How to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain

By Stephen T. Sinatra, M.D., F.A.C.C., F.A.C.N., C.N.S., C.B.T.

Want to enjoy your favorite treats through the holidays without gaining extra pounds and harming your health? Here’s my secret: ease back on sugar! 

Notice I didn’t say, “avoid sugar altogether.” That would be unrealistic during the holidays. After all, this is when we celebrate with delicious meals and favorite family recipes.

Keeping off excess weight and staying healthy during the holidays isn’t easy… We’re all tempted by sweets during this time, but eating extra calories from sugary treats can quickly translate to pounds on your scale (not to mention inflame your arteries!). In fact, you might gain 1 to 2 pounds, on average, according to a 2013 study from Texas Tech University. The Texas researchers also noted that “the majority of average annual weight gain (2.2 lbs.) …may occur during the holiday season” and even 4+ hours of exercise per week “did not protect against holiday weight gain.”

As I always say, “prevention is easier than cure…”

Sugar: Our Foremost Diet Enemy

In general, I’m not a fan of sugar. Excess sugar, as I tell everyone, is a primary cause of atherosclerosis because it generates inflammation in the body; promotes weight gain, metabolic syndrome, and diabetes; and accelerates the aging process. Sugar also hits the pleasure centers of our brains, so sugary foods are our “go-to” crutch for relaxation. When stressed and wanting to chill out, we don’t usually get the urge for kale, alas.

But here we are with the holidays. Expect to be presented with pies, cakes, candy, and other treats. How can you have some sugar, eat it too, and not gain weight?

Some strategies for staying healthy during the holidays:

1. Make Healthy Holiday Recipes:

  • Ease back on sugar – Most recipes call for too much sugar. I’ve always advised my patients to experiment: Try using one-third less sugar than your recipe calls for, then one-half less, and so forth – right up until you notice the difference. Everyone who has tried this technique has been pleasantly surprised that cakes with half the sugar taste just as good.

Some other tricks: Substitute unsweetened applesauce, mashed bananas, or purees of prunes or other fruits for some or all of the sugar in a recipe. Raisins are a great stand-in for sugar, too, especially in apple pie. A cup of raisins contains 493 calories, versus 774 calories for granulated sugar. Simply replace sugar with an equal amount of raisins, and you’ll cut 281 calories from the entire pie, plus add plenty of fat-fighting fiber.

If you need to sweeten any other foods, add a little juice from oranges, grapes, pears, peaches, dates, or other fruits, or try sprinkling on cinnamon, cloves, or nutmeg.

  • Don’t Fake and Bake: Use Smart Sweeteners

Artificial sweeteners such as aspartame or sucralose are no better than sugar. They confuse your body’s innate ability to know when it’s full. Consuming fake sugar in any form can increase the amount of calories you take in. The consumption of artificially sweetened food and beverages has increased dramatically in the last 25 years, and obesity has increased along with it.

If you must use a sweetener and want to avoid extra calories, here are two sweeteners I recommend:

Stevia: This super sweet herb from South America has been used as a natural sweetener for more than 1500 years. While it is 600 times sweeter than cane sugar, stevia contains zero calories and is completely safe. To bake with stevia, use approximately 1 ½ tablespoons powdered (or 1 teaspoon liquid) for 1 cup of sugar. You’ll have to experiment to get the right results.

Xylitol: Also known as birch sugar, xylitol contains about 40 percent fewer calories than white sugar and scores low on the glycemic index (which measures how quickly a carbohydrate converts to blood sugar). This sweetener is derived from tree fiber, corn, and some fruits. For occasional baking, substitute it for only half of the sugar called for in a recipe. (Please note that xylitol is extremely toxic to dogs)

I also like to use natural sweeteners like raw honey and pure maple syrup instead of sugar; used sparingly, of course, as they still can drive up blood sugar.

