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The Holiday Diet Survival Guide for Strength Athletes (and Anyone Else)


The holidays can be a time of celebration, rest, and reunion. They can also pose some unique challenges to strength athletes. Travel can disrupt routines, create unpredictable food choices, and limit gym equipment. You might be thinking that the season sounds more stressful than cheerful and wondering whether all of your hard-earned gains will be lost in the next few weeks.

Social media messaging might lead you to believe that your only options are dry chicken breast out of a Tupperware container or eating all of the pies. But there’s a middle ground — you don’t need to be Patrick Bateman or Bluto from Animal House. By planning ahead, adopting a flexible mindset, and working on some new skills, you’ll be ready to navigate Thanksgiving (and any other food-focused event) with ease while still enjoying yourself. 

Challenges During the Holidays

Strength athletes are often eating with performance, recovery, and energy balance in mind. Their diet has to provide the proper range of macronutrients to optimize their training while maintaining their body weight within the limits of their weight class. When the holidays roll around, their calculated routine is flipped on its head.

Plate of Thanksgiving Foods
Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock

The holidays can be incredibly challenging because they introduce tempting and delicious food amid a disrupted routine. Monitoring body weight and macronutrient intake can be stressful any time of year, but these factors can lead some athletes to take especially rigid approaches to weight control. The added stress of being out of one’s routine can lead an athlete into a cycle of excessive restriction followed by overeating. (Think: “I’ll eat salad for every meal for days and then gorge at Thanksgiving dinner.”)

But it doesn’t have to be like that. By identifying potential roadblocks and having a solution in mind, you can navigate a festive meal without eating just green beans or chowing down on everything in sight. 

Challenge: You’re Eating on the Go

A precise macro plan can be an efficient, effective tool, but when it comes to unpredictable or limited food choices, you’ll probably have difficulty hitting your goals. Though you can bring some food onto airplanes, and you’ll have options in the grocery store, you can’t precisely pack your whole fridge and all of that Tupperware along with you for longer trips. On top of less-than-ideal food options, one’s meal timing will be off, too.

Solution: Plan Ahead, But Stay Flexible

Planning sounds simple, and it is, but it can go beyond just packing meals. The first phase of planning includes packing shelf-stable snacks that travel well. You’ll eat fewer fruits and veggies but can still use whole grains and nuts for fiber. Make a list of snacks made up of predominately one macronutrient (protein, carbs, and fats). For example:

  • Carbs: Whole grain bread, crackers, fruits, dry cereal
  • Proteins: Tuna packets, protein powder, jerky
  • Fats: Nuts and nut butters

If the unexpected happens — as it often does around the holidays — Plan A might not pan out, but don’t let perfect be the enemy of good. Instead of perfectly hitting your macros, it’s ok to hit or get close to at least one of your macro goals. If your macros are a little out of whack, but you still hit your caloric total, that’s ok too. To keep blood sugar and hunger levels stable until your next meal, consider choosing a snack with a mix of carbs and proteins, such as a protein bar.

Though it may seem counterintuitive that ‘close enough’ is better than ‘bullseye,’ this flexible approach makes your long-term goals more realistic and achievable. 

Challenge: You’re Eating Homemade (Untrackable) Meals

For folks with weight-related goals, homemade food can be a toss-up. Green beans may sound like a good choice until you find out that Uncle Rob sauteed them using an entire stick of butter. Sweet potatoes are a great carb choice, made all the more caloric by marshmallow and pecan topping.

Macro-tracking is like using GPS. It’s an efficient tool to go from Point A to Point B without paying much attention to the route along the way. If you’ve used GPS, you might notice that you don’t learn the route effectively until you take time to practice without the GPS. The GPS doesn’t teach you anything about reading maps or finding your way without its guidance. It is as helpful for that purpose as it is limited for others.

If tracking macros has become compulsive and rule-driven, eating an untracked meal can lead to the “abstinence-violation effect,” which often manifests as eating an uncomfortable amount of the untracked or “off-limits” food after veering off the intended plan. (2) If you’re in the habit of cleaning your plate at each meal, this may be the default regardless of how much food you need in other settings. 

Solution: Use the Hunger Scale (It’s RPE for Your Stomach)

When you’re rating your workouts using the rate of perceived exertion (RPE) or reps in reserve (RIR) scale, you’re using a skill called interoceptive awareness. Similarly, you can use the hunger scale to quantify the subjective ratings of hunger and fullness, much like RPE is a numeric scale used to quantify subjective ratings of effort. (3) If you haven’t paid attention to hunger and fullness for a long time, it will take practice to identify and rate them accurately.

