cake or Uncle Jimmy’s super-spiked egg nog.

If you want it, have a little bit. You don’t need to nibble from every item that’s sitting on the table just to avoid talking to your boss about why you can’t get that project done by the time you leave work for the holidays. Have a look at what treats are available, decide which ones are really worth it…and leave the rest to add a layer of fat to someone else’s belly.

Forget the Guilt

Feeling guilty about what you ate and punishing yourself, either by starving yourself or spending excess time on a useless cardio machine spinning for hours, isn’t healthy.

Trying to lose weight by burning off more calories only ends badly and leaves you feeling exhausted.

Yes, make some minor modifications to your activity levels to account for the excess calories (perhaps a 30 minute walk with your family), but don’t do it as punishment for anything.

Moving more will make you feel better anyway so think of it as a fun, festive activity.

If you make your food choices carefully, you won’t do your body much damage.

If for some reason you venture a little outside your desired plan, don’t feel guilty about it. Admit that you enjoyed it (if you did) or that you’re not perfect (because no one is) and move on the next day without feeling bad about yourself.

Too many people give up on their plans to get lean altogether because they think one bad day will ruin everything. It won’t.

Make Some Minor Adjustments

If you know you’re going out and having more food on Friday and Saturday, try to stick to lean proteins (chicken breast, white fish, lean beef & good-quality meat, seafood) and vegetables the day before and during any meals that you’re still eating at home. The protein will keep you full and make sure that you’re maintaining your muscle mass.

I normally have a breakfast of chicken or eggs (with extra egg whites), and some vegetables and fruit, if I know I’m going out where there will be treats that I enjoy available.

That’s not to say you should starve yourself the day before or early in the day. This never goes well! Usually what happens is a monumental binge that leaves you feeling bloated and completely disgusted with yourself. Not the smart way to go.

Enjoy Stuff…Besides Food!

Holidays are about more than just food. There’s also the alcohol…hahaha.
No, really, there are plenty of other things that the holidays are about:

  • Spending time with family and friends
  • Watching cheesy Christmas specials on TV, as well as classics like “A Christmas Carol” and “National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation”
  • Getting outdoors to do winter activities like sledding, skiing, skating, or just a walk
  • Spending quiet time indoors reading or chatting with your family in front of a fireplace (real or not)
  • For some people, this is a religious time and they attend church or temple. Imagine that!

While it often seems that the holidays are all about food, try to focus on other things that you enjoy as well.

Find Ways to Cope With the Stress

Between shopping for presents, the last-minute rush at work, and plenty of celebrations to plan and attend, the holidays can be seriously stressful.

Dealing with stress in a positive way (No, alcohol and binge-watching “Game of Thrones” does not count) is really important because being stressed affects the decisions you make every day. You’re more likely to eat a lot of food, particularly sweet and fatty comfort food, when you’re feeling stressed. And we know there’s going to be a lot more of that kind of food around at this time of year!

Get as much sleep as you can.

Late parties and varying schedules can leave you short on sleep. Grab naps when you can, and think about skipping a non-essential party or two so that you can have an earlier night. Yes, you want to be social and enjoy yourself, but if you’re stretched to thin it’s going to show.

If you don’t already practice meditation, now might be a good time to incorporate it into your routine. I’ve written a blog post HERE┬áthat describes an easy 5-minute meditation you can do if you start to feel a bit frazzled. You need to take care of yourself first or you won’t be much fun when you’re spending time with other people anyway.

Exercise is another great way to deal with stress so getting your workouts in has extra benefit over the festive season. Not only do you build muscle and help yourself stay lean, but you’ll reduce your stress levels and be more likely to make better food choices. Sounds like a win-win.

Your weight training workout is the key, but keeping yourself moving (and not behind a desk all day long) will help too.

Don’t Promise to “Be Good” in the New Year

There’s something about telling yourself that January will be better and you’ll get yourself on track with your workouts and nutrition LATER that makes you more likely to spectacularly mess things up now.

“It’s ok, I’ll make up for it in the new year!”

No, you won’t.

If you spend most of December ploughing yourself with food and alcohol making the promise that you’ll be good in the new year, you’ll fail.

Not right away, of course, but after a month or two you’ll eventually realize that your life does include occasional social outings and you aren’t willing to give those up forever.

Sure, there may be fewer parties, less pressure, and more time in January, but it might not be as easy as you think to do a complete 180 when the time comes.

Get into good habits now and you’ll be all set for an even more productive new year.

Have a Plan

I’ve never been a fan of the word “moderation” with respect to food because I feel it gets misused too much. People sit around eating a bit of crap every day and call it moderation.

That’s not moderation, that’s a crappy diet!

It’s better to create a nutrition plan that includes those treats when you decide to have them. Adjust your calorie (and fat and sugar) intake for the rest of the day if you’re having a treat (or treats!). It won’t always work out during a very special day of feasting, but if you don’t stray too far you’ll limit the damage you do to your physique.

My Plan

I truly believe in enjoying the holidays. I like to eat more treats than usual and I fully intend to participate in some serious chocolate-eating on Christmas Eve and Christmas Day…and I’m definitely having a slice or two of my mom’s famous cheesecake.

Those days will be very high-calorie, and with more fat and sugar than I generally consume. I’ll still aim to keep my protein and vegetable intake high, since that keeps my appetite under control and stabilizes my insulin levels to avoid major energy crashes.

I’ll work out in the morning on Christmas Eve day and then I’ll take two or three days off before getting to the gym again, my muscles well-stocked with glycogen and ready for a heavy weight training session.

Enjoy Yourself!

This goes along with the whole guilt thing, but I think it’s worth mentioning again.

If you go a little overboard one day (let’s say Christmas), don’t berate yourself for being bad or decide to throw in the towel on your fat loss efforts altogether.

Each day is a new one, and how your body looks is not the result of what you do on any one day. It’s the sum of all the days of the year. Having a few days throughout the year when you consume excess calories and sugar isn’t going to hurt your physique, but be honest about how many days like that there are.

If you do it right, you can maintain your physique during the holidays (or even make improvements!) and still enjoy all the pleasures that this season brings.

So have a Merry Christmas, Happy Hanukkah, or Happy Kwanzaa…or just a really Happy Holiday!

Stay on your path to a leaner body and you’ll be trimmer and healthier for the new year.

Ivana Chapman

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Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman

Ivana Chapman BSc BA CSCS is a Canadian fitness and nutrition coach, happy wife, and mom to an energetic 6-year-old boy. She is a writer, published fitness model, speaker, 3rd Dan black belt in Shotokan Karate, former World Cup Karate Champion, one-time marathoner, and CBBF National level Natural Bikini competitor. She loves weight training and chocolate, not always in that order of preference.
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