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Make Wellness Part of Your Holiday Preparation

Make Wellness Part of Your Holiday Preparation

Maintaining a healthy weight during the holidays doesn’t mean skipping the fun foods.

There are many things to celebrate this holiday season, and good health is high on a lot of people’s lists. But eating right and getting enough exercise can be challenging at this time of year. It is natural to want to treat yourself to the season’s special offerings, and everyone has their favorites. Whether it is fudge, gingerbread cookies, eggnog and seasonal lattes, the calories from all the treats can add up fast.

“A healthy goal for most people is to maintain your current weight over the holidays,” says Kevin Porciuncula, MD, a family medicine specialist with Washington Township Medical Foundation who is also board certified in obesity medicine and lifestyle medicine. “It is important to be realistic. At this time of year, trying to lose weight may not be practical.”

Dr. Porciuncula points to a New England Journal of Medicine study that showed that over the Christmas and New Year period, most people gain a pound or two. He notes, “Although that doesn’t sound like much, the study also showed that half of the people who gained weight had not lost it by the following summer.”

For maintaining weight, Dr. Porciuncula says that exercise is key. “I tell my patients to make sure that they continue their exercise routines throughout the holidays to help them avoid gaining weight.”

Even if you do not work out regularly, there are lots of ways to fit in physical activity. Dr. Porciuncula encourages his patients to engage in a range of non-exercise physical activities to improve their metabolism—which is the rate at which a person burns calories. The medical term for this type of energy expenditure is non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Everyday exertions like climbing stairs, walking, and even yardwork all contribute to NEAT. “Non-exercise activity thermogenesis can happen when we mow the lawn or walk around a mall. These commonplace activities can contribute to burning calories and maintaining weight,” he says.

“Try to incorporate physical pursuits into the time you spend with family and friends. Activities like walks together can build memories just like holiday meals,” says Dr. Porciuncula. “For myself, being around people I care about is the best thing about the season’s festivities.”

Dr. Porciuncula offers these simple suggestions for enjoying the holidays without overeating:

Be mindful and slow down: When you are eating, try to be aware of when you start to feel full. I tell my patients to stop eating before they are full. You should aim to feel 70 or 80 percent satisfied. Twenty minutes later, you may find that you have actually had enough. But if after waiting you still feel hungry, you can eat a little bit more.

Plan ahead and make a budget for foods higher in calories: No food or drinks should be entirely off-limits for calorie reasons. The trick is to keep your portions small for dishes that are highest in calories. Before a meal starts, make a plan that includes eating plenty of low-calorie vegetables to fill you up. If you are less hungry, you will be better able to manage what you eat during the rest of the meal. The advice I give to my patients is to have an alcohol budget that they decide on in advance. Alcohol is high in calories and drinking too much can diminish your resolve to stick to your eating plan. Usually, two drinks is a good budget, but it depends on the person.

Drink plenty of water and get enough sleep: Staying hydrated and getting enough sleep are always good for your health. Sometimes thirst can be mistaken for hunger, and coupled with alcohol can lead to overindulging. Being tired can make it harder to manage your blood sugar. The CDC warns that when you are sleep deprived, you crave foods that are higher in fat and sugar.

Avoid skipping meals: When you are really hungry, it is harder to eat slowly and in moderation. Try to come to a meal ready to eat, but not so hungry that you mindlessly devour everything put in front of you. The same is true for cooking foods that are high in fat and sugar. It is too easy to slip up by “tasting” what you are cooking again and again. Without intending to, you may wind up consuming lots of extra calories.

Make time to exercise: The holidays can be stressful for some, and stress can contribute to overeating. Exercise reduces stress and burns calories. Dr. Porciuncula urges people to partake in any activity that gets them moving. NEAT activities such as dancing, caroling, and backyard games like Simon Says and Musical Chairs can be fun and social, and can help you maintain your weight.

The good news is that by planning ahead, being mindful of portion size, budgeting alcohol and sweets, and engaging in physical activities, you can keep from gaining weight. But, if you do put on a pound or two over the holidays, Dr. Porciuncula says, “Don’t stress out about it. Keep the big picture in mind. The holidays should be about enjoying yourself and being with people you care about. You can work on taking off the extra weight in the months that follow.”

Kevin Porciuncula, MD, joined Washington Township Medical Foundation in March 2021. For more information about his practice or to schedule an appointment, visit or call 510.248.1500.