Hunger Scale

  1. Starving/feeling sicky and dizzy
  2. Very hungry and irritable
  3. Pretty hungry; your stomach is growling
  4. Starting to feel hungry
  5. Satiated
  6. Slightly fully or happily full
  7. Slightly uncomfortable
  8. Very full
  9. Very uncomfortable, and your stomach aches
  10. You’re about to be sick

In practice, the hunger scale guides how much to eat, which is helpful if you have gotten into the habit of cleaning your macro-planned plate regardless of your fullness level. You can autoregulate your intake by eating before you reach uncomfortable hunger (around level three) and stopping the meal when you feel satisfied (around a five or six).

In the same way, you apply self-awareness when using RPE or RIR, you can apply nutritional awareness to our ratings of hunger and fullness. For example, when you’re deep into a high-volume training cycle and sensing the fatigue set in, you anticipate that your RPE will be higher on a given lift than it was three weeks ago.

When you’re using the hunger scale, you can predict that really tasty, energy-dense food won’t be as filling as the more routine, high-volume food you’re used to eating. You can adjust accordingly by eating slowly, incorporating more filling foods, eating to a more conservative level of fullness, or combining the three. 

Challenge: You’re Surrounded By Delicious Food

The abstinence-violation effect can happen regardless of macro-tracking. People who adopt a strict, black-and-white approach to food — also known as rigid restraint — are likely to overeat “off-limits” foods after eating even a tiny portion. (2)(4)

If you believe that you can’t eat certain foods or keep them in the house because you tend to overeat them every time, you may have experienced this phenomenon. The foods aren’t the direct cause, though. This happens because access to food is constantly restricted, maintaining its novelty and scarcity. Each time the food is eaten, it’s the “last time,” so eating a comfortable amount is challenging. Long-term access and planned habituation can break this cycle, but some foods are scarce or novel, like Grandma’s signature pecan pie, deep-fried turkey, and seasonal products. 

Solution: Change Your All-Or-Nothing Mentality

Studies on dietary restraint — the cognitive effort of regulating food intake — have shown how influential one’s mindset can be when navigating a tempting food environment. Though the differences between rigid and flexible restraint aren’t entirely clear, it’s helpful to apply what is currently known to avoid the cycle of restriction and overeating.

Rigid dieters who either anticipate a future diet or believe they’ve broken a specific rule are more likely to overeat compared to non-dieters. Other research has also illustrated that a person’s weight loss history can affect the relationship between their level of restraint and the development of disordered eating. For example, if you’re using flexible dietary restraint to maintain your natural body weight, your chances are much lower than a person using rigid restraint to avoid regaining lost weight. (2)(5)

If you have labeled certain foods as healthy or junk, you may be setting yourself up for this cycle by setting breakable, black-and-white rules. Instead, try to find more descriptive, functional labels for the food, and focus on how it makes you feel. If one piece of pie is tasty and satisfying, but three pieces leave you feeling nauseated, your interoceptive awareness can guide you toward one piece without any strict rules.

It can also help to challenge your beliefs about the scarcity of food. Pumpkin pie is indeed harder to find in stores at other times of the year, but it isn’t the last time you’ll ever eat pie, and you could even make it at home if you wanted some. Knowing that you can eat more later might help you eat a comfortable amount now. If you do finish your meal feeling full, waiting until you’re hungry to eat again — and eating a meal proportional to your level of hunger — is another way to practice flexible restraint.

Challenge: Your Training Isn’t Is Consistent

Many strength athletes follow a periodized training program, with days, weeks, or months dedicated to specific aspects of their performance. In most cases, the plan will include hypertrophy, strength, and peaking blocks to focus on muscle growth, strength, and competition preparation, respectively. Executing a planned workout is hugely satisfying, but losing this structure can leave some athletes feeling unmotivated to train.

Though short-term interruptions of habits are expected, a long-term cessation could lead to a relapse. Plus, taking more than a few weeks off of training could lead to some performance losses. With some planning and (you guessed it) a flexible mindset, you can still attain that same sense of satisfaction that comes with executing a plan, even if it wasn’t Plan A.

Solution: Set Realistic Expectations & Plan Long-Term

If you have a general idea about your schedule over the holidays, consider planning your programming accordingly, with realistic expectations. What would be achievable in the worst-case scenario? It might be ideal to train six days per week, but likely more realistic to aim for three. In the end, if you hit four workouts, you’ll either feel frustrated that you didn’t hit six or impressed that you exceeded your goal of three. If the result is the same, why cause undue stress by setting unrealistic goals?

Remember that one workout — complete or not — can’t make or break a training plan. The same all-or-nothing thinking that backfires with nutrition can also backfire when it comes to training. Focus on your long-term goals and make the best of what’s available to you when you can train.

How to Build A Balanced Plate & Autoregulate Your Intake

Here’s an example of a meal experience that integrates all of the skills mentioned above to create a balanced, satisfying plate.

