10 Surprising Ways to Avoid Weight Gain During the Holidays

If Britney Spears can get toned this time of year, we should at least be able to avoid weight gain.

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I have to say I'm proud of Britney Spears. (OK, I admit, I've always been a fan of hers and thought many of us took too much pleasure in observing her train wreck of a life.) But here she is, looking radiant and toned on the cover of this month's Glamour magazine, professing to have more body confidence now than before she had kids. And I'm pleased to see her admit how hard it was to slim down—how she literally had to drag herself to the gym three days a week—after having two babies in 12 months.

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Woman on a scale

I've been thinking about the numbers on the scale a lot as the holiday season revs up to full throttle. I'm facing three holiday parties next week and would like to get through them without gaining any weight.

In fact, Wall Street Journal blogger Jacob Goldstein cites studies showing that people gain about a pound, on average, during the holiday season, far less than you'd think. But it's a pound that's really, really hard to lose come January. And over time, those pounds can really add up. This probably explains why my size 4s no longer fit.

So what can I do this month to avoid any December weight gain?

"All my patients this week are coming to ask me that," says registered dietician Jenn Sokols Haas, a nutritionist at the Nova Medical Group in Ashburn, Va. She tells me there are a lot of hidden culprits and offers the following tricks to sidestep overeating traps.

1. Eat before the party. Grab a 100- to 200-calorie snack containing carbohydrates, protein, and a little bit of fat—a low-fat yogurt with fruit slices, say, or a banana smeared with peanut butter. This will take the edge off your hunger so "you won't be as likely to grab everything that smells and looks good," Haas says.

2. Have one truly sinful treat. You can indulge and maintain your weight if you stick with a small portion of fudge, eggnog, pigs-in-a-blanket, heck, even fruitcake. Then, stick with nutrient-dense, low-calorie foods like vegetable slices for the rest of the night. "Pick something that's really worth the calories," Haas says, "and really taste the food, savoring every bite."

3. Account for what you eat. Keeping a food diary is the single best way to keep the pounds off. At the very least, Haas advises, do a mental rundown once or twice a day. "Cocktail parties, in particular, lend themselves to mindless eating," Haas explains.

4. Stop tasting the cake batter and cookie dough! Bake to your heart's desire, but avoid licking the spoon. Those little tastings can cost you 300 calories a pop. Yeah, I was shocked, too, when Haas told me that.

5. Ban the pretty dishes of cookies from your counter. I know it's the holidays and they look so festive, but bring them out only for dessert.

6. Avoid getting tipsy. Besides the calories in those glasses of bubbly, alcohol lowers your inhibitions. Then you're more likely to throw caution to the wind (along with your mental food diary).

7. Do stay active, but don't use it as an excuse to eat double portions. The "I ran an extra mile so I can have an extra piece of pie" reasoning often results in added weight gain. That's because most of us overestimate how many calories we burn and underestimate how many we consume. Getting in your regular workouts, though, will help compensate for those small holiday nibbles you just can't pass up.

8. Don't beat yourself up over one overindulgence. It's nearly impossible to put on a substantial amount of weight from, say, the turkey dinner with all the trimmings. After all, you'd have to consume an extra 3,500 calories to put on a pound. (If your scale edges up a pound or two after a meal, it's likely due to water retention from eating extra carbohydrates or sodium.) So if you know you overdid it on, say, Thanksgiving, cut yourself some slack and don't use it an excuse to throw in the towel.

9. Don't skip meals. Eating every four hours throughout the day will keep your metabolism revved up, Haas says. Contrary to what you might think, skipping meals doesn't save you calories over the long haul because by the time you sit down to eat, you're ravenous, which makes binging hard to avoid. What's worse, your body, in starvation mode, may more readily sock away the calories you consume as fat instead of burning them.

10. Gab and gab some more. Focusing on socializing with family and friends will help keep you away from the buffet table. While food is certainly a great sideshow during this time of year, the main event should be celebrating relationships. (But watch out: Here are 7 Ways to Avoid the "I'm in Love" Weight Gain.)