It seems I have slightly controversial views in the social media sphere when it comes to Christmas and dieting…
Here are some common things you might see floating around online or in the media:
Replace X food for a healthy alternative (the classic example here is usually potato for cauliflower)
Go all in hardcore dieting. Stick to the highly restrictive eating plans the whole of Christmas, don’t slip, Christmas foods are cheat foods…
Restrict or cut food in the lead up to the big meals.
There is, honestly, absolutely nothing wrong with how you choose to approach this time of year. You can, of course, follow this advice. In my opinion, though, these methods usually lead to more stress and less joy!
Here are a few approaches I usually talk through with clients, all of them are totally valid options:
1. Forget the diet for a week or two!
This seems totally counterintuitive to many people, but it is a totally OK to do this! There is nothing wrong with relaxing your diet, or abandoning your usual eating habits for a little while, if it means you can enjoy this time with family and friends.
If you want some scientific evidence to show what might happen if you go totally off-piste for a week, here you go :
This paper investigated what would happen to the gut, glucose metabolism, Cholesterol & triglycerides and inflammatory markers if you over ate whipping cream for an entire week (adding a whopping 1000 kcal to their food intake FOR 7 DAYS).
The average weight gain was just under 1 kg, with a little over half of that being fat. On this basis alone, returning to your usual habits in January (and thereby creating a calorie deficit if you have over eaten) will likely lead to a return to normal body weight in a short period of time. In addition, there was no disruption to gut permeability or insulin sensitivity or inflammatory markers. There were absolutely impacts on cholesterol, but again, a return to normal eating and exercise habits would bring that back to your normal range.
Obviously, there are caveats to this, food type, duration, pre- and post-lifestyle and that it was only studied in young men, for example. However, the main take home here is, the impact to body weight and overall health was relatively small and, assuming you go back to your pre Christmas habits and lifestyle its unlikely to negatively impact your long term health or derail your weight loss goal.
2. Follow your usual pattern except for meals like Christmas Dinner, New Year’s Eve etc.
Going this route, you basically do a mix and match, sticking to your usual eating patterns but leaving situations like socialising with friends and Christmas dinner open to enjoy whatever’s available.
You may see this called a cheat or free meal, but honestly, labelling foods or eating habits is really not helpful, it’s the sign of a balanced diet and healthy approach to nutrition to enjoy all types of foods in various amounts' year round, so let's banish the cheat meal mentality!
Again, here is some scientific peace of mind:
This paper details how healthy adult men were instructed to eat until absolute fullness. That is, totally stuffed! They were able to eat on average DOUBLE their normal intake, and the study looked at their metabolic and hunger responses to the meal. The take home in the context of a big Christmas meal is that they found minimal metabolic disruption in response to one-off overeating. Their blood glucose was well controlled by insulin and their triglycerides rose a bit, but apart from that, not much changed, they obviously felt a bit tired and lethargic and felt like eating much afterwards, but that’s just about everyone after a big meal, right?
The point here is, don’t sweat the occasional large meals too much, and just as with example 1, returning to your normal exercise and nutrition habits afterwards with bring any negative impacts under control pretty quickly!
3. Keep to your usual pattern the whole time.
Often this is reserved for weight category athletes, bodybuilders, and physique competitors with competitions soon after Christmas, where there needs to be at least maintenance of conditioning or weight. But even then, this is a fairy extreme circumstance that can severely impact enjoyment, social and family life, especially if there is no set financial or competition incentive. It is still absolutely OK to do the holidays this way if you choose. In fact, for some, knowing there is a calorie or macro limit can help in coping with the Christmas period.
Something to bear in mind if you are deep in a diet and can’t deviate, is to plan a diet break over the Christmas period, where you increase your calories up to maintenance for a week or two. There is some evidence that this approach allows shorter periods of higher calories without fat regain.
Although initial findings suggested there was a metabolic advantage to this approach and this does not appear to be the case. There is certainly a psychological benefit to having a rest from a deep prep, in the knowledge that fat regain is mitigated.
Keeping to a rigid diet is an extreme approach, and do not know many folks who would ever need to do this. If this is you, I certainly won't be judging you harshly for it.
I hope this article and the options I’ve given help you enjoy your food guilt and stress-free. Everyone’s take on their nutrition is absolutely valid and however you are able to enjoy your Christmas or festive holiday, I hope you have a good one!
Ott, B., Skurk, T., Lagkouvardos, L., Fischer, S., Büttner, J., Lichtenegger, M., Clavel, T., Lechner, A., Rychlik, M., Haller, D., & Hauner, H. (2018). Short-Term Overfeeding with Dairy Cream Does Not Modify Gut Permeability, the Fecal Microbiota, or Glucose Metabolism in Young Healthy Men. The Journal of nutrition, 148(1), 77–85. https://doi.org/10.1093/jn/nxx020
Hengist A, Edinburgh RM, Davies RG, et al. Physiological responses to maximal eating in men. British Journal of Nutrition. 2020;124(4):407-417. doi:10.1017/S0007114520001270
Siedler MR, Lewis MH, Trexler ET, et al. The Effects of Intermittent Diet Breaks during 25% Energy Restriction on Body Composition and Resting Metabolic Rate in Resistance-Trained Females: A Randomized Controlled Trial. J Hum Kinet. 2023;86:117-132. Published 2023 Jan 20. doi:10.5114/jhk/159960