Basic Nutrient Needs for Strength Athletes

The nutrient needs of strength athletes vary based on their gender, training volume, and body weight goals, but the general recommendations for daily intake are:

  • 1.5-2 grams of protein per kilogram of bodyweight 
  • 5-8 grams of carbohydrates per kilogram of bodyweight
  • 0.5-1 gram of fat per kilogram of bodyweight

Athletes should also try to eat 14-15 grams of fiber for every 1,000 calories they’re ingesting. Water intake also varies, but a prudent goal would be about 33 ounces per 1,000 calories and more as needed during training. Nutrient timing can further support performance and recovery while reducing digestive discomfort during exercise. (1)

If you don’t know where to start when it comes to calculating your macros, you can refer to our macronutrient calculator below:

Eat Regularly

Though it’s common for people to fast or eat minimal meals leading up to a large holiday feast, extreme hunger can make autoregulation almost impossible. The capacity of the human stomach is the same regardless of hunger level, but most people will eat more when they’re very hungry. By eating balanced meals throughout the day, you can avoid the carnal hunger that leads to overeating at dinner time, leaving you the opportunity to practice autoregulation.

Plate-Plan & Use Your Hands

You can build a balanced plate and use your hands to estimate portion sizes if you want to incorporate more structure into your meal. Plate-planning generally involves filling half your plate with vegetables, then adding a fistful of starch and a palm-sized portion of protein. One or two thumbs’ worth of fats is usually added, though these are often already cooked into holiday meals.

Use the Hunger Scale 

In addition to — or in place of — plate-planning and portion estimations, use the hunger scale before, during, and after meals. Eat before you reach the uncomfortable hunger level of one or two, and halfway through your meal, check in again to assess your fullness. Remember that hunger signaling isn’t immediate, so if you’re at a level four, you may reach a five or six once the hormonal signals from your digestive tract have taken effect in your brain. (6) If you’ve cleaned your plate without checking in, you can evaluate after the meal (but try to keep this a helpful tool rather than a strict rule). 

Come Back for Seconds

Remember that you can always have more of this delicious food later on, and it will probably taste better and hit the spot if you enjoy it when you’re hungry again. Challenge the notion that you’re only allowed these foods at certain times to reduce the scarcity and novelty that makes autoregulation more difficult.

Enjoy the Conversation

The holidays often bring distant relatives together, resulting in the most entertaining conversations (for better or worse). Engaging in dialogue and socialization can help you eat more slowly, letting those fullness signals kick in. This can also distract you from your fullness signals, though, so it may take some practice to tune into those during a political debate.

The Best Leftovers for Performance & Recovery

If no one goes home without a to-go plate (or three), you’re in luck: plenty of those holiday dishes are great fuel for athletes. As a bonus, eating leftovers may be a great way to normalize these foods and make next year’s autoregulation even easier.

Best for Carbs: Dinner Rolls, Potatoes, and Cranberry Sauce

White or wheat dinner rolls are a great source of fast-digesting carbs that you can quickly turn into a balanced turkey breast sandwich. Cranberry sauce is another concentrated source of refined carbs that makes an excellent garnish for a turkey sandwich or bagel with cream cheese. Depending on their preparation, sweet and white potatoes provide carbs, and the skin is rich in fiber. They’re also high in potassium, and sweet potatoes pack some vitamin A as well. 

Best for Protein: Turkey Breast, Pork Tenderloin, and Plant-Based Proteins

Skinless turkey breast and pork tenderloin are lean, protein-rich cuts of meat that would suit any meal of the day. They’re also lower in saturated fat than other cuts of meat and are less processed than items like ham or sausage. Plant-based options like tofu, soy, wheat gluten, or tempeh offer high-protein, non-meat alternatives with a texture and flavor similar to turkey, chicken, or sausage. 

Best for Fats: Pecans and Walnuts

Most holiday dishes include fats from ingredients like butter, cream, or higher-fat meats, so added fats may not be necessary. If you’re looking for some healthful fats, the pecans on your pie and walnuts in your sweet potato casserole provide unsaturated fats which support heart health. 

Pre- and Post-Workout Fueling (So You Won’t Need A Nap)

If you plan to train on a celebratory day or use your leftovers for workout fuel, here are some guidelines to help you feel your best.

Eat a large portion of your daily carbohydrates in low-fat meals before and after training. If you tend to experience gastrointestinal distress during workouts, you may also feel better by keeping fiber low in your pre-workout meal with a source of refined carbohydrates. For example, you could enjoy your turkey breast sandwich before your workout and refuel with sweet potatoes and pork tenderloin. (1)

Distribute your protein evenly at each meal, and add the majority of your fats to meals that aren’t as close to your workout. That piece of pumpkin pie will be delicious and more thoroughly enjoyable when you eat it a few hours after your workout, rather than fueling up with it beforehand and suffering pie-flavored belches.

