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Healthy Living

Stop the Holiday Madness: Top Spa Experts Weigh In on Staying Healthy During Holiday Season

By Sheryl Kraft

Created: 12/07/2011
Last Updated: 12/19/2017

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Remember those scary statistics we all grew up with about holiday weight gain, when it was common to hear that the average person would pack on anywhere from 5 to 10 pounds during that food fest starting at Thanksgiving and ending with New Year's resolutions to lose it all?

Good news: in the past few years, that amount has changed to a much less grim prediction of 1 to 2 pounds.

While the average person will gain a little bit of weight (1-2 pounds) each year, the reality of this weight gain is that it most commonly happens during—you guessed it—holiday time. And it accumulates (and sneaks up!) through the years, so much so that here's a likely scenario: a 20-year-old weighing 130 may weigh 148 at age 30, 165 at age 40, 183 at age 50, and top 200 pounds by the time she hits 60.

Why this time of year makes a lot of us eat more, I'm not really sure, although I do have my suspicions. For one, we're surrounded by other people who are indulging and letting their guards down, all in the name of merriment. And undoubtedly, those tempting, over-the-top festive holiday foods like "white chocolate cherry chunkies" and "spice-crusted prime rib with velvety pan-drip gravy" are tough to ignore, screaming in our ear with their insistent "eat me!" please.

We're also surrounded by people who are indulging and letting their guards down, all in the name of merriment. That's otherwise known as the “contagion factor,” which means that we mimic the behavior of our friends that we spend time with. (Fortunately it works the opposite way as well, with weight loss, quitting smoking and happiness).

Another reason for overeating might be skimping on sleep. Behind the lethargy and yawning are two key hormones that can mess with your appetite, called ghrelin and leptin. Ghrelin tells you when to eat (sleep deprivation makes you produce more of it); leptin tells you to stop eating (sleep deprivation produces less of it).

It all sounds obvious, but keeping the weight off often isn't easy. And since most weight gain is around this time of year, I decided to reach out to the experts who are involved in healthy living—the spa folks whose job it is to carry on the tradition of healthy eating and living 365 days a year—to offer their best advice.

Dr. Wendy Bazilian, Nutrition Director at the Golden Door Spa in Escondido, California, says:

  • Snack smart: Don't go to a party starving. Have a small, healthful snack, like some trail mix, peanut butter spread on an apple or a glass of 1 percent milk beforehand. Drinking a glass of water about one half-hour before a party can help fill you up so you'll eat less, too.
  • Visit with people, not food. Don't hang around the food table at a party; it can be tempting if you're too close. Pick a central location—away from the food—to catch up with friends.
  • Watch the drinkable calories. Alcohol contains a lot of calories at 7 calories per gram and offers no nutrition. Some suggestions: choose wine, a wine spritzer or low-sugar drinks that include sparkling water. Try a lower-calorie, festive holiday drink by mixing some antioxidant-rich tart cherry juice with coconut water and sparkling water.

Dr. Brad Crump, Health Services Manager, and Dr. Reema Sayegh, Holistic Nutritionist at Red Mountain Spa in Ivins, Utah, offer this advice:

  • Make time for reflection and meditation. Reflecting on successes and accomplishments is imperative to maintaining focus and consistency. Meditation is important not only for easing the mind, but also for preparing for challenges ahead.
  • Set realistic and achievable goals. Commit to one or two realistic life changes at a time to avoid becoming overwhelmed.
  • Find an activity you enjoy. When it comes to exercising, choose something you like to do so that you'll stick with it. If you hate running on the treadmill, you shouldn't choose that as your daily exercise routine.

Pam Ouellet, Spa Director at Willow Stream Spa at The Fairmont, Banff Springs, Alberta, Canada, suggests:

  • Look for fruits, vegetables and protein at parties instead of reaching for sweets.
  • Stay hydrated by drinking a fun drink that still makes the holidays feel special, like cranberry juice and sparkling water.
  • Keep up your physical activity. It combats stress and increases your energy.

Marsha Hudnall, Green Mountain at Fox Run in Vermont, advises:

  • Keep it simple. Too often we overwhelm ourselves with tasks during the holidays. Pare down your to-do list, and ask others to share in the preparations.
  • Feed yourself well. Give up the old notion of saving calories so you can eat more at parties. All that does is set you up for overeating. Instead, eat regular, balanced meals and snacks that include grains and starchy vegetables, protein foods and fruits and/or vegetables.
  • Dance, skip, walk, skate, move! Physical activity increases energy and boosts your ability to cope with stresses of the holidays. Try getting your activity in the morning. Studies show that's when most of us can do it consistently. Take advantage of this time of year to enjoy special activities like skating, sledding, skiing, snowshoeing—even trimming the tree provides good stretching opportunities.

Dr. Trevor Holly Cates, Naturopathic Physician and Wellness Coordinator at Golden Door Spa at Waldorf Astoria Park City, Utah, says:

  • Instead of a cup of coffee or hot toddy after dinner, enjoy a cup of herbal tea to help you relax in preparation for sleep. Hops, passionflower, lemon balm, wild oats, chamomile and valerian are a few herbs traditionally used to help promote relaxation.
  • With all the handshakes at holiday parties, take extra care to wash your hands often with soap and water. Try not to touch your eyes, nose or mouth since that is often how viruses enter the body.
  • Consider taking immune-boosting supplements such as probiotics, elderberry syrup and vitamin D.

