Does Christmas really ruin your health goals?

It’s the end of the year again and the days are cold, dark and short. All of a sudden going to the gym becomes a chore, and celebrations (chocolate and social) become the focus. Yes, it may feel slightly demotivating, and yes a little guilt may linger but it’s Christmas, and it should be enjoyed, diet or no diet.
Research has backed the festive period to contribute to weight gain, but this is not a guilt trip, this aligns with the simple equation of ‘eat more, move less, gain a little’. I’m sure there are also some figures to suggest birthdays, thanksgiving and other nationwide celebrations may also contribute to extra pounds. But, in saying all of this there’s a little thing called ‘life’ that must take priority over dieting, especially around this time of year.  
The good news is that the undesirable side effects of your side of roasties with every meal are much less common amongst people who pay attention to their diet and exercise, so gym bunnies count yourself lucky. However, as for both the lucky and the less so, the facts remain the same, health shouldn’t depend on one time of the year, a healthy, happy and balanced diet should be maintainable all year round. Some months just contain more turkey trimmings than others! Christmas doesn’t have to ruin your progress when it comes to weight loss, and we’re here to explain why!
What determines weight change?
How many calories your body needs depends on your body size and composition (muscle needs more calories than fat) and how active you are throughout the day. Whether you lose or gain weight depends on the energy balance: the relationship between calories eaten and burned. If you eat more than you burn you’ll gain weight, if it’s the other way around you’ll lose weight. This is simple science.
Technically speaking you’d need to eat an excess of roughly 7000 kcal to gain 1 kg. I’m saying technically because weight change is not an exact science. Some people would need to eat 7500 and others maybe 6800. The exact number can vary depending on if you are currently overweight, whether you are on a diet and if yes, for how long you’ve been dieting, as well as your gut microbiome, your genetics, how much you sleep and how stressed you are. The bottom line remains: calorie burn needs to exceed intake for weight loss. Many dieters struggle to maintain this at the end of the year, but it is by no means the be all and end all. Around this time of year we tend to see 2 types of dieters at FFF: the ones that go on a mad diet to anticipate the Christmas binge, then there’s the other kind that just give up entirely on achieving anything this month because they plan to start again in January (cue promises that on the 1.01 their life is REALLY going to change because they will do everything right every single day).
I wouldn’t recommend either approach.  
The two types of December Dieters
Very restrictive diets and the presence of highly palatable party foods both increase the risk of binge eating. If you deprive yourself for 3 weeks and then let go for Christmas, of course you are likely to go a little crazy, you’ve been restricting yourself for so long, making it much more difficult to determine whether your hungry or just bored.These effects add up and can cause a higher body weight than before you started your diet, simply due to circumstance. The time you’ve been restricting in an attempt to combat Christmas can affect the speed at which your metabolism functions, often attributed to muscle loss and/or metabolic adaptations. A negative side effect of this is it will be much harder to find a balance after Christmas because you’ve been yo-yoing your food intake for an extended period of time.
The opposite can also happen. Some dieters have given up on December all together and plan to turn their life around in January. They stop going to the gym, forget about watching what they eat and, adhere to every Christmas party invite that lands in their inbox… or letter box for that matter. The end result here is similar, the transition into January will be a 180-degree flip, which is likely to be less sustainable due to the sudden change in trends.  Building healthy habits is a slow process and works best by making small changes every day all year long. Going from one extreme to another does not work for most, and is not something we’d recommend here at FFF.
So how do you arrive in 2019 with less worry and more memories?
Staying on track of your health and fitness goals and celebrating Christmas aren’t mutually exclusive. Taking care of your health shouldn’t be dependent on the time of the year because then you’ll never be fully in control of the food choices you make. As is often the case, the solution is moderation and that really isn’t as difficult, nor terrifying as you may think. The Christmas period is not a long, and so every day should be enjoyed and said enjoyment should not be dictated by your diet choices. As we’ve discussed the deep truth behind the myth of mass weight gain is far from the realms of reality, and to put on the pounds we all fear we’d take more than just a second serving or two.
Sure, there may be a few more Christmas parties and treats available but you can compensate this by putting these extra calories to work in the gym. As mentioned weight gain isn’t just determined by your intake. When you’re going to see your family don’t spend all day sat at a table but go for a walk or a dance.
Furthermore, you don’t need to say yes to everything: every party and every treat. You don’t need to go to every Christmas party just because it’s there. Be selective and choose the occasions you really want to go for and would enjoy. How many times do you find yourself going to a Christmas party just because it’s there and the booze is free? And if you’re really such a social butterfly and need to go to every party, make an effort not to go crazy at every occasion and actually limit the alcohol and/or treats you’re having. Again, just because there’s an abundance of Christmas treats available, it doesn’t mean you need to try them all. Be selective and pick the ones you’re really excited about.
Christmas is there to be enjoyed with friends and family so let that be your focus. Make an effort to keep in your routine of going to the gym and staying active and be selective in your choices of food and occasions you go to. Accept that your diet and training routine may be a bit different from the rest of the year but that’s ok. Having a more balanced approach to December rather than “all or nothing” will help you to arrive in January more relaxed and recharged.
Robin Swinkels, FFF Nutritionist

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