Every year we are faced with the same dilemmas around the holiday season. No matter which holiday you celebrate, there is always yummy food aplenty at every celebration and get together. Even if you don’t celebrate any of the holidays, there is so much enticement from the seasonal drinks, desserts, and foods we have available. However, most of you will likely end up celebrating at least one big holiday where lots of food and drink are available.
This presents an issue for most people who take their diet and fitness seriously. You certainly want to enjoy your time with loved ones and sample some of the delicious offerings, even if that means fielding some comments and questions about your diet. But how much structure should you give yourself when it comes to the food you do choose to ingest? Is this a case where you flex your macro counting muscles and track every last gram of food? Do you allow yourself to eat intuitively and forget about the macros? Better yet, do you just go full YOLO and have an old school cheat day? In actuality, all of these strategies may be right depending on the goals and circumstances of the person, but choosing the right one can mean the difference between enjoyment and regret.
When to Track Your Food Strictly
It may be kind of a bummer, but there are times where you’ll need to suck it up and stick with a high level of accountability. Holiday food can be incredibly delicious, which means it’s also usually quite calorically dense. So, there are times when being off in your numbers can spell disaster for your goals.
If you happen to be in the middle of contest prep, it’s going to take all the will power and counting accuracy you have to stay on track. There will likely be foods that you’re going to have to skip in order to stay within your numbers. Even the safe foods like lean meats and vegetables are going to require a careful eye. You may be fortunate enough to have a refeed or high carb day coincide with a holiday celebration. This will allow you to enjoy a bit more food rather than look longingly at your friends and families plates. However, either scenario is going to require strict tracking if your goal is to do everything you can to win your show.
Another situation in which you may need to track more strictly is during a reverse diet. Most of you are likely trying to stay lean while rebooting your metabolism. Many times, reverse dieting can be a hard to stick to given the lack of reward at the end (no show, or event to look forward to), so your will power may be much less robust during the holidays. However, this may be the time you need your will power the most. After a show or prolonged period of fat loss, your body is primed to store fat. So, if you are beginning a reverse during holiday time, a lot of damage can be done if you don’t track things strictly. Going off the rails when holiday foods, desserts, and drinks are around could be a recipe for disaster as far as your reverse diet goes.
Now, this doesn’t mean that you have to track strictly if you fall into these categories. This is just more of a gentle reminder that contest prep, early reverse diets, and intuitive/YOLO meals may not be the best mix.
When to Use Your Intuition
Many people struggle with being overly strict even during times when they can afford less rigidity in their diet. Perhaps it is a matter of habit from having tracked so meticulously for such a long period of time. Or perhaps it is a matter of being too attached to the numbers that are entered into the MyFitnessPal or MyMacros food log apps. Either way, there are times when being overly worried about hitting your macros perfectly is more trouble than it is worth.
This is particularly true around certain holidays. These are times where spending time with family and friends is more important than being within plus or minus 10 grams of each macronutrient. Additionally, it can be liberating to allow yourself to eat a meal without having to do all the math that goes with tracking macros. You get to feel like a “normal” person again. Plus, it can be sort of an educational experience. You teach yourself how to eat sensibly, recognize hunger signals, and enjoy a nice meal without feeling the need to overeat. Initially, you may feel that you are going to gain a bunch of fat from this meal, but you’ll find that being off your macros a bit from time to time won’t make much difference in the grand scheme of things.
If you are in the off-season of whatever sport you compete in, then having an untracked meal here and there is not the end of the world. This is a great time to let yourself enjoy the experience without anxiety around the numbers.
If you are a non-competitor who just likes staying healthy, you should also consider having a sensible untracked meal. This is true even if you have some sort of fat loss goal. You may take a slight step backward in overall progress, but the break may leave you mentally refreshed. As long as you can get right back to your plan the next day or even the next meal, you will be just fine.
When to YOLO
For many people who track macros, the thought of going full YOLO triggers memories of past mistakes. Many of us have fallen into the cheat meal trap at some point in our lives and dealt with the consequences of buying larger sized pants. For some, this cheat/restrict cycle of eating may have even led to some dark places. As such, going YOLO is not the strategy that most of us should employ during these times. However, that doesn’t mean that this strategy is inappropriate for everyone. There are some people who can get away with having an all-out feast from time to time.
There are people who have little to no issues around food or body image. They understand that they will likely gain a few pounds in the wake of the food frenzy. They also understand that most of this weight will disappear after a few days of getting back to normal. But for them, a yearly or even bi-yearly occasion to have fun, enjoy some favorite foods, and let their guard down is more than worth it. So, if you absolutely love indulging in a food coma during a particular holiday and you understand the potential consequences, then going YOLO may be the strategy for you.
Another type of person that would do well with a full YOLO would be the prototypical hard gainer. We all have at least one of them in our lives. They can eat as much as they want and yet they never seem to gain any weight. This may sound like a blessing to many, but for those trying to gain muscle, it’s a curse. Constantly having to eat copious amounts food in order to put a half inch on the biceps can be hard work. So, when it comes to the holidays, these hard gainers may actually be better off if they just eat with reckless abandon. Using intuition likely leads to undereating for these people and tracking everything meticulously is just a pain. If you yourself are a hard gainer, consider indulging in all the holiday specials you can. You just might find that you come out the other side with a bit more weight on your frame.
The holidays can be a trying time for those who want to remain healthy and fit. All the good food and social pressure make it easy to indulge in all that this time has to offer. However, given what we know about macronutrient tracking and energy balance, there is no reason we can’t partake in the festivities to some degree. The key is figuring out just how you should go about celebrating in your own way.
Obviously, those with pressing fitness goals will need to play things a bit safer in this regard. If you are in the middle of a competition season where weight or body fat levels are important, then tracking things diligently is likely a good strategy. The last thing you want is one moment of weakness to ruin your chance at reaching your goals. However, those who do not have pressing goals in mind would do well to allow for some breathing room in terms of rigidity.
Loosely estimating some meals or even having an untracked meal won’t be the end of the world for most. Enjoying time with family may be the more important thing to keep in mind here. Furthermore, those who have a hard time putting on weight may benefit from all the calorie dense options. These hard gainers may find they are actually able to put on some weight when they just throw caution to the wind during these holiday gatherings.
Remember that these strategies should be considered for the handful of gatherings you may attend these holidays. The other 28 or so days of the month should be business as usual. As long as you keep yourself structured during most of the holiday season, you can afford to indulge a bit and live your life to the fullest this holiday season!