I wrote this blog around Christmas time, but only managed to finalize it now, in part triggered by attending a week-long course away from home. The course was very nice, but it lasted 6 days and offered meals throughout the day and I had little control over my nutrient intake, which reminded me of my commitment to write about trying to stay on track during the holidays/vacations. Well, better late than never!
Holidays are difficult times for those of us who tries to have proper nutrition, to lose weight and to build the body of our dreams. Our daily routines are broken, work hours change, we have additional stress of holidays preparation and planning, visiting family and meeting with people we haven't seen for a while. Not only it's more difficult to maintain your training schedule, but also all of these activities are rotating around food, and typically this food is really bad both in terms of quantity and nutritional quality (might be high quality, but still ruining your nutrition).
There is a spectrum of behaviours around holidays season (see the diagram) ranging from people staying 100% true to their nutritional plan to complete gluttony. Needless to say, that the best approach is staying true to your diet and training routine. Unfortunately, many of us are not able to do this during some special periods of our lives such as traveling, holidays and vacations. Please, don't get wrong on this one - I believe that we should strive for actually sticking to our diet, but unless there is a major culture change, it's very difficult to do at moments.
There is also another extreme, when we simply say 'screw it!' and start eating like crazy hoping (or not) to compensate for it later. This is a very common scenario and I bet we all have been there at least once. A variation of it is "ok, I'll indulge now, but after day X I'm going to get serious with my diet". I would say that it's a decent approach if I hadn't seen so many times that nothing happens after this "day X". In addition to typically failing in starting or restarting a diet after a period of "indulging" (boy, I hate this word!), there are quite a few periods in an average person's life when it's difficult to maintain a healthy lifestyle - Christmas, New Year, Easter, summer vacation, Thanksgiving Day just to name a few. Throw in couple of other moments, your birthday, an extra vacation or a business trip and you'll get your full year of trying to go on a diet unsuccessfully. Last point here, if you know for sure that overeating leads to weight gain, interrupts your diet and is harmful to your progress, why would you keep doing it even for a short period of time? Let's not fool ourselves - neither letting yourself lose completely nor deciding to restart your diet after the holidays season works and we shouldn't even go on this territory.
On the other hand, we are talking and thinking about the issue and if we anticipate difficulties with maintaining our best food behaviour there are several options in between these two extremes of the spectrum. I call them 'damage control' (or harm reduction in my professional world).
I'll go over them in a somewhat arbitrary order of the amount of effort or self-discipline needed to implement them and their "proximity" to an actual diet. The easiest thing to do is to simply have a cheat or refeed day. I put them next to each other as they are obviously very similar and the only real difference is that refeed days are properly planned and you know exactly what you are going to eat to boost your metabolism whereas cheat days are more like some spontaneous relapses, which, if they don't happen too often, also can boost your metabolism. I am talking about metabolism here as I am trying to make even an overt deviation from our diets work for us. There is the notion of metabolism slowing down when fasting or being on a strict diet and cheat/refeed days are used by many athletes to reset or boost their metabolic rate by tricking our bodies into thinking that the food is in abundance. I'm not in 100% agreement with this, but there are merits to this approach and it can be used to our advantage - just pick a day (and by "a day" I mean one day), say Christmas day and eat whatever you want, or make a planned set of meals that would meet requirements for a refeed day. Voila! You are still on track!
Another approach would be portion control - over the course of the holidays season you can still eat the foods you like, but you would have smaller portions. In my opinion, it requires a lot of self-discipline and it's actually difficult to use, but it does work for some people. One important point that I'd like to make here is that the law of diminishing returns works for food too. If you love certain foods, you will be absolutely ecstatic about the very first bites, then you'll enjoy each consecutive piece or bite less and less. So, theoretically, but having small portions of your favorite foods, you are optimizing your gustatory experiences. We can also expand this approach by proper meal planning, which will require even more self-discipline and effort, but at the same time will allow you to be as close to your diet as possible, especially if normally your diet is based on caloric restriction. You can still have all your favorite foods, but in an organized fashion and within a specific caloric range.
Both portion control and meal planning require a lot of effort in terms of calculating the nutritional value of your food intake and restricting it 24/7. It might be taxing in terms of your time and the feeling of personal freedom, so as an alternative to these two approaches I would like to suggest a method that would be pretty much the opposite - you don't have to count anything and you don't have to restrict yourself when eating. This method would be intermittent fasting - all you have to do is to make sure that you have long enough fasting intervals between your meals / feeding windows, say 16:8 or 20:4 or any other, whichever suits your holidays schedule best.
I must make a note here, that I like the idea of fasting in general - it makes sense physiologically, but at the same time I have serious doubts about its practical effectiveness for weight loss or body transformation, so, as promised in my previous blog, I am going to make another 15-day experiment: Since I have regained my weight after losing 15 lb in 15 days and it's the holidays season, I will go on 15 days of intermittent fasting with no caloric restriction. Not even going to count them, just having one short feeding window per day, so it will be close to 22:2 schedule. We will see how it goes and if timing of food intake matters or it's still all about calories. You are free to chose whatever method you like (except letting yourself loose of course!) - enjoy your holidays and be fit and healthy!