The holidays are a major cause of diet failure. Various studies confirm that people tend to gain weight over the holidays. One study I found cited an average of 1 lb. for the season, and one study went as high as 5 lbs. on average. I’ve experienced it myself in the past. Ten years ago I lost a lot of weight on a low-carb program. When the holidays came around I figured “The program has been so easy and I don’t want to try to stay low-carb over the holidays.” I decided to drop off program for the holidays and start again for the New Year. Unfortunately, I went into carb craving since I didn’t transition off and quickly gained the weight I’d lost along with a lot extra. I craved carbs so bad that I could not get myself back onto program.
Built into this is an argument I want to dissect. I will present it here as:
Healthy eating requires deprivation.
Celebrating the holidays requires over-indulging.
Over-indulging causes one to gain weight.
Therefore, holiday celebrants inevitably gain weight.
We have three premises and a conclusion. The form of the argument given is such that if the premises are true, then the conclusion must be true. So our only choice would appear to be skimp on the holidays or gain weight. But is this our only choice? Is the argument above true? It can only be false if one or more of the premises are false, and I believe one could argue that all of them are false.
Healthy eating is not deprived eating
To eat healthy is not to deprivation, but appropriate eating. One who wants to eat healthy takes various things into account: food available, preferences, nutritional need, etc. One eats what the body needs and then stops when the body is provided for. Actually, it is deprivation that is unhealthy. To be deprived nutritionally does harm to the body. Yes, healthy eating can feel like deprivation to one who has spent years eating unhealthy. However, this is actually a symptom of prior bad choices. I want comfort food that is fatty and sugary, not because my body needs it. Our systems are adapted to prefer easy high energy sources. Tie this adaptation for survival to a psychological makeup that ties these foods to some pleasurable memory or makes them into a medicine to cover some bad memory and we have a double whammy telling us to eat what is bad for us, and to do it in copious quantities. It is this that makes such eating unhealthy. It is also this psychological component that makes healthy eating seem like deprivation.
Celebrating the holidays does not require over indulging
When we celebrate the holidays, we are spending time with our friends and loved-ones (and, often, some not-so-loved-ones). The food is actually there to encourage closeness. The history of feasting and shared meals is one of relationship building. In ancient times, when people shared a meal they established a covenant relationship. To share someone’s food and then turn on them was considered an exceptional level of evil. This was all part of ancient hospitality—“We have shared food and now we are bound to one another.” It is this that was behind the ancient feasts in the Old Testament and is also the root of the New Testament Lord’s Supper. This was, originally, a full meal shared by the congregation. Sharing food brings people together. When there is food between us, we relax. This is a primary reason for the food. There is nothing requiring you to actually consume a certain amount of food—at least not in our culture. Of course, there are some cultures where you must eat a certain amount or you will offend the host. At times it may even be necessary for you to have a bit of everything—even those things you shouldn’t have—in order to spare someone’s feelings. While that person should care more about your health than their contribution to the meal, this is not always the case.
Shared meals are actually common in church, and as a pastor I have attended more than most. We even use the word ‘fellowship’ in church to mean a potluck meal. I’ve been in churches where the ladies would bring their favorite dishes to the church potluck and if I didn’t try every dish someone would get their feelings hurt. I had to develop a tactic to help me with this. I’ll even share it with you and you can use it at church or at your Aunt Gertrude’s house over the holidays. No one actually kept a record of what I or anyone else actually did eat, so when someone brought something that either I shouldn’t eat, or that I even didn’t want to eat, and they would ask me, “Pastor, did you have some of my (fill in the blank)?” I l would look them right in the eye and say, “Why yes! I did and it was great!” That’s right. I lied! Do I feel shame over it? Absolutely not! Was it the right thing to do? Absolutely! By the way, if you think that a person should never under any circumstances tell anything untrue then you are either naïve or uninformed about the realities of life—you are at the least not married.
Over-indulging does not have to cause one to gain weight
Now I understand that what I just said may seem heresy to the dieting crowd. However, please let me explain. Let’s say I am on a strict diet that I follow religiously. I lose weight steadily. One day I decide to allow myself to have more than I should—I over-indulge. Will I gain weight? Probably not! Understand that it takes around 3500 calories to add a pound of fat. This means that in order to gain any appreciable weight I have to consume a very large amount. Recently, an article ran about a man said to have gained the most weight in a single Thanksgiving meal. Everyone at their dinner weighed themselves before eating and again after eating. The article went on to say that he had “gained” 7.5 lbs. in that one meal. Well, this is just patently false. Much of the food he is actually water and will pass; much of it was fiber that will not digest but will pass. That is not weight gain. That is just bulk gain. Much of it will pass out within a day and, he will gain some weight, but not the full amount.
