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How to Burn Off Your Holiday Dinner

December 05, 2014

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Story at-a-glance

  • The average American gains close to one pound during the six-week period from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day
  • Suggestions are given for how much exercise is needed to burn off extra calories from common holiday foods
  • If you are already exercising regularly, the 1,000 rep at-home challenge can help rev up your metabolism and keep you from packing on too many extra pounds over the holidays
  • Effective strategies that can help curb or eliminate unhealthy food cravings are reviewed

By Dr. Mercola

Thanksgiving and Christmas are notorious holidays when food—and lots of it—takes center stage in the lives of most Americans. Since there's no shortage of high-calorie, seasonal comfort foods, the holidays often break the resolve of those who usually watch what they eat. Learn some helpful strategies for curbing your cravings and appetite below. 

According to previous investigations, the average American gains close to one pound during the six-week period from Thanksgiving through New Year's Day. People who are overweight or obese can gain upwards of 2.5 pounds over the holidays.1

This weight gain amounts to more than half of individuals' annual weight gain, whether they were overweight or not, which means the holiday season really is the time of year when you're most likely to put on the most extra weight.

If you don't get rid of it, this weight gain will pile up as the years go by. So what does it take to burn off those extra calories? The bodyweight demonstration above is a perfect workout for all fitness levels and will help kick your body into a fat burning inferno.

A previous Popsugar2 blog post lists the average number of calories contained in popular holiday food items, and how much exercise you need to do in order to burn those calories off. Here are just a handful of examples, for the full list, please see the original blog post:3

Food Item: Number of Calories Activity to Burn It Off
4 oz white turkey meat: 153 calories 22 minutes of touch football
One cup of mashed potatoes: 237 calories A one-hour long brisk walk
¼ cup of gravy: 105 calories Deep-cleaning your house for 26 minutes
One cup of stuffing: 202 calories 23-minute bike ride
One slice of apple pie: 411 calories Hiking for one hour

Take the 1,000 Rep Challenge

If you're at an advanced level in your fitness regimen try this challenge: commit to the 1,000 rep at-home challenge. Simplicity at its best, it can help rev up your metabolism and keep you from packing on too many extra pounds over the holidays. It helps increase your strength and endurance when done a couple of times per week, and you can do this just about anywhere, as you do not need any kind of equipment. If you're short on time, which tends to be the norm during the holiday rush, you can break it up and do one round of exercises at different times of the day.   

The 1,000 rep challenge consists of doing 10 repetitions each of 10 different exercises. Each full round of exercises is then repeated 10 times, at which point you've completed 1,000 repetitions in all (10x10x10). As suggested by Three Healthy Mommas:4

"Try to do it as many times as possible without stopping, then each day you after that, do it one more time than you did before. Push yourself and see what you can do! Its awesome to see yourself get stronger and be able to do more each time. Once you can do the challenge all 10 times, start timing yourself and work on getting through it faster. Do not be intimidated-if you are a beginner, start by doing it 1-2 times all the way through and work up from there."

The 1,000 Rep Exercises

Jill Rodriguez demonstrates each of the 10 exercises in the video above. You can also find photos demonstrating each move on the Three Healthy Mommas blog.5 Here's a list of the exercises. Start out doing one round, meaning 10 repetitions of each of the exercises. As you gain strength and endurance, keep adding another round, until you eventually get to 10 complete rounds. One complete round of exercises (10x10=100 repetitions):

  • 10 Burpees
  • 10 Squat Jumps (with or without added weight)
  • 10 Push ups
  • 10 Toe Touch Sit Ups
  • 10 Tricep Dips
  • 10 Tuck Jumps
  • 10 Plank Jacks
  • 10 Jumping Lunges
  • 10 Leg Drops
  • 10 Squat Thrusts

Other Tips for Preventing Holiday Weight Gain

Another simple and excellent strategy to increase your exercise is to pick up a fitness tracker and walk 7,000-10,000 steps a day. Not only will this offset holiday weight gain but it will also help limit the dangers of excessive sitting. A brisk walk after your meal has several significant benefits. First, it will get you away from the food, making it less likely that you'll help yourself to seconds or overindulge in dessert upon your return. Second, while supporting your digestion and metabolism, the physical activity will help to lower your blood sugar levels and insulin (i.e. the fat-storing hormone).

