Holiday Habits: Surviving the Calorie Apocalypse

Our instinct is to take food when it’s offered. Before you do, stop and ask yourself, “Do I really want to eat this?”

by Joshua Danker-Dake

With the sudden abundance of candy, parties, and snacks at work, the holidays can be a caloric minefield for many of us—one we have to navigate for two months. During this time, it can be easy to eat a lot more—and a lot more junk—without really thinking about it. It might just be the first-worldiest of first-world problems.

Let no one be taken by surprise. You know the calories are coming. But if you’re willing to think about what you put in your mouth and to moderate your indulgence, your pant size can survive the holidays. Here are some waistline-minded tips that are useful year-round but particularly helpful around the holidays.

At Work

It’s a scientific fact that junk you would never, ever eat if it were in your house becomes the most desirable thing on earth when it shows up at work. Fresh donuts are a snare and a stumbling block to us all, but cheap candy, day-old bagels, half a grocery store cake from somebody’s birthday a few days ago? How often do we descend like ravenous jackals upon such gastronomic hand-me-downs? And how often do we find ourselves afterward with a cloying aftertaste in the mouth and a bellyful of regret?

I get it: the workplace can be dull, boring, stressful. Anything new, anything out of the ordinary—no matter how mundane it might be in another context—can be exciting, can liven up the workday. And so it is of such nutritionally impoverished foodstuffs.

Our instinct is to take food when it’s offered. Before you do, stop and ask yourself, “Do I really want to eat this?” If the answer is yes, drink a glass of water and wait five minutes, then ask yourself again. If the answer is still yes, then go ahead and have a responsible portion. If you can say no, you’ve saved yourself hundreds of empty calories you won’t regret having missed out on tomorrow.

And if you find saying no to be a persistent problem, get in the habit of bringing your own healthy snacks to work. It’s easier to make a good food decision when your stomach isn’t empty.

At Parties

Ah, parties. Tables piled with all sorts of rich foods and extravagant desserts you typically don’t get at home. Throw in free booze, and packing away double your daily recommended caloric allowance in a two-hour period is well within the realm of probability.

How to mitigate the damage? Here are some ways.

Use a plate. Don’t hover around the table, slowly and unendingly transferring food from hand to face. You’d be shocked at the vast quantity of food you can pound down that way. Put some food on a plate, then walk away from the table. The table will be there when you come back, I promise.

Make a plan before you start eating. “I’m only going to have one dessert.” “I’m only going to have two drinks.” “I’m not going to go back for seconds.” Decide in your heart in advance what you’re going to do, and then stick to it.

Get full on fruits and vegetables. The first time you attack the spread, you’re at your hungriest, and your first plate can be the most devastating because everything looks delicious. Put fruits, vegetables, and other healthy options on your plate first—once you’ve taken the edge off your hunger, you can more responsibly evaluate what delicacies you actually want to eat.

Be mindful of drinking your calories. Drinks, whether alcoholic or not, can be a tremendous source of extra calories, because they don’t make you full. And alcohol—even a little bit—can take away your willpower to stick to your eating plan. If you’re the multiple-drinks sort, alternate your grown-up beverages with full glasses of water.

With Family

Visiting family might be the toughest. Family don’t care if you want to lose weight. Family don’t want to eat no raw carrots on Thanksgiving. Family want to throw every succulent calorie grenade they have at you, because Family love you.

Many of us have a family member—a mother, an aunt, a grandmother—for whom love is expressed in terms of calories served. The reality is that in other people’s homes, you’re not always going to have access to healthy options without making a nuisance of yourself. Make the best choices you can, one meal at a time.

Within that framework, there’s a discipline you can cultivate—not just for the holidays, but year round. It’s called hara hachi bu: eating until you’re 80% full. Don’t stuff yourself until you can’t possibly eat any more; slow down and learn to listen to the satiety signals your body sends you.


There’s no magic bullet. Maintaining your weight during the November–December caloric apocalypse takes effort, vigilance, and self-discipline. Take good decision making one day at a time, one meal at a time—that’s how we form good habits, and that’s how we make it through.

Read more from Josh and the sustainable struggle series here.

Joshua Danker-Dake