Don’t get me wrong. I am not saying over-indulging is a healthy choice—especially for someone trying to lose weight. If you are on a diet, then over-indulging should be avoided. However, if something causes you (like your own choices, lack of will-power or that nice little aunt who insists you have just one more piece of her cheesecake) it’s not the end of the world. You may not even register any weight.
You see, the problem is not having too much at one meal. The problem comes when we use the holidays as an excuse to permit ourselves a season of bad eating. From Halloween through New Year most homes are full of bad eating opportunities. We are constantly exposed to the less healthy foods in copious amounts. We show up to work and in the spirit of the holidays a salesman has brought a whole tin of cookies. Everyone is given the giant drums of caramel coated popcorn. Unhealthy beverages are readily available in giant helping. And when facing such temptation the tendency is to say, “Well it is (Christmas/Hanukah/Thanksgiving/etc.).” Most often this is a lie. Thanksgiving is one Thursday in November. Halloween is one day in October. Christmas is two days in December (if you count Christmas day and Christmas Eve). New Years is one night of revelry. Let’s assume first of all that culture dictates that you over-indulge on all of these days. That still means you are having more than you should on five days out of ninety. You see, the problem is not what we eat on these special holidays. The problem is what we eat in between that we blame on these holidays. Halloween through New Year has become a season of excuses to binge eat. This is the problem.
Let’s look at some numbers for a moment. It takes about 3500 calories in excess to gain one pound. In the average Turkey Breast, four ounces has about 126 calories. This means you would need eat over six pounds of Turkey to gain a single pound. Don’t get me wrong. I understand there are other factors: carbs, potatoes, sweets and fats all being consumed. But my hope is that you will at least realize if you gain weight over the holidays it is not because of the actual holiday. It is because of what you use the holiday to excuse.
I have, for several months, being in a carb cycling rotation with an attempt to increase muscle mass. We had our Thanksgiving dinner on Wednesday because of other family responsibilities—my wife and daughter both work healthcare. In our house, I do most of the Thanksgiving cooking and wanted to make all the things I traditionally have. I also wanted to experiment with imbibing in all of it, with the goal of gaining no weight. Here was the menu:
14 lbs. Turkey, smoked
10 lbs. Goose, smoked
Sweet potatoes, with lots of brown sugar and marshmallows
Green Bean Casserole
Mashed Potatoes with Giblet Gravy
A giant loaf of homemade Swedish Almond Bread
Bourbon Pecan Pie
Sweet Potato Pie
Now, you may think looking at this that we had a huge family gathering of dozens of people. We could have fed them, but instead we only had eight people. Everyone ate their fill. I denied myself nothing—which includes three pieces of pie (two with the meal, and a third later).
The day before this, I spent about an hour in the gym working out and did the same the day after. We handled leftovers in a special way as well. We kept a small amount of turkey for sandwiches, and froze a small amount of goose to use for something later. Every last bit of the rest was given away. We kept none in the house (except for a small plate my wife had made for her lunch the next day). The day before the meal I was on a low carb, low calorie day. The day following I went very low carb—almost none the whole day. Prior to this and after, I went back to my program religiously. We are now one week later and I have lost five pounds.
One of the purposes of my blog and the title is because I believe that if one makes a lifestyle of healthy choices, then one is free on occasion to make a choice to eat in an unhealthy way, for whatever reason. Health does not have to be drudgery. Health does not mean denying myself everything good. However, it means taking control of your choices and using them to your benefit.
I want to add a warning to those reading this. You have to understand that what I did fit with my current program. Carb Cycling actually recommends an occasional undisciplined day because hormone changes can occur with long term low carb and low calorie consumption—I don’t need my T level dropping. However, if I were still in my prior program which is ketogenic, I wouldn’t have dared do this. In such a program one must stay long term in fat burn and getting back into fat burn can take days in the early stages of these programs. That one meal would have led to days of misery trying to get back into fat burn. However, after months of being carefully on program and making healthy choices, my body goes in and out of fat burn rather quickly. For example, the day before yesterday I was in a high carb cycle on a weight day. Because of a celebration, I actually allowed myself to have far more carbs than I intended—including too many simple carbs. Yesterday I went back low carb (I do this on my two cardio days each week). Yesterday evening I checked with a Ketostix and I was already in a good level of fat burn.
First off, follow your program. Second, if you allow yourself too much on a special meal during the holidays don’t lose your mind with guilt and grief. Third, don’t use the holidays as an excuse for a season of indulgence. Fourth, don’t allow others to set the agenda on what you eat because making someone else feel good about their favorite food is not worth more than your health.