Conquer the Holiday Food Trap!

Tips on Navigating Holiday Eating for Triathletes

By Special Contributor: Emily Milne

Research tells us that most people gain weight during the holiday season. There has been much debate over just how much weight people gain during the holiday season. Most experts will tell you that the average American tends to gain one to ten pounds from Thanksgiving to New Years Day. Triathletes, however, are not the average American. Let me give you something to think about. To burn off one pound of unwanted body fat it takes running for three and half hours at a seven minute mile clip or cycling for five hours at a vigorous pace! Extra pounds can add up fast during the holiday season, especially if you’re not paying attention to what and how much you are eating and drinking. Two of my clients recently reported a five and six pound weight gain, respectively, and we haven’t hit the heart of the holiday party brigade! If you’re serious about improving your triathlon performance in the upcoming year then you should be well into your off-season Performance Development Program (PDP). If you have not started a PDP yet, you should be even more vigilant about not falling into what I call the “Holiday Food Trap”. I recommend adopting a simple plan to avoid having to spend extra time running, biking and swimming just to lose unwanted body fat because you fell victim to the Holiday Food Trap. A little planning in advance will allow you to enjoy the holidays and will not delay or set back your training schedule.

Step 1: Identify Your Potential Problem Areas When you think of things that may set you back during the holiday season, what comes to mind? Holiday parties brimming with food and beverages seem to be the biggest culprits. Having less time to train due to a more hectic schedule and additional family obligations is also problematic for most people. The key is identifying your personal problem areas. Here are some of the most common problem areas during the holidays:

  • Going to gatherings on an empty stomach
  • Over consuming alcoholic beverages and/or other beverages (i.e. eggnog)
  • Eating too many high fat and high calorie food items
  • Food portions are generally too large
  • Daily physical activity levels are typically decreased
  • Eating because everyone else is eating

It is easy to surpass your daily calorie intake when attending holiday gatherings. Here are the average calorie contents of some common holiday foods:

One handful of peanuts 225 calories
One glass of eggnog (6 oz) 300 calories
with alcohol (1 oz) 400 calories
Cheese on a cracker (3) 165 calories
Five potato chips with dip 130 calories
Six, hot hors d' oeuvres 500 calories
Nibbling on holiday cookies 100-150 calories per medium-sized cookie
One small piece of fudge 150 calories
One piece of fruitcake 300 calories

Step 2: Find Solutions to Your Main Problem Areas Understanding your individual problem areas will help determine solutions that work for you. Limiting snacking and alcohol intake will cut down on the excess consumption of calories for many. Consider having a bite to eat before parties. This may seem counterproductive, but if you snack on a healthful choice, like a salad or fruit before heading out to a gathering, over-eating will be less likely. Interestingly, a recent study found that people overindulge when larger portions are made available. If temptations are too great, enjoy a small portion; this will help curb cravings and cut down on the calories and fat. During the holiday season, in addition to the insult that unhealthy eating poses, time may be limited to dedicate to training. If appropriate periods of time are not available during the day for workouts, plan multiple sessions in one day. For example, a short 5k run on snowy trails in the morning followed by an abbreviated swim in the evening. Additionally, efficiency of training time can be enhanced by using an indoor cycling trainer or treadmill. Find time, if not for training, then for physical activity, as often as possible.

Here are some solutions to common problem areas:

  • Going to gatherings on an empty stomach Solution: Eat a healthy snack 30 minutes before the gathering; this will reduce your hunger level at the holiday gathering and you’ll be more likely to eat less
  • Over consuming alcoholic beverages Solution: Limit alcoholic beverages to one or two at a gathering
  • Eating too many high fat and high calorie food items Solution 1: Eat small, lower-calorie meals during the day so you can enjoy some special holiday foods at the party Solution 2: Avoid hanging out near the food table
  • Food portions are generally too large Solution 1: Focus on having small portions and choose holiday specialties; skip common party foods like chips and crackers and cheese Solution 2: Make only one trip to the buffet and be selective
  • Daily physical activity levels are typically decreased Solution: Be creative and find ways to incorporate exercise
  • Eating because everyone else is eating Solution: When you arrive to the gathering, don’t rush to the food table. Greet family and friends, get a non-alcoholic beverage, and settle in first; make socializing a priority not eating

Step 3: Execute Your Plan and Keep Records: A daily food record and training log are incredibly valuable and important in executing an effective plan to avoid the Holiday Food Trap. This type of record keeping has been clearly demonstrated as an effective self-monitoring tool for weight loss. Similarly, keeping a training log allows the athlete to recognize trends in training volumes, heart rate, fatigue level, sleep quality, etc. When shared with a knowledgeable coach, the training log becomes even more powerful. Mistakes are less likely to be made repeatedly if a training log is kept. Vigilance and self-control will be extremely important in avoiding the Holiday Food Trap.

To help make better food choices during the holidays, try these alternatives to common holiday foods:

Instead Of Choose
Eggnog Hot Apple Cider
Potato Chips with dip Vegetable slices and hummus
A piece of fruitcake Angel food cake with strawberries
Hot hors d'oeuvres Cold shrimp cocktail
Punch (with alcohol) Punch (without alcohol)
A handful of peanuts Fresh fruit salad

For triathletes, gaining just a couple of pounds during the combination of training off-season and holiday period can compromise efforts to improve performance. Staying focused during both the off-season, and the holiday season, will help to propel you into the next step of your training program.

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