Training During the Holidays

Training to earn or burn holiday meals can become a slippery slope toward compensatory exercising and disordered eating patterns. Though the behaviors might look similar — training harder or longer than usual and eating a bit more — the mindset makes a big difference in the risk of developing a harmful pattern. (7)

If you’re training hard because your food intake, sleep, and recovery are enhanced, you’re probably making the most of the season. On the other hand, if you feel compelled to train more to earn or work off your meals, and you’re experiencing a lot of guilt and anxiety about the whole situation, it may be a good idea to seek support from a health professional to break out of this cycle. 

Option 1: Program Intentional Deload or Rest Time

If you’ve been following a periodized training plan, you’ll likely be able to program intentional rest time or a reduced workload while you’re traveling or celebrating. Research shows that strength performance may be maintained for up to three weeks of detraining, so taking a few days — or even a week — away from the gym is unlikely to hinder your performance. (8) In the meantime, enjoy some active recovery, like walking, hiking, or shoveling snow for your neighbor.

Option 2: Program Intentional High-Volume Blocks

On the other hand, if you know, you’ll have access to equipment, and more time to recover from intense workouts, the timing could be perfect for an especially intense week before deloading once you’re back to real life.

Option 3: Program High-Rep, Unilateral Movements

If you have some flexibility in your plan and can put in some work, you could work up a sweat with a bit less structure. Even if your hotel gym equipment is limited or you’re working with your body weight, you can provide effective muscular stimulus with sets of around 30 reps that bring your body parts close to failure. (9)

Hotel Gym Workout Example

Wrapping Up

As an athlete, your sport is part of your identity, and you probably value things like structure, commitment, and personal growth. The holidays might bring about a change to your routine, but they don’t require a total sacrifice of what’s important to you. If you value time with your loved ones and confidence when facing the challenges of the holidays, you’re now equipped with the skills and mindset that you need for a most festive season.

References

  1. Kreider, R. B., Wilborn, C. D., Taylor, L., Campbell, B., Almada, A. L., Collins, R., Cooke, M., Earnest, C. P., Greenwood, M., Kalman, D. S., Kerksick, C. M., Kleiner, S. M., Leutholtz, B., Lopez, H., Lowery, L. M., Mendel, R., Smith, A., Spano, M., Wildman, R., … Antonio, J. (2010). ISSN exercise & sport nutrition review: research & recommendations. Journal of the International Society of Sports Nutrition, 7(1), 7. https://doi.org/10.1186/1550-2783-7-7
  2. Ogden, J. (2010). The psychology of eating: From healthy to disordered behavior, 2nd ed. In The psychology of eating: From healthy to disordered behavior, 2nd ed. (pp. xii, 378–xii, 378). Wiley-Blackwell.
  3. Jospe, M. R., Taylor, R. W., Athens, J., Roy, M., & Brown, R. C. (2017). Adherence to Hunger Training over 6 Months and the Effect on Weight and Eating Behaviour: Secondary Analysis of a Randomised Controlled Trial. Nutrients, 9(11), 1260. https://doi.org/10.3390/nu9111260
  4. Palascha, A., van Kleef, E., & van Trijp, H. C. (2015). How does thinking in Black and White terms relate to eating behavior and weight regain? Journal of Health Psychology, 20(5), 638–648. https://doi.org/10.1177/1359105315573440
  5. Lowe, M. R. (2015). Dieting: proxy or cause of future weight gain? Obesity Reviews, 16(S1), 19–24. https://doi.org/https://doi.org/10.1111/obr.12252
  6. Näslund, E., & Hellström, P. M. (2007). Appetite signaling: from gut peptides and enteric nerves to brain. Physiology & behavior, 92(1-2), 256–262. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.physbeh.2007.05.017
  7. Holland, L. A., Brown, T. A., & Keel, P. K. (2014). Defining Features of Unhealthy Exercise Associated with Disordered Eating and Eating Disorder Diagnoses. Psychology of sport and exercise, 15(1), 10.1016/j.psychsport.2013.10.005. https://doi.org/10.1016/j.psychsport.2013.10.005
  8. Gavanda, S., Geisler, S., Quitmann, O. J., Bauhaus, H., & Schiffer, T. (2020). Three Weeks of Detraining Does Not Decrease Muscle Thickness, Strength or Sport Performance in Adolescent Athletes. International journal of exercise science, 13(6), 633–644.
  9. Schoenfeld, B. J., Grgic, J., Ogborn, D., & Krieger, J. W. (2017). Strength and Hypertrophy Adaptations Between Low- vs. High-Load Resistance Training: A Systematic Review and Meta-analysis. Journal of strength and conditioning research, 31(12), 3508–3523. https://doi.org/10.1519/JSC.0000000000002200

Featured Image: Brent Hofacker/Shutterstock



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