Junelle H. Lupiani, RD, Nutrition Supervisor at Miraval Resort & Spa in Tucson, Arizona, recommends:

  • Get plenty of restful sleep. Lack of sleep has a negative effect on hormones involved with hunger and satiety cues. And since we're surrounded by tempting foods, it's most important—especially this time of year—to keep these hormones well-balanced.
  • Keep plenty of ready-to-eat fruits and vegetables available. Don't just purchase them and stick them in the back of the fridge: cut them up and put them in a bowl on the counter or in the fridge for easy access.
  • Allow yourself to eat appetizers and finger foods, but try applying some ground rules. Commit to having just one plate of food. If you have the urge to continue eating, wait 20 minutes, then reassess your hunger.

And if you're the one throwing the holiday party, I love this idea of a healthier alternative to the cheese-and-cracker route so many of us turn to when we have company. Compliments of registered dietitian Dawn Jackson Blatner, here's a Cheeseless Cheese Plate:

  • Spiced nuts
  • Assorted olives
  • Jarred oil-marinated artichokes
  • Jarred roasted red peppers
  • Dried fruit like figs, apricots or tart cherries
  • Pear slices
  • Grape tomatoes
  • Whole-grain, multi-seed crackers

You might also want to read:
Simple Food Swaps for Healthy Holiday Eating
Holiday Eating Without Regrets


All terrific things I will try to keep in mind this year!

They are good tips to keep in mind all year long, don't you agree? Sometimes it is so easy to give into temptation...only to be sorry (and pay for it) later.

So many great tips, thank you!

You are very welcome Sandra. Hope these were helpful!

what an interesting variety of ideas! good to know I've already been doing most of them, too. thanks for gathering thoughts from these experts, Sheryl.

Well, Kerry, I think you will do a good job at getting through the crazy holidays without a problem...good for you for practicing so many healthy practices~


This is teriffic advice! I know I let my guard down this time of year and it doesn't seem like it's even WORTH trying to eat in moderation.

Thanks, Nancy. Hopefully some of this advice will come in handy.

I especially like the tip about visiting with people, not food. I always think of that old guideline, to ask before you eat something impulsively: HALT...are you hungry? angry? lonely? tired? Then proceed accordingly.

Thanks for reminding me of the HALT guideline - a really good one to remember!

I usually try to drop at least 3-5 pounds in the fall so that I "break even" by the end of the holiday season. ;o)

Interesting strategy...if it works for you, why not?

I like the "snack smart" ahead of time suggestion and will try to apply it. (When I think back to my life in France, the holiday meals there were even more calorie-laden and often lasted all afternoon. A mystery how French women manage to not gain weight.)

Did not know that about the holiday meals in France. I suppose the French women stay thin by following many of these guidelines, then??

Great tips and info here!

Should I admit I just ate a holiday cookie? A friend brought me this big tray. For some reason I'm finding it harder to resist this year. Thanks for the advice

I have to admit, I'd be hard-pressed to resist a tray of homemade holiday cookies. But you ate just one? I'd call that restraint.

Two more reasons we overeat at the holiday season. The stores are full of delicious-looking temptations. I just returned from Sam's Club and had to slap my hand numerous times to prevent it from grabbing boxes of Godiva chocolate and trays of delicious-looking appetizers. And don't get me started on the alluring cupcakes and cakes and pies!

Second, people give food gifts. And to be polite, you feel you have to eat them. Right?

It's a challenge, but I'm picking this month to get back on my low-carb routine. Wish me luck.

You are so right, Vera. I guess we'll have to stay out of the stores or tie our hands behind our backs...

And good luck on your low-carb routine. Hope it goes well for you!

I've been going to the gym to try and keep pace with the holiday eating. I'm not sure who's winning so far.

We do have an advantage down in the southern hemisphere when it comes to the holidays. When it is hot and sticky you just aren't as inclined to eat lots of holiday treats and people don't spend weeks on end cooking them up either!

Ah, so you're all the way over there...well, I'd say that does have an advantage. Hot weather certainly does not make you want to eat - or cook - the way cold weather does, especially when there's a nice warm fire roaring and you are just hanging around the house...

Ah, so you're all the way over there...well, I'd say that does have an advantage. Hot weather certainly does not make you want to eat - or cook - the way cold weather does, especially when there's a nice warm fire roaring and you are just hanging around the house...

Great post and good reminders. Another reason for overeating this time of the year may have nothing to do with the holidays. Our natural tendencies urge us to eat more to stock up for the cold winter.

Great set of interviews. The tips are all sensible and practical.

I find holding a glass/cup in one hand works for me, I cant really eat anything with my left hand! I stay away from the carbs because the protein foods will fill me up quickly, we all have our little tricks for staying away from the treats.

Clearly I need to sleep more so I'll eat less. Thanks for the fascinating factoids and the timely reminder.


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