You survived the tricks and treats of Halloween, but the lineup of holiday indulging opportunities has just begun! In addition to busier holiday schedules, the holiday cookies and treats seem to come at the most challenging time since you are spending less time in training. While there might be some talk that it is normal or OK for athletes to put on a few holiday/winter pounds only to lose it come spring, we all know that those holiday pounds can be tough to take off.

So how can we maintain a healthy body and mind during these challenging months? There is no better time than now to establish a winter self-care plan, and it starts with a realistic mindset of what you have the time and energy to accomplish.

Here are five proactive practices to help you maintain your weight in winter:

Practice 1: Be Choosy with the Carbs You Eat

One of the many advantages of being an endurance athlete is that you get to eat more carbohydrates than your less active companions. During high training season, many of you can easily get by with the additional sweet splurge here and there, but when training tapers our appetite or desire for these food doesn’t often do the same. However, it is important to 1. Not deprive yourself and 2. Still enjoy high-quality carbs for several reasons. With winter comes less sunlight and therefore lower levels of the hormone, serotonin. Serotonin is a hormone responsible for good moods, sound sleep, and appetite regulation. With lower levels of serotonin, our body naturally finds itself craving more carbohydrates. For individuals fearing weight gain, carbs might be the first food they think about cutting out. However, restricting ultimately leads to more intense cravings and possibly unhealthy eating patterns surrounding that food. Instead, seek out high-quality carbs like whole grains, vegetables, fruits, and dairy, and time your carbs right. It serves us well to snack on quality carbs paired with protein or a healthy fat during the 3-4 pm afternoon energy slump. Carbohydrates help boost serotonin in the brain making us feel happy and sleep better, which brings up another great time to have a high-quality carbohydrate – before bed.

Practice 2: Enlist Accountability Practices

We know that maintaining healthy habits is easier when you enlist the support of others or set up accountability systems. Examples of this might be setting an alarm to go to bed at night, meeting a friend for a run instead of a happy hour and keeping a food journal. While not all of our clients at McDaniel Nutrition keep food journals, we have found that it helps. Those who use a food journal lose two times more weight than those who don’t journal. One of our recent online monitoring services makes journaling as easy as taking a picture of your foods! We love seeing what our clients eat, and our clients love the close contact they have with us helping them stay on track during the challenging winter months. Finding someone to hold you accountable can also be a great way to stay on track during the holiday seasons. Ask a friend to hold you accountable, and vice versa, during your holiday parties or even enlist the support McDaniel Nutrition to make your way through the gauntlet of holiday celebrations that are sure to come.

Practice 3: Carve Out Downtime

During the season you’re busy and a great portion of time is taken up by training, staying in routine, and eating right. However, the holidays are notoriously busy with parties, gift exchanges, and family gatherings that will fill up the void left during the off season. While many of these events are ones we look forward to (or have no choice but to attend!) we do ourselves some good by saying the occasional “no” to some of these events. You owe it to yourself to make time to relax and enjoy the down time available to you. While it is often easier to say yes, we rarely regret the freed up time to do something we enjoy. Establishing the boundaries around downtime saves us time, conserves energy, and lowers stress. Lower levels of stress translate into better sleep, less stress eating, and lower levels of the stress hormone, cortisol. Participating in low-level physical activities that you enjoy such as taking the dog for a walk can also be a good way to spend some of your down time as well.

Practice 4: Don’t forget the Most Important Meal of the Day.

While everyone knows the saying that breakfast is the most important meal of the day, many people tend to overlook its importance. During the holiday season, it may even seem to make sense to skip breakfast in order to ‘save room’ for the holiday feasts that are going to be following later in the day. However, while this may seem to make sense, it is leaving the door open for stronger cravings that you will want to satisfy once the big feast is in front of you. Research has shown that compared to people who make sure to eat breakfast in the morning, those who did not choose to eat breakfast in the morning end up actually eating more throughout the day. Also, it helps to try and eat lunch as well before an evening holiday party. Not only does eating breakfast and lunch ensure that you are already full to some extent before arriving to the party, but it also allows you to control your cravings, survey the food options available, and then make smart choices about what foods to eat.

Practice 5: Be a Smart Social Eater

Being in certain social situations, such as holiday parties, can be cues for eating and all too often, eating too much. It is important to keep your wits about you in these situations so that you can be a smart social eater. Don’t mingle around the food table as this will encourage you to mindlessly eat as you interact, likely causing you to lose track of how much you’re really eating. Get away from the food table and mingle with others. This will not only keep you from mindlessly snacking but it can also keep you on your feet and walking around as opposed to sitting. Before approaching the food table, make a mental note to dish out 20% less of your holiday feast because research shows your stomach won’t miss it. To please your eyes, dish out 20% more vegetables. If you cut pasta by 20% and increase veggies by 20%, your plate will look full, but will hold fewer calories. Also, while you are eating, try sitting next to those people everyone knows as slow eaters. We mimic the eating speed of our table mates, so speedy eaters will make you eat faster and make you eat more! Also, the larger the group, the more we eat. You will eat 75% more with a table of 4 diners versus 1! Enjoy the company of holiday dining companions, but be mindful to set your own eating pace. On top of all this, social eating induces what you could call “eating amnesia.” After multiple trips to the buffet, we lose track of all the nibbles and bites (calories) we consumed. Instead of going back for multiple helpings, fill ONE plate with everything you want to eat. Although it will look like a plate filled for 2 or 3 people, it will likely contain less calories than if you went back for seconds or thirds.

It is true that winter is challenging, but if we are deliberate about listening to our bodies and taking care of our own needs, we will enter spring in the healthy place and body we deserve.

Post contribution by Jennifer McDaniel and Joe Tintera, Dietetic Intern from Fontbonne University

Jennifer McDaniel

Jennifer McDaniel is a Registered Dietitian, Media Spokesperson, and co-author of Prevention's Mediterranean Table Cookbook. She and her team of Registered Dietitians aim to help their clients go further, make change last, and unlock their potential. She lives in St. Louis, MO with her husband, and three young sons. If you are interested in working with Jennifer, please visit our contact page.