From Halloween to a never-ending stream of white-elephant parties, family gatherings, and holiday toasts of all kinds, juggling a healthy routine this time of year can feel downright overwhelming. That's why our first inclination might be to overcompensate, whether it's by skipping lunch to "save room" for the office holiday bonanza later that evening or forgoing Thanksgiving pie altogether.
But the truth is if you're hoping to keep your metabolism running efficiently all season long—and thus make it easier to bounce back into your regular routine once January rolls around—your best bet is actually to partake in as many of the season's indulgences as you'd like while also maintaining healthy habits between the festivities. Deprivation won't just make you hungrier later on; it can also trigger a hormonal and blood sugar imbalance (more on that later), which tends to be the real culprit behind a sluggish metabolism. Since other side effects include stress and moodiness, you probably won't exactly be the picture of holiday cheer, either.
So in the interest of quite literally having our cake and eating it too, we asked a couple of experts for their pointers on partaking in all the candy, cookie platters, and champagne flutes that come our way without throwing our bodies totally out of whack. Get their tips below.
Don't skip meals
While it might be tempting to "save" your calories for a big meal or the dessert tray at a party, it actually does more harm than good. "The body is designed to do whatever it needs to survive, so when you skip meals, the body doesn't know the difference from going into starvation mode or skipping a meal to prep for a big holiday dinner," explains Robbie Ann Darby, fitness expert and creator of RAD Experience. "Therefore, it will store the calories you provide as opposed to burning them. That storing process manifests as a slowed metabolism."
Do eat smaller meals throughout the day
This way, you'll fuel your body and keep your metabolism humming along while also exercising some control over your appetite, says Darby. "Fasting only to binge later will get your body into a greater metabolic and blood sugar frenzy," adds Kara Griffin, fitness expert and holistic nutritionist.
Don't let stress get the best of you
"While overeating, higher sugar intake, and fewer workouts can get your metabolism off balance [during the holidays], the sneakiest culprit is stress," says Griffin. It's especially rampant during the time of year when schedules are crazy, work deadlines loom, and we're traveling all over the place to see friends and family.
"That spike in cortisol keeps glucose available and helps the body hold on to fat since, in this mode, your body doesn't know when it's going to eat again—even though you may have a turkey dinner with stuffing and pie waiting for you," explains Griffin. "This plus a seemingly constant state of holiday stress can further create blood sugar peaks and valleys, messing with your systemic response to blood sugar absorption while simultaneously holding onto body fat."
Do look for ways to curb stress and anxiety
It may take trial and error, but try to figure out what works best for you. That might mean scheduling some alone time away from family, delegating at work, or really stepping up your yoga practice. And on that note…
Don't neglect your workouts
If you already have a consistent fitness routine, it's probably exactly what you need to keep stress at bay—breaking a sweat helps reduce cortisol while boosting feel-good hormones like serotonin and endorphins. Regulating a healthy balance of these hormones also helps normalize your metabolism, even when you're consuming more sugar than usual. Not to mention how working out "will also help maintain lean muscle mass that helps your metabolism thrive," adds Griffin.
Your most effective option will likely be HIIT training, says Darby, since it functions as a form of metabolic conditioning: Switching off between periods of rest and high intensity encourages an afterburn effect unrivaled by other workouts. But that said, you'll reap plenty of benefits just by getting moving in any way.
"Maybe you and your friends take a Spin class before your annual gift exchange brunch," says Darby. "Or instead of browsing the internet for holiday gift ideas, head to a local shopping strip and see how many stores you can hit up in a limited amount of time. Zipping through stores will certainly get your heart rate up, and depending on the size of the crowds, bobbing around people absolutely counts as agility training."
Do eat lots of veggies
Again, while you might be tempted to "counteract" the season's indulgences by cutting back on all your meals in general, your best bet is actually to maintain your healthy lifestyle and add anything else you'd like. Not only does this ensure that you're still getting all the nutrients you need, but it can also help keep your appetite satisfied so that you don't feel compelled to overdo it on all the sugary goodness. "Try to keep your regular healthful eating in place since your body relies on knowing when its next meal is," says Griffin.
Your best strategy: Enjoy lots of veggies and other fiber-packed foods, which will help keep you full for hours on end.
Don't deprive yourself
Fantastic news: Ignoring your cravings might actually sabotage your metabolism, so there's your excuse to fully indulge. "Staying clear of your favorite treats will only make you resentful towards the holidays and elevate your stress," says Griffin. That's another reason you're most likely to thrive by enjoying the cookies and champagne while also sticking to your usual healthy habits.
"Keep in mind that this festive time of year isn't around for long, so indulge and enjoy your treats while also keeping in mind that derailing your usual healthy eating habits will only make it harder to get back to balance," she says.
Do up your probiotic game
It's an easy way to keep your digestion running smoothly no matter how heavy the meal, plus research shows that maintaining a healthy gut can help regulate cortisol levels. "Foods high in good probiotic bacteria will increase metabolism and fight inflammation," notes Griffin. Get your fill of bacteria-rich foods like yogurt and kimchi, or simply take a probiotic supplement every morning. (We love adding this Moon Juice powder to a smoothie.)
Next up: How to eat vegan for $1 a day.