Holiday foods are usually more extravagant and energy-rich than day-to-day fare. Yet, it’s not only the special food choices that have the potential to lead to holiday weight gain. The holiday season is full of daily challenges that can quickly upend your health behaviors, sometimes leading to holiday weight gain or the more problematic backlash of disordered eating.
It is also a time of emotional upheaval for many. As you may be familiar with, emotional challenges and high stress levels can lead to eating more, or at least more erratically. This article will delve into the many reasons the holiday season can lead to food challenges and holiday weight gain and what you can do about them.
Physiological Challenges and Holiday Weight Gain
There are challenges to your body’s normal functioning during this time of year, possibly leading to holiday weight gain. But these challenges are not necessarily due only to holiday celebrations.
From Thanksgiving to Christmas and New Year’s, the holidays take place as the length of daylight is shortening. The longer hours of darkness can lead to what has been termed “seasonal depression.” The lack of sunlight really can add gloom to peoples’ lives, which many attempt to remedy by high carbohydrate, high-fat foods. If this creates an energy surplus continually, weight gain is guaranteed.
An energy surplus occurs when food intake has a higher energy total than what the body uses to keep us alive and active. Unfortunately, with the holiday season comes colder temperatures, as well. These colder temperatures tend to decrease physical activities for many. Curling up on the couch with a blanket is a bit more tempting when faced with the colder, darker outdoors as an alternative.
We see that comfort eating can increase due to seasonal gloom. We see that colder weather may reduce physical activity. But the holiday season can cause a third physical issue that might lead to weight gain.
The holiday season can be an exciting, activity-filled time. Yet, there is no doubt it is a busy time. One essential need that can be thwarted throughout the holiday season is a regular sleep schedule. Unfortunately, research has shown us that weight can be affected when a person goes through periods without sufficient sleep.1
To help with these seasonal challenges, try these tips:
- Get outside in the sunlight for 15 minutes each day, if possible. Use your lunchtime or take a break between tasks to absorb that sunlight for your vitamin D supply.
- Scan YouTube videos for indoor exercises you can enjoy right in your living room. Of course, it’s great to bundle up and enjoy some fun outdoor winter activities, as well!
- Practice stopping harried activities 2 hours before bedtime as often as possible. Try not to use electronics and screens during this time.
- Get just a minute of sunlight first thing in the morning (or as soon as it comes up if you get up before the sun does). This can help your circadian rhythm, a vital element of your wake-sleep cycle.
Scheduling Upheaval during the Holiday Season
Getting endless tasks done for Thanksgiving, holiday parties, church events, Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, and New Year’s Eve celebrations can take a toll on any semblance of a regular schedule.
Many of us take it upon ourselves to become the “Holiday Martyr” and overcommit during the holiday season. As each decade increases the requirements of our schedules, it seems we may have forgotten that saying “no” is a viable option. Yet, it is becoming apparent that this lost ability is essential for our physical and soul health. Learning to say “no” more often may be a skill worth relearning.
The first thing to go
Unfortunately, and ironically, some everyday things to fall by the wayside are often daily Bible reading and prayer. In our attempts to celebrate the birth of Christ, we often relegate our focus on Him to the shelf and pull out the elf instead. At this point, I’m reminded of Voddie Baucham’s quote, “If you can’t say amen, you gotta say ouch!”2
The daily spiritual disciplines of Bible reading and prayer top the list of things to stubbornly hold on to, no matter the circumstances. It is far too easy to make idols of everything else, even wholesome things. And this gets easier and easier to do the longer we are away from God’s Word.
How eating is affected
Another thing to fall away during times of scheduling havoc, as happens during the holiday season, is regular meals and mealtimes.
It becomes common to eat out, eat fast foods, grab whatever is convenient, and give little thought to nutrition. These practices can lead to some holiday weight gain, which isn’t the end of the world. Sometimes, it’s just better to accept this as temporary and not add excessive stress about it or allow guilt for not eating perfectly or feeding your family “right.” Abnormal eating patterns can be just part and parcel (no pun intended) of the holidays.
However, suppose you’d like to fuel your body well during this draining time. In that case, it’s helpful to plan for one day each week when you can prepare vegetables, salads, entrees, fruits, and snacks in advance. It’s easier to give your body what it needs during busy times when the foods are ready to grab.