Besides upping your exercise quotient, there are plenty of other actions you can take to not only prevent holiday weight gain, but even to lose weight during the holidays if you need to. For starters, eating only when you're hungry will go a long way toward avoiding unnecessary weight gain. You can also cut down on excessive gorging by eating a healthy snack and drinking a full glass of water before heading off to dinner.

Previous research6 has shown that eating a bowl of broth-based soup before a meal is likely to result in your consuming 20 percent fewer calories in total (including the soup). Healthy fat will also help you to feel full while simultaneously stimulating your metabolism. So snacking on some olives or nuts, before helping yourself to all of the starchy sides and desserts, may help you keep your total food intake in check. Macadamia nuts are particularly useful as they are high in fat and low in protein.

Two additional strategies that can be helpful include:

  1. Tap away sugar cravings. Make no mistake: highly processed foods – cookies, cinnamon rolls, bread, crackers, boxed stuffing, and more --are engineered to be more or less addictive
  2. When you eat sugar, it triggers production of your brain's natural opioids -- a key ingredient in the addiction process. Your brain essentially becomes addicted to stimulating the release of its own opioids as it would to morphine or heroin. One way to help "reprogram" your brain so you don't feel powerless to resist unhealthy foods is with the Emotional Freedom Technique (EFT).

    When your body's energy system is disrupted, you are more likely to experience distractions and discomforts related to food, and more likely to engage in emotional eating. Instead, if you engage your body's subtle energy system with EFT, the distracting discomforts like food cravings and hunger pangs often subside.

  3. Try intermittent fasting. It takes about six to eight hours for your body to metabolize your glycogen stores and after that you actually start to shift to burning fat. However, if you are replenishing your glycogen by eating every few hours, you make it far more difficult for your body to actually use your fat stores as fuel.
  4. Intermittent fasting is an umbrella term that covers a wide array of fasting schedules. As a general rule, it involves cutting calories in whole or in part, either a couple of days a week, every other day, or even daily. The fasting schedule I recommend and personally use is to simply restrict your daily eating to a specific window of time, such as an eight hour window. You really only need to maintain this daily eating schedule until your insulin/leptin resistance improves and your weight, blood pressure, cholesterol ratios, or diabetes normalizes. After that, you only need to do it if and when your insulin/leptin resistance returns.

    Fasting triggers a variety of health-promoting hormonal and metabolic changes similar to those that occur when you exercise. Shifting your body into fat burning mode is also one of the most effective ways to eliminate sugar cravings. The reason for this is simple: when sugar is not needed as a primary fuel, your body will not crave it as much when your sugar stores run low.

    Bear in mind that starting intermittent fasting right during the holidays may not work all that well. This is something you need to start incorporating, slowly, ahead of time. But once your body has made the shift to using fat instead of sugar as its primary fuel, it may be one of the best ways to avoid the holiday overindulgence trap altogether, as you will not be fighting against ravenous sugar cravings at the mere sight of the dessert table.  

    If you get started now, you may stand a far better chance at making it through Christmas and New Year's without adding extra pounds, for example. You don't need iron willpower or enormous levels of self-discipline to maintain this eating schedule. Yes, you will get hungry, but your hunger will be appropriate and you will be surprised at how much less food will completely satisfy you once you regain your metabolic flexibility and no longer need to rely on stored sugar in your body for your primary fuel.

The Holidays Do Not Need to Derail Your Health and Fitness Goals

As you can see, there are plenty of ways to avoid the holiday weight gain trap, from taking a walk after each meal, accepting the 1,000 rep challenge, using EFT to ease sudden or persistent food cravings, or incorporating intermittent fasting. The latter of which is, in my view, one of the best ways to optimize your health and promote weight loss year-round. It's particularly beneficial during the holidays however, as it effectively eliminates sugar cravings.

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Sources and References

  • 1 Nutr Rev. 2000 Dec;58(12):378-9.
  • 2 Popsugar November 20, 2012
  • 3 Popsugar November 20, 2012
  • 4 Three Healthy Mommas March 15, 2014
  • 5 Three Healthy Mommas March 15, 2014
  • 6 Penn State University News, April 25, 2007
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