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

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, MS, MPH
Personal Trainer and Group Fitness Instructor
Owner, Custom Health Concepts
Arlington, Virginia

How do you help your clients to avoid weight gain over the holiday season? Leave your best strategies in the comment area below.

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