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Sports Nutrition

M&P’s Holiday Survival Guide

From traditional sit-down fare like turkey and stuffing to the convenience of gas-station delicacies during long road trips, the holiday season can be a nutritional minefield for hard-training individuals. This monthlong gorge-fest of family gatherings and office parties is marked by the type of foods that you usually reserve for select cheats throughout the week.

Most people black out this time of year on their training calendars, resigning themselves to a season of renewal come Jan. 1. But there’s no hard and fast rule that says you have to enter the new year a puffier, less conditioned caricature of your former self. Nor does it have to be a period of utter deprivation in which you stare contemptuously at the pie-laden spread.

Here, we’ll provide you with a few safety nets — tips that help you navigate the holiday season with little to no impact on your waistline. Getting stronger, fitter and healthier is a lifestyle — one that persists through the November-December temptation. Season’s eatings!


Yes, Thanksgiving is a time to congregate with loved ones and express gratitude for what you have, but it’s also about football. That being the case, relatives may be inclined to do a little drinking upon kickoff. “The night before Thanksgiving is the unofficial biggest bar night of the year,” warns nutritionist Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC. “Don’t drink a day’s worth of calories the night before the big holiday meal.”

Excess imbibing is a caloric catastrophe. “A shot of hard alcohol, one light beer or 5 fluid ounces of wine each have about 120 calories,” she says. “But beer has more water, which can lead to more bloat. Keep that in mind when throwing them back if your goal is to keep in shape.”

M&P TIP >> If you must drink, red wine is a good choice. Lower in carbohydrates and loaded with health-boosting resveratrol, it’s a good sipping beverage for parties.


With the wide variety of foods available at each spread, you can do yourself a favor by simply making smarter choices. “Take inventory of what’s available at holiday meals and pick just a few high-cal favorites to splurge on,” White says. “Choose dishes that contain meat and nonstarchy vegetables over the ones that don’t — green-bean casserole over potatoes au gratin, for example. This will help keep the calories a little lower while giving you plenty of what you need to maintain muscle.”

M&P TIP >> Get your fill of lean protein to increase satiety and keep your muscles’ amino-acid availability high. White meat turkey, with 17 grams of protein per 3.5-ounce serving, is a great choice. High-fiber veggies also fill you up without making a significant caloric dent.


It’s important to avoid the temptation to fill downtime by stuffing your face. This is especially dangerous once the game comes on and there’s a bowl of chips at everyone’s armchair. “Watch the game without mindlessly snacking,” White cautions. “It’s easy to lose track when you’re focused on something else.” Before you know it, you’ve consumed well over your usual calorie count for a day.

M&P TIP >> “Choose higher-protein hummus over other creamy, high-fat dips,” White says. “Chips and salsa aren’t bad if you just go easy on the chips and pick a spicy salsa to help stop you from shoveling it down so fast.”


One archaic holiday practice is to “save” up space in the days leading up to your holiday events by drastically cutting back on calories. “This almost always backfires and leads to overeating,” White says. “Eat as regularly as possible leading up to the holiday party. You’ll be more satisfied and better prepared to resist temptations.” Besides, a cutback in calories can also send your body into emergency mode — holding on to more fat than it would if you were to eat regularly.

M&P TIP >> “Just keep up with your eating as if the parties weren’t coming,” White says. “I usually say three meals and two to three snacks a day, spreading out calories into smaller meals. The idea is to stick to what you are used to in terms of eating times so your hunger cues aren’t completely thrown off.”


No matter the season, water consumption is crucial to your physique, your performance and overall well-being. At this time of year, however, it can be even more important.

“Stay hydrated,” White says. “Filling up on water can temporarily curb your appetite and will help balance out some of the extra sodium you’ll most likely be taking in. And remember that even diet sodas contain sodium, so if that’s a drink substitute for you, be aware of how much you’re taking in.”

M&P TIP >> As with any other time of year, a good standard for hard-training individuals is a gallon of water per day. It wouldn’t hurt to take in a little extra before mealtime to further blunt appetite.


Even if you’ve taken all the precautions above, the lure of your grandma’s apple pie may still have gotten the better of you once or thrice. That’s OK. Consider it a calculated indulgence and move on. Better yet, you can minimize the damage with a few next-day fixes. “Don’t be too hard on yourself,” White says. “Remember, it’s a long holiday season.”

M&P TIP >> “For the next few days, limit the amount of starchy carbs you take in and increase cardio to lose some of the extra water that you may be retaining,” White says. Also, increase your water intake to aid in the flushing of excess water under your skin and add in a few extra training tweaks to return to form quickly. (See “Holiday Training.”)


The gym is one of the best places to remedy holiday slip-ups (not to mention escape the familial crush at home). Try any of these options to get the most out of your post-party workouts.


High-intensity interval training will help you begin to undo some of the holiday gorging. Working at near-max effort, even in segments, burns through plenty of stored carbohydrates, helps you work up a great sweat and elevates your postworkout metabolism. After a two-minute warm-up, try performing 10 40-second sprints, alternated with 20 seconds of walking or slow jogging. Follow that with a two-minute walk to cool down.


If there’s any time of the year you might want to lay off the curls and pressdowns, it’s now. Instead, train your major muscle groups with free-weight, compound exercises such as squats, deadlifts, lunges, benches and other presses.These exercises will burn more calories in each workout because of the number of stabilizer muscles that are recruited and the amount of total weight you can use.


Performing a variety of exercises in succession with no rest between moves keeps your heart rate elevated and allows you to get the benefits of resistance training while adding a cardio element to your workout. It is also likely a departure from your typical workout protocol, which is always a good thing.


One research study showed that subjects who trained with a weight that only allowed them to complete six reps had their metabolism elevated higher and for longer than those who trained in the 12-rep range. A separate study showed that subjects who rested just 30 seconds burned 50 percent more calories during the workout than those who rested three minutes. To get lean and strong, load your bars with a weight you can handle for six to eight reps and keep rest periods to 30 to 60 seconds.


Cardio will be your ally in the week following nutritional indiscretion. Jumping rope, which can burn 477 calories per 30-minute session, is a great skill activity that can be done practically anywhere. The portability of the rope means you can even sneak in a quick session before the family gathering at your in-laws’ house.


Training hard immediately before or after a holiday meal will help to ensure that the surplus of calories you’ve ingested is being used for performance purposes. Also, intense workouts can have an appetite-suppressing effect for hours following your last rep.

Dana Angelo White, MS, RD, ATC, is a registered dietitian, certified athletic trainer and owner ofDana White Nutrition Inc. (, which specializes in culinary and sports nutrition.