The holiday season is notorious for unwanted weight gain. Although the average weight gain isn’t all that high—1 to 2 pounds—the real danger is that people rarely lose the weight they gain during the holiday season. So, if you go through ten holiday seasons, you’re looking at a very realistic and permanent gain of 20 pounds.
But it’s not just the weight you gain. Even if you manage to avoid gaining any weight, the onslaught of sugary foods you’re not used to consuming will play havoc with your blood sugar and insulin levels, leave you bloated and fatigued, and generally make what should be a joyous time a sluggish, low-energy one.
Imagine having your full measure of energy over the full holiday season. Imagine putting on a Santa suit and clambering around on the roof and shimmying down the chimney, giving your kids a real show. (Not recommending this literally of course.) Imagine enjoying the winter weather, rather than holing up indoors with a box of cookies waiting for it to pass.
One thing I like to do in suboptimal food conditions is use it as an opportunity to fast. If I’m traveling and my choices are airplane food or McDonald’s, I simply don’t eat. If I’m at a hotel where the idea of a complimentary breakfast bar consists of bagels, orange juice, and those tiny boxes of cereal, I don’t eat. Quite honestly, the holiday season is one big block of suboptimal food conditions.
Sure, it’s delicious. Sure, some of it is even nutritious, if we’re talking roasts and gravies and veggies and large crispy birds. But the quantity of food we consume and the frequency at which we consume it—combined with the prevalence of delicious treats and the “emotional” context—makes for an impossible situation. It really is the perfect scenario to pack on some mass—or the perfect opportunity to employ an intermittent fast.
How should you do it? Are there any tips, tricks, or strategies particular to the holidays that make fasting easier and more effective?
Breakfast around the holidays can get quite ridiculous. How many of you have done this or know someone who has done this: having pumpkin pie/a half tin of Danish butter cookies/big bowl of mashed potatoes for breakfast? Even if no one is digging into the leftovers (although a turkey leg is a nice way to begin the day), you’ll see the likes of pastries, quiches (heavy on the crust), bagel spreads, pancakes, and waffles, etc.
So, just skip it, particularly when treats abound and beckon. You’ll avoid the problem entirely, give your digestive system a rest, keep the fat-burning going, and make any subsequent feasting later in the day more rewarding and less damaging. Have some coffee and cream instead. Heck, you could even whip the cream if you want to feel like you’re having a “treat” with everyone else.
Snacking kills during the holidays. While in more normal times I recommend against constant or absentminded snacking, at least then it usually just means a handful of nuts, a few pieces of jerky, a cup of broth. During the holidays, snacking means candy, cookies, and pie. There are mountains of junk almost everywhere you go and dozens of evangelists scurrying around foisting it on you. I don’t see it because I move in a curated culinary environment at my places of residence and work, but back before I went Primal, I can remember the ubiquity of treats during the holidays. If you’re the snacking type, you’ll likely make some bad choices.
Simply “not snacking” doesn’t sound like much of a fast, but going those 4-5 hours between meals can allow you to slip into a mild “fasted” state multiple times per day.
Don’t Nibble As You Cook
Whoever’s in charge of cooking the myriad holiday feasts and meals needs to understand how to handle themselves behind the stove. Quality control is one thing. Checking how things taste is understandable and necessary. But that’s not what gets you into trouble. What gets you into trouble is the constant nibbling and gnawing and chomping throughout the cooking process.
Spoonful of gravy here. Handful of mashed potatoes there. Oh, how’d that turkey skin turn out? Gonna have to try that. Oh, I wonder how it tastes dipped in the gravy. Boy, that dark meat sure is looking nice. Hmm, does the breast look a little dry to you? I’m going to try it. Now with some gravy and cranberry sauce—yeah, that does the trick.
By the time dinner is served you’re 800 calories deep, and you’re not even very excited about eating more (but you still do). Imagine if you’d fasted during the 4-5 hours you were preparing dinner. Not only would dinner be more satisfying and taste better, you wouldn’t have spent 4-5 hours in “fed mode.” Rally others to do the sampling. It’s never too hard to find takers.
Make Fasting a Tradition
Our success as a civilization rests upon our traditions. Heck, the Primal Blueprint is about respecting the oldest human traditions around, the “informal” and natural ones established by hundreds of thousands of years of hominid evolution. And yes, specific traditions can become outdated or run counter to currently accepted modes of thought and behavior, but the idea of tradition—a foundational behavior whose utility and importance has been tested through time—remains essential.
If you don’t have any traditions of your own, if they’ve been lost or ground down to pathetic shadows of their former selves, what do you do? You make your own. Fasting is a good choice, and it’s one that many other populations and cultures have performed. Pick a time frame—maybe a single 24-hour fast every Saturday, or “fast before each big holiday feast,” or “skip breakfast the week before each major holiday”—and suggest to everyone that the entire family get on board.
Do Leangains Style Fasted Training
Skip breakfast. Train around midday, lifting hard and heavy. After training, break the fast. Eat your last meal by 7 or 8 P.M. Aim for a 16-hour fasting period and an 8-hour eating window. Fast every day, train every 2-3 days. There’s even a book if you want more details.
This intensive method of fasting and training allows you a little more leeway with the food choices when you do eat. Much of what you eat will go toward repairing and rebuilding what you’ve broken down during training, and the everyday fasted periods will help you minimize fat gain. It can be quite intense, and people may have disparate responses to the rigidity of the schedule. If hard boundaries work well for you, if you like establishing rules and then sticking to them, this is the holiday fasting method for you. If you’re more fluid and balk at hard lines, you may have trouble. Women may have more success using 12-14 fasting windows.
Pair Your Dietary Transgressions With Fasts.
Are you the type to really go all out during Thanksgiving—dropping the Primal guidelines and just going for it? Mashed potatoes, gravy, stuffing, cranberry sauce, that weird sweet potato dish with marshmallows on top, pumpkin pie, the works? A one- or two-day fast right before or after the meal can mitigate the damage of the meal.
Even if there’s not much of a physiological benefit other than reducing your calorie intake to balance the overindulgence, the psychological boost we get from not eating will stave off the potential guilt of abandoning the Primal guidelines. I don’t support guilting or shaming ourselves because of what we eat, but I know it does happen. This can be a powerful antidote.
Whatever You Choose, Stick To a Schedule.
Once you figure out which fasting plan seems to work for your holiday situation, stick with it. Skip meals if you like, but try to eat at roughly the same time each day. This conditions your body to expect food (and get hungry at the right time, not before), and it improves the metabolic response to eating.
This applies whether you’re fasting in the morning or at night. In one recent study, the authors actually tested the effect of breaking your eating habits by separating overweight women into habitual breakfast skippers and habitual breakfast eaters and then having them either skip breakfast or eat breakfast.
Habitual breakfast eaters who skipped breakfast experienced way more hunger at lunch, had worse blood lipids, and higher insulin levels. They had worse blood lipids and their insulin skyrocketed. Habitual breakfast skippers who skipped breakfast experienced none of these deleterious effects.
Meanwhile, habitual breakfast eaters who ate breakfast were more satiated at lunch. They had better blood lipids and normal insulin levels. Habitual breakfast skippers who ate breakfast were still hungry at lunch. Eating breakfast didn’t inhibit their regular lunch-time appetites.
Fasting isn’t a magic bullet. IF won’t fix all your metabolic issues and counteract every cookie, cake, and slice of pie you eat during the holidays. But it is a strong bulwark against the worst of the holiday excesses.
Are you going to fast this holiday season? Have you used IF in the past? What do you do to get through the holiday season without unwanted weight gain?
Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.