Atkins’ Low-Carb Holiday Survival Guide

It’s tempting to cast all dietary caution to the wind and indulge with abandon during the holiday season. But overdoing it can add up to unwanted pounds and disappointment when it comes to your long-term weight goal.

While the amount of weight people typically gain during the holiday season isn’t as much as many fear, it can be significant over time. In a study conducted at Karolinska Hospital in Sweden, researchers found that overweight people gained between 2.75 and four pounds during the two to three weeks around Christmas1. In another study published in 2000, researchers at the National Institutes of Health tracked the body weight of 195 adults from late September until early March and found that the average weight gain was just one pound2. The trouble is, these people didn’t lose that extra pound during the following spring or summer months—evidence that holiday weight gain can add up over the years. In fact, if you typically gain even one pound during each holiday season, you’ll pack on an extra 10 pounds a decade.

The good news is it’s possible to avoid holiday weight gain—if you keep your eyes on the big picture. After all, Christmas and New Year’s Eve are just one day each, not an entire season, so you shouldn’t give yourself license to go on a feeding frenzy for days, or weeks, at a time. Here are some strategies that can help you stick with your weight-loss plans through the holiday season:

Set a realistic goal. It may be too difficult to try to lose weight during the holidays. Maintaining the weight you’ve already lost or your current weight is a more reasonable goal. This way, you won’t set yourself up for failure.

Aim for consistency. In a study of people who lost weight and kept it off for years, researchers at Brown Medical School/The Miriam Hospital found that people who followed a consistent diet throughout the week were one and a half times more likely to maintain their weight over the subsequent year than those who were less consistent3. During the holiday season, your best bet may be to stick with your usual eating habits for most days of the week and to exercise the way you normally would. This gives you a little leeway at times when food temptations are everywhere. If you stay consistent 80 percent of the time, you can slightly relax your diet 20 percent of the time without seriously impacting your weight.

Hold out for what you really want. Is it the wine or the bread that you really want at a holiday dinner? Is it the mini quiches or the crab cakes you crave at a cocktail party? If you set priorities in terms of the foods you want to eat, you’ll be less likely to munch mindlessly on crackers or chips—or the other 10 foods at the buffet table—just because they’re there. It’s OK to allow yourself an occasional indulgence; just be selective, and savor your treats.

Create a carb deficit. If you know that you’ll just have to have a piece of Grandma’s pecan pie at Christmas dinner, cut back on your carb intake for a few days ahead to offset your indulgence.

Have a low-carb recipe exchange. It is easier to stay on track during this hectic time of the year if you connect with some of your other friends or family members doing Atkins (or visit the forums at and share your favorite low-carb holiday recipes. You can also use this as an opportunity to add variety to your weekly meal plans, so you have some new, delicious recipes to look forward in between the holiday parties and dinners.

Contribute a healthy dish. Bringing your own dish to a holiday party gives you full control over the ingredients and cooking method. You’ll be guaranteed at least one healthy, low-carb option. Use Atkins’ recipe database to find simple and delicious low-carb entrees, appetizers and desserts.

Eat before you go. If you’re going to be at a holiday event that could prove a minefield of problematic foods, have a substantial snack or even a meal before you arrive to temper your appetite. A handful of nuts or a pre-party Atkins Advantage Bar™ are two delicious, fiber-rich, carb-smart options. After all, if you’re already comfortably full, you’ll be far less likely to be tempted by cookies, pies and other sugary or starchy offerings.

Pick protein. Whether it’s roast turkey, braised goose, leg of lamb, poached salmon, ham or whatever your pleasure, holiday protein dishes are right up your low-carb alley.

Be smart about sides. Acorn squash, Brussels sprouts, green beans, red cabbage and other flavorful and nutrient-rich classic holiday side dishes will help you steer clear of empty carbs in other dishes like sweet potatoes with marshmallows and potato latkes.

