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Tricks of the Trade

What is the best strategy for getting clients to eat better before and during the holiday season so they don’t start the new year carrying extra weight?

Welcome to the holidays . . . the gift-giving, party-hopping, dessert-eating, over-indulging, stress-evoking frenzy! We all know it. The time from Halloween to New Year’s Day is precarious for health-conscious people and can throw anyone’s health routine out of whack.

The most common reason your clients lose resolve, instead of weight, during this so-called joyous time of the year is plain stress. When people get stressed, they eat less healthfully, drink more, exercise less and sleep less. These changes in behavior can lead to a weight gain of up to 10 pounds in just 2 short months. While the changes cause weight gain, particularly as belly fat, they can also cause feelings of guilt, low self-esteem and higher risk of chronic diseases like hypertension, heart disease and diabetes.

So what strategies work best for clients? My most successful clients have been those who have a plan in place before the holidays begin. They arm themselves with the following:

  • regular workouts (designed by a trainer) or at least 30 minutes of walking daily, and a commitment to park their cars farther away and use the stairs
  • meal plans that include breakfast every day, frequent small meals, fruits and veggies at each meal and sufficient water
  • eating a healthy snack before attending holiday gatherings
  • going easy on alcohol, caffeine, energy drinks and soda
  • eating foods that combat stress (salmon, tuna, turkey, chicken, beans and legumes, walnuts and other nuts, flaxseed, olive oil, whole grains, oats, asparagus, spinach and other dark- green veggies, pomegranate, berries and dark chocolate (72% cocoa or higher)
  • relaxation techniques that reach the pleasure center of the brain (yoga, meditation, hot baths, great music, sex)
  • supportive people (spouses, significant others, friends, family, trainers)
  • removal of temptations (keeping trigger foods out of the house)
  • 6–8 hours of sleep per night
  • asking for help when feeling overwhelmed
  • a nonfood reward system (saving money in advance and buying a gift for staying on track; it could be new workout shoes or clothing, a massage or facial, music downloads, movies, sporting events or a weekend get-away)
  • fun and humor!

I suggest the following sample healthy meal plan to clients. The food in it combats stress.

Breakfast: oatmeal with berries, ground flaxseed and walnuts, and hot green tea

Snack: cottage cheese or yogurt and fruit

Lunch: lentil and whole-grain barley soup with onions, celery, carrots, potatoes and tomatoes

Snack: hummus and raw veggies

Dinner: grilled salmon and asparagus, brown rice and salad with sliced avocado, nuts and pomegranate–olive oil dressing

Snack: dark-chocolate square

Julie Burks, MS, RD, CSSD

ACE Personal Trainer and Semper Fit

Sports Dietitian, U.S. Marine Corps

San Diego, California

Fighting the holiday bulge is always an issue. With all those nice treats and sweet things around, it can be hard to say no. The first thing I tell my clients is that our environments have a big effect on us. If we are in an environment with high-calorie, poor-quality food, we are much more likely to pile on weight. So my first tip for clients is to be realistic with what food and drink they have in their homes—to keep only “normal” amounts and have healthy alternatives on hand where possible.

But the biggest tool in my weight control toolbox is math. I let clients know just how many calories they can easily consume during the festive season. In many cases the clients may not even realize how much they could be eating! I have a chart that shows a range of different seasonal foods, snacks and drinks, with the calories in each. I then translate these calories into hours of exercise clients would need to do to work them off. This strategy normally helps to focus my clients’ minds on the energy cost of eating that extra meal.

I also talk about the need for downtime during the busy holiday period and how it’s best to eat everything in moderation.

Tom Godwin

Managing Director, Foresight Fitness

Manchester, England

One of the most important ways I help my clients prepare for the holidays is by working with them year-round to develop effective strategies that will allow them to overcome personal challenges to healthy eating. The holidays pose a particular subset of challenges, but oftentimes my clients can manage them with the same techniques they use in circumstances such as dining out, celebrations and vacations.

I also find that early planning and preparation for the holidays is helpful. For example, if clients plan to leave town, I make sure that they have a program they can knowledgeably and realistically stick to while they are away. If they know that certain family members trigger overeating, we work on stress management and refusal skills. I also ask about events and travel plans that may interfere with our training sessions. We then go through our calendars and develop a revised schedule that will run through January. This planning helps to minimize missed sessions and avoid unnecessary delays in returning to training.

It’s also important to me to help clients reframe the way they think about holidays. While we talk about the holiday “season,” for most of us there are really only a few key days or events that can trigger overeating. I ask clients to look at their holiday calendars and decide when and how they would like to treat themselves. I remind them that they can “budget” for these occasions by sticking to their physical activity routines and eating healthfully during the rest of the season. I really try to help people redirect their focus away from holiday foods and onto family, friends, traditions and whatever personal, religious or spiritual meaning they find in the season.

While I don’t believe that weight gain is an inevitable outcome of the holiday season, I do believe that achieving weight loss during this time of year is not going to be a realistic goal for everyone. The desire to celebrate and the abundance of tempting foods can be quite powerful. With clients who typically struggle with holiday weight gain, I ask them to commit to weight maintenance and to view that as a successful outcome.

Finally, I encourage my clients to take care of themselves. My favorite piece of advice: “Don’t let yourself get too tired, too hungry or too stressed.” Any of these states can lead to overeating because they are mentally and spiritually depleting. They can rob clients of their abilities to enjoy the season.

Dana Schlossberg Weatherspoon,


Personal Trainer and Group Fitness


Owner, Custom Health Concepts

Arlington, Virginia

Beginning in late October we run a promotion for our nutrition coaching services, offered by our registered dietitians. The program centers on education and behavior modification. Based on a resting metabolic test and a thorough review of a client’s eating patterns, we design a coaching program that addresses issues like dining out/holiday eating, alcohol, portion sizes and more. We let clients know that the holidays are probably the worst time to diet, which we don’t recommend anyway. This time of year requires some leniency and patience from our dietitians, who know that if they can just continue building a relationship with their clients, the new year will bring fresh focus and commitment from them. Our main goals for our clients during the holidays are increased exercise participation and weight maintenance.

Dale Huff, CSCS and Ellie Huff, RD,


Co-Owners, NutriFormance—Fitness,

Therapy and Performance

Frontenac, Missouri

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