Expectations during the Holiday Season
Speaking of the Holiday Martyr…whyyyy do we do this? We, especially women, can set a precedent for being the “I can do all of this” holiday person. There are several problems with this. One is that others can come to expect this and take it for granted. This can lead to the second problem…a growing resentment of those who we have trained to have this expectation.
A friend recently reminded me that we have morphed holidays into expectations of utter happiness and perfection. We have set these expectations for ourselves and our families.
And whyyyyy on earth did we do that?? As for me, I can see from my wise friend’s words that I have done this. Many years ago, I set the bar for myself to deliver exemplary traditions, décor, celebrations, food, and shared events. These expectations have compelled me ever since. Even though my children are now adults, I still feel my self-imposed pressure to make the holidays unrealistically happy. I’m grateful for this realization.
Busyness and eating habits
You may be wondering what this has to do with holiday weight gain. Well, as with the previous category, this type of super-juggling can lead to stress, comfort eating, sleep problems, and the consequences of these. Again, a little extra weight during this season is not necessarily bad, but it’s helpful to be aware of the patterns we adopt during these months.
Instead of worrying about doing things perfectly while also avoiding any weight fluctuations, maybe you and I could make a pact to try saying no to our own expectations and holiday martyrdom. Perhaps we can build more meaningful memories for our families than busyness and perfection. Although, I vote to keep the cookie decorating.
Social Challenges During the Holiday Season
Along with this pressure of self-expectation and expectations from our loved ones (which, again, is often our own creation), we can succumb to our imagined expectations from others.
In our social media world, we feel the pressure to “keep up with the Joneses” and their amazing, fantabulous, fantastical, Hallmark-movie-ready homes, decorations, desserts, and activities. What used to be extraordinary has become the standard that we all try to achieve. Again, whyyyyy?
What is the underlying problem?
Maybe this all comes from a tendency to value what others think about us. Probably too much. And this causes a social challenge to those of us who struggle with weight and body issues. There may be a real fear of seeing people we haven’t seen in a while and having them see us. There may be a significant concern about what others will think of our size and overall appearance when we are supposed to be sparkly and beautiful and picture-worthy.
This last point is an aspect of disordered eating. Such thinking can cause us to engage in problematic behaviors, starting the negative mental and behavioral loop that begins in restrictive rules, ends in a lack of control around food, and is fraught with shame from beginning to end. There are several resources on this website to help you deal with this tendency if you recognize these tendencies in yourself.3
In addition, please take aa moment to get your free copy of the ebook: “Escape the Binge! The Christian Guide to Stop Overeating” HERE.
Nutritional Challenges and Holiday Weight Gain
So far, you’ve read about potential stress eating, sleep-deprivation eating, disordered eating due to fear of others, and depression eating. But there are more direct nutritional challenges that are more obvious during this season and can lead to holiday weight gain. Many of our holidays are filled with traditions. And many of our traditions involve food. Most of the time, these foods are the high fat, high sugar, decadent foods we indulge in at this special time of year.
And you know what? THAT’S OK!
Holiday food is for enjoying!
I want you to remember that there is absolutely nothing wrong or sinful about enjoying the special foods that are part of our unique traditions with the special people in our lives.
In fact, if there are favorite goodies that you look forward to each year, I would recommend that you do NOT deny yourself the pleasure. It is far better for you to savor the treat, participate in the experience, and enjoy the special moment than for you to experience the backlash that will likely occur from refusing, then craving, the indulgence.
Remember, all things are to be enjoyed if eaten with thankfulness to God for His provision (1 Tim 4:4).
If, however, you genuinely believe that you could be delighted with a nutritionally-enhanced substitute, plan to make that (and bring it, if necessary), introducing it to others. Think about it, holiday recipes are often new attempts to remake traditional items. Try an alternative dish that is a bit swankier than your everyday food, and you are likely to enjoy the experience. If you are not hosting, the hosts will likely be pleased to have you bring your new dish idea, as well.
Caution with food restrictions
But again, if the decision not to partake of particular holiday food (or many of them!) historically has ended in a loss of control with eating, bingeing, intense cravings, hiding behaviors, or shame for you, I suggest you simply enjoy the food with thanksgiving to God! Some holiday weight gain is common for most people, and the fear of it doesn’t need to control you.