Don’t drink all your carbs. Filling your stomach with low-carb foods at a holiday party is great, but make sure to maintain a similar mindset when filling your glass. Instead of consuming mugs of sugar-laden holiday punch, enjoy a low carb beer or glass of champagne to indulge without overdoing it. Use this easy-to-read chart from Atkins to guide your beverage decisions.

Remember the difference between hunger and habit. Eat only until you’re satisfied, but not stuffed,

Socialize instead of snacking. Although food is certainly an important part of most holiday parties, don’t forget that the ultimate aim of holiday gatherings is to enjoy the company of family and friends. Concentrate on socializing and sharing meaningful conversation so that noshing on appetizers will seem like less of a priority. Conversing at least an arm’s reach away from platters of food can also prevent unintentional and mindless snacking.

Give the gift of leftovers. If you are hosting the big meal, package up any too-tempting leftovers and send them as care packages with your guests. They will appreciate the thought and enjoy the delicious food for days to come. Note: Make sure you keep enough turkey or ham and low-carb side dishes on hand so that you, too, can enjoy leftovers without guilt

Pack a low-carb travel kit. If you are flying this holiday season, make sure to include your favorite go-to low-carb products and snacks, like Atkins Advantage bars, almonds, jerky, etc. to help you survive any flight delays or airport food. If you are driving, pack a cooler with hard-boiled eggs, ham and turkey roll-ups, Atkins Advantage shakes, cut-up veggies and more. Once you hit your destination, stock up on a few Atkins frozen meals (breakfast, lunch and dinner!) to have handy when everyone else decides to order pizza for dinner or pick up donuts for breakfast.

Write down everything. It’s called self-monitoring—and it really can make a difference. When researchers at the Center for Behavioral Medicine in Chicago asked people who were trying to lose weight to keep food diaries during the weeks of Christmas and New Year’s, they found that people who monitored their eating and drinking habits more consistently were better able to manage their weight during the holidays than those who didn’t4. A previous study had found that those who monitored their eating habits consistently were even able to lose weight during the holiday season5; those who didn’t record their dietary details, by contrast, gained 500 percent more weight per week during the holidays compared with non-holiday weeks.

Increase your activity level. Longer or more frequent workouts will help you burn extra calories, which can help to compensate for those occasional splurges.

Look to the future. Although you may have simply been focused on maintaining your weight over the holidays, it’s never too early to brainstorm about what you want to accomplish in the coming year. Start thinking about your weight loss goals, and goals you want to accomplish in other areas of your life. Write these initial goals down, and work on fine-tuning them as the year draws to a close.

The bottom line: If you want to emerge from the holiday season with your weight-loss goals unscathed, you’ll need to plan ahead, be consistent with your eating and activity levels, bank extra calories and carbs for occasional splurges and monitor your behavior. And if you do overindulge, don’t dwell on it or view it as an excuse to continue overeating. Simply get back on track the next day, and set your sights on losing those extra pounds. Staying focused on your ultimate goal will bring you that much closer to it, day by day.

Selected References:

  1. Andersson, I., Rossner, S., “The Christmas Factor in Obesity Therapy,” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, 1992, 16(12), pages 1013–1015.
  2. Yanovski, J.A., Yanovski, S.Z., Sovik, K.N., et al., “A Prospective Study of Holiday Weight Gain,” New England Journal of Medicine, 2000, 342(12), pages 861–867.
  3. Gorin, A.A., Phelan, S., Wing, R.R., et al., “Promoting Long-Term Weight Control: Does Dieting Consistency Matter?” International Journal of Obesity and Related Metabolic Disorders, Nov. 25, 2003.
  4. Boutelle, K.N., Kirschenbaum, D.S., Baker, R.C., et al., “How Can Obese Weight Controllers Minimize Weight Gain During the High Risk Holiday Season? By Self-Monitoring Very Consistently,” Health Psychology, 1999, 18(4), pages 364–368.
  5. Baker, R.C., Kirschenbaum, D.S., “Weight Control During the Holidays: Highly Consistent Self-Monitoring as a Potentially Useful Coping Mechanism,” Health Psychology, 1998, 17(4), pages 367–370.

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