Sweeten Foods Naturally With These Sugar Substitutes

2. Choose Healthier Beverages, Snacks and Other Holiday Goodies

  • Pies. Instead of a slice of apple pie (411 calories – 1/8 of a 9-inch pie), go for a slice of pumpkin pie (316 calories – 1/8 of a 9-inch pie). You save 95 calories (much more if you skip the whipped cream and/or ice cream).
  • Beverages. Rather than drink high-calorie eggnog, fancy coffee drinks, or sugary cocktails, stick with seltzer-based drinks, natural fruit juice (and water it down), water with lemon or orange wedge, or herbal teas. Most eggnogs are full of high fructose corn syrup – a big health no-no. If you just cannot live without eggnog during the holidays, try mixing it with organic milk – 1 part eggnog to 4 or 5 parts milk. You’ll limit your sugar intake while balancing it with protein from the milk. Better yet, make your own heart healthy eggnog from scratch.

If drinking an alcohol beverage, have a glass of water with it, then stick with water or switch to a seltzer-based drink – I generally recommend women limit their alcohol intake to 1 drink per day; men up to 2 drinks. Water is filling too, so when it comes time for dinner you may not feel as hungry and will likely eat less. Curbing alcohol consumption can also help prevent you from overeating.

While I’m on the subject of beverages, beware of sodas. They are liquid candy − the #1 dietary source of added sweeteners. Studies connect them to weight gain and numerous nutritional deficiencies. Watch out also for sweetened trendy teas, energy drinks, and sports drinks.

  • Candy and Cookies. Finally, choose natural alternatives to holiday cookies, candy and bon bons that taste as sweet but won’t wreak havoc on your blood sugar level. Examples: pitted dates, or frozen grapes and berries. Just think: Two chocolate covered caramels rack up to 190 calories, whereas 2 pitted dates net you just 48 calories, and frozen pieces of grapes or berries, barely 3 calories each. That’s a savings of between 142 and 184 calories. Another option is to try my Chocolate Covered Strawberries. When a candy craving hits, choose some of these and notice the satiation of your sweet craving.

As for holiday cookies? Try to avoid them, especially the frosted ones. If you must have one (and limit yourself to one – total – not one of each kind), take a nibble or two to satisfy the craving, then throw the rest away. Know that any perceived “waste” means less on your actual waist.

3.  Party Hardy – But Healthy: Portion Control!

Holiday parties and gatherings don’t have to be your downfall. When sweets present themselves, limit yourself to the one you want most, as well as portion size: try to have a small piece and then walk away toward the veggie trays or bowls of raw and unsalted nuts and seeds. These are great because they help give you that sense of satiety and thus reduce the chance of overindulging at dinner. I also try to eat a healthy snack or small meal (with some protein) before heading off to a party so I won’t feel ravenous.

For the Rest of the Year: How Much Is Too Much?

Sugar consumption isn’t just a problem of staying healthy during the holidays; it’s a year-round concern for many people. So, looking beyond the holidays, think about curtailing your sugar intake throughout the year to save your health. Through a 2014 study published in JAMA Internal Medicine, researchers concluded that habitual intake of excess sugar actually heightens significantly the risk of DYING from atherosclerosis!

Sugary Foods to Avoid

According to this research, if your sugar intake is roughly a quarter or more of your daily calories, you have twice the risk of a cardiovascular-related death than somebody whose intake is about 7 percent more. At around 19 percent more, the risk is about 38 percent higher. This study also confirmed the danger of overconsumption of sugar-sweetened beverages, noting that seven servings a week – the equivalent of a 12 ounce can a day – is specifically linked to risk of death from heart disease.

How much sugar should you eat, if any? The American Heart Association, which notes that “soft drinks and other sugar-sweetened beverages are the primary source of added sugars in Americans’ diets,” recommends a prudent upper limit: no more than 100 calories per day for women (about 6 teaspoons or 36 grams) and 150 calories for men (9 teaspoons or 36 grams) from added sugars. Most people, unfortunately, exceed these guidelines.

But it doesn’t have to be that way. There are ways you can still indulge in a little sugar, now and then, and keep your sweet tooth on a short leash, without gaining weight or risking your health.


Note: Calories counts vary, depending on the source; the calories counts in this article are based on

© 2015, 2016 HeartMD Institute. All rights reserved.


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