Also, it is important to remember that this isn’t the only time of year that you can enjoy a particular food. Whether it’s by having leftovers, freezing treats for later, or taking a “to go” plate home from the party, this is not a now or never decision. Thinking this way can become problematic.
Holidays can place an over-emphasis on food. Instead, prepare topics of conversation and activities that focus on loving and serving others and keep the message of God’s coming to earth for humankind emphasized! Perhaps you could start making new traditions with your family and loved ones centered on Christ and people instead of food.
Emotional Challenges with the Holiday Season
Joy to all, family closeness, happiness, and nostalgia are all emphasized during the holiday season. But not everyone experiences these beautiful feelings.
There are so many people who suffer acutely during the holidays due to loneliness, loss and grief, unmet expectations, fractured relationships, poverty, and sadness. If you are among this group, you may feel alone. But you are not. Not by a long shot. Don’t buy the hype that everyone except you has a perfect family celebration. Life is not a commercial. People suffer in this life, and Christians suffer, too. In fact, this has been promised (2 Tim 2:3; Phil 1:29).
And if a delicious treat brings you some joy, why do you need to deny yourself that? The way God created us gives every indication that He intended for us to enjoy food.
For those of you who suffer during the holiday season, I have a few suggestions to help you through this time. However, before and above any of these suggestions, I challenge you to take this time of suffering and sadness and use it as an impetus to come to Christ more than ever before. Read His great, powerful, and hope-filled Word daily. Even multiple times each day. Spend more time on your knees in prayer, crying out to the God who is near you in your time of sadness (Ps 34:18). Our God is a God of comfort (Matt 5:4). He is a God who is close to you (Ps 145:18). And He is a God who knows you, hears you, and loves you endlessly.
These are the most powerful practices for you in any situation, and specifically when you are heartbroken and sad.
Here are some practical steps you can take:
- Get support from others, even if it’s just one support partner. Speak to someone at church who can keep in touch with you, commit to praying for you, and even spend some time with you.
- In turn, you can reach out to another in a similar situation who could use support and friendship. After all, when we walk through trials with God, He comforts us by His Spirit and enables us to comfort others, likewise (2 Cor 1:3-4).
- Work on a project. It could be a hobby, a memory book, a seasonal project, a solid Bible study resource, or a gift for someone in need of encouragement.
- Try eating with others as much as possible. You may find new friends during this time just by reaching out and inviting someone to a meal.
- Above all, spend time learning about the gospel. Study how we receive and can give forgiveness, hope, comfort, and love.
Yes, the holiday season can carry its own challenges. And, yes, you may even have a little holiday weight gain. But, you know what? This season passes quickly, and life will likely return to its regular routines and practices in the blink of an eye. Take this time to appreciate, enjoy, and savor all the traditions, foods, and people who are there to spend it with you.
And above all, take this time to worship the One and Only God who gave His mighty Son to humbly come to earth, live as a man, die without sin, pay for the sins of all mankind, then rise in victory!
If you find you need a professional to walk alongside you with a personalized care plan, I am here to help. I specialize in helping women overcome a disordered relationship with food, eating, weight, and body image and grow toward true food freedom through nutrition science and biblical counseling.
You can even schedule your own FREE consultation with me using this link:
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- Hicklin, T. Molecular ties between lack of sleep and weight gain. National Institutes of Health. https://www.nih.gov/news-events/nih-research-matters/molecular-ties-between-lack-sleep-weight-gain. Published March 22, 2016. Accessed December 2, 2021.
- Visit Voddie Baucham and find many of his resources at https://www.voddiebaucham.org/.
- Podcast page: What is Disordered Eating and Do I Have It? (wherever you listen to podcasts or at https://cheszar.podbean.com/e/what-is-disordered-eating-and-do-i-have-it/)
- Podcast page: Stop Dieting and Be Healthy! 5 Steps to Food Freedom (wherever you listen to podcasts or at https://cheszar.podbean.com/e/stop-dieting-and-be-healthy-5-steps-to-food-freedom/)
- Blog post: What is Disordered Eating? https://www.cherylszarko.com/what-is-disordered-eating/Blog post: My Journey to Food Freedom at https://www.cherylszarko.com/my-journey-to-food-freedom/
- Blog post: Escape the Diet Culture with Me at https://www.cherylszarko.com/escape-the-diet-culture-with-me/