Editor’s note: We’re excited to introduce this guest post from our good friend and nutrition expert, Nate Miyaki. It’ll help you navigate the complex world of eating during the holidays without hindering your health and physique goals. Take it away, Nate!
I don’t know of a more eloquent way to put this: traditional fitness diets are rough as an everyday baseline plan, but they doubly suck during the holidays.
That’s why despite people’s best intentions going in, almost everyone strays from the path, and gains an extra layer of flab by the end of the Season’s Eatings. Up until now, the vain fitness person (myself included) really only had two options:
- Use cheerleader-like, motivational pep talks to try and stay on track, suffer through weeks of psychological and emotional torture, and fight daily battles because your nutrition plan is not that practical or functional to begin with. (I don’t know about you, but that sounds a bit too much like a Nightmare Before Christmas to me.)
- Let everything go to Hell, and then try to “make up for it” in the New Year with some extreme, unsustainable training protocol or juice fast. (That’s the sequel, The Nightmare After Christmas.)
Why Typical Fad Diets Don’t Work
Here’s the unfortunate truth: almost all of the holiday “diet” advice you get from a variety of mainstream sources goes AGAINST our natural human instincts, which is to feast like a beast once a day.
It also goes AGAINST our evolutionary history and social patterns, which is to eat the majority of our calories (and party like animals) at night.
That’s why those mainstream fitness tidbits rarely work.
What, you’re supposed to be cool with nibbling on a disturbingly unsatisfying 300-calorie snack while everyone else is chowing down on a wicked dinner spread, hitting the open bar, and fooling around under the mistletoe? That’s like saying you can look all you want, but you can’t have sex over the Holiday season – unnecessary, preposterous, impossible.
But it doesn’t have to be that way.
Another Way: 5 Tips that Actually Work
Here’s a diet approach that flips the script on spandex tradition:
Cut calories at night? Ha! Maybe if you want to hate your life.
One of the core principles of what I preach is an eating structure that mimics our evolutionary past – the hunt and feast structure – whereby you eat lighter while active during the day, and then eat the majority of your calories and carbohydrates at night while relaxing or socializing.
Doesn’t that already sound more doable over this upcoming holiday season? If not, good luck with your snack packs. If yes, let’s dive into some feasting details.
Holiday Feasting Tip #1 – Don’t Try to Eat Light at Night
Let me guess what you are supposed to do in the countdown leading up to the day of the White Bearded One.
You’re supposed to eat 4-5 small, equal-calorie meals throughout the day, and finish with a low calorie, low carb snack. Misery loves company I guess.
And trust me, there are some miserable and grumpy fitness people out there.
After all, if you don’t eat something every 3 hours, your muscles are going to fall off the bone like they’ve been cooking in a Crock Pot, or your blood sugar is going to crash and you’ll become like the Walking Dead, gnawing off your co-workers arms.
Well, get this straight – your blood sugar is more likely to crash from eating refined sugar snacks (I know you justified that candy bar with some protein added to it as one of your small meals) than from not eating every 2.5 hours.
But let’s say you do eat 5 small fitness-style meals with high quality foods. Your 6th meal is supposed to be a protein shake. Yet, you’re at a Holiday party relaxing and unwinding, and there is a ton of free gourmet food around you. What do you do?
You binge and eat a huge feast anyways, because instinctually that is what we’re meant to do. With that last large meal you completely overshot your calorie and macronutrient totals for the day.
It Comes Down to Total Calories
Listen, man (or woman): eating big at night doesn’t make you fat. Eating too much/too many calories for the entire day makes you fat.
If you’ve eaten large and/or frequent meals throughout the day, and then eat another large dinner on top of that, chances are you will overshoot your daily calorie needs and gain fat. It’s the total food intake, not the distribution, that is the problem.
If you eat lighter during the day and are active, chances are you enter dinner in a relatively large calorie deficit with depleted energy reserves, and even a large meal with a significant amount of carbohydrates will be used to restore energy reserves first, before spilling over into fat stores.
With that being the case, you can either set up your diet to suffer or set up your diet to cruise. The choice is up to you.
I know what I prefer…
Holiday Feasting Tip #2 – Eat Lighter During the Day So You Can Eat Big at Night
Human beings evolved on a fasting and feeding cycle. We spent the majority of our existence fasting or eating lighter during the day while actively tracking, hunting, and gathering our food. We spent the evening relaxing and feasting on the majority, if not all, of our daily food intake.
Does this sound like theoretical or fad diet hogwash? Well, there’s actually some science to it.
Nerdy Science Stuff:
This structure [of eating lighter during the day and eating a large meal at night] controls insulin/blood sugar levels and maximizes fat burning hormones and cellular factors during the day (growth hormone, cAMP), while simultaneously improving nutrient partitioning and maximizing muscle building hormones and cellular factors at night (insulin, mTOR).
In non-geek-speak, keep your damn hand out of the office candy bowl. Don’t eat those sugar and refined carbohydrate snacks during the day.
Instead, eat a lighter, lower carb, protein and fat-based lunch. This will lead to better cognitive function, energy, and body fat slashing for a good portion of the day.
Example: 8oz of sirloin steak, non-starchy vegetables, 1/2 avocado.
Our brains work on a sacrifice/reward pattern. Most people find it relatively easy to cut calories and make better food choices during the day, as long as they know they can eat a larger meal at night, and get to end the day satiated and satisfied (at least in the kitchen, the bedroom is your own responsibility).
Which leads us to…
Holiday Feasting Tip #3 – The Intermittent Feast (This is the Fun Part)
Eat a complete, satiating meal, with protein, veggies, and the majority of your starchy carbohydrates at night. If you are eating a big dinner with real, whole foods, chances are you will be stuffed, and won’t have much “room” leftover to binge on holiday junk, even if it is right in front of your face.
In fact, many people who have adopted this nutritional approach complain of having to eat too much at night. Poor souls. Doesn’t that sound a lot better than starving at night, and going to bed with visions of cupcakes and candy canes dancing in your head?
Example: 8-16oz chicken or fish, mixed veggies, 2-4 cups rice or 16-32 oz potato.
Holiday Feasting Tip #4 – Don’t Fall Off the Infomercial Ledge
This is where some plans will tell you that this magical structure of eating lighter during the day will allow you to slam down shitloads of junk every night on fast and processed food, and still lose fat.
If you stay within a calorie deficit, that may just work, but:
- A. It’s pretty hard to stay within a deficit with refined sugar, oils, and other crap. That’s the underlying reason why most calorie counting diets don’t work in the long run.
- B. That sucks for long-term, overall health. I believe the over-consumption of modern, refined foods is one of the root causes of devastating diseases and poor health conditions.
Holiday Feasting Tip #5 – Instead, Implement Strategic Cheats
I believe people should stick to their base eating structure most of the week, and then plan strategic cheat nights. Getting results is about what you do with your diet the MAJORITY of the time, not ALL of the time.
I’m a realist, baby.
I get that there are going to be holiday parties where you want to eat great food, chug a little spiked Egg Nog, be naughty with Santa’s helpers, and not worry about your diet at all. I’m the same way.
- First off, eat your normal, lighter, lower carb lunch. This will ensure you are still optimizing the body’s ability to burn fat for a good portion of the day, and entering the feeding frenzy with relatively depleted energy reserves.
- Second, have 1-2 nights a week during this holiday season where you eat what you want without limitation. Probably just one if you’re already looking more like St. Nick, maybe two if you’re looking more like the Grinch.
What Do I Mean By STRATEGIC?
There will be lots of options to cheat, probably most nights of the week if you’re as cool and popular as me (actually I’m a loser, but some of my friends are pretty cool, so I just pretend for the article’s sake). So you have to be selective to limit the damage.
You probably don’t want to have a cheat night where you’re wasting it on your cousin’s bean dip made with the help of Frito’s.
But at a party at a 5-star restaurant, where the company is buying everything, the bar is open, and the cleavage (or for the ladies, I guess bulges?) are out and about, it may be time to let loose.
And Thanksgiving and Christmas Dinner? Forget about it. Hide your small children please.
Making Holiday Feasting Work
Buddy the Elf once said:
We elves try to stick to the four main food groups: candy, candy canes, candy corns and syrup.
But listen, you have to remember he is a different breed. You can’t do the same and expect to get results. Remember he is only half human.
Now you are armed with a new feasting strategy that will help you get through the holidays without packing on a bunch of fat, and without being miserable or having your life revolve around your diet.
Despite different dietary pathways, both you and Buddy will be having a blast, and be proclaiming”The best way to spread Christmas Cheer, is singing loud for all to hear.”
Bye-bye Fitness Starving Spirit. Hello Christmas Feasting Spirit.
Nate’s mission is to use his education in Nutrition & Exercise Science, and near 20-year practical experience to help you reach your goals in the most effective, efficient, and sustainable ways possible.
His work has been featured in Men’s Health, Men’s Fitness, The Huffington Post, LIVESTRONG, Muscle & Fitness, T-Nation, and Bodybuilding.com. He has provided nutrition seminars and been a guest speaker for several corporate wellness programs including Zynga, Wix.com, Hanson Bridgette Law Firm, Stanford Business School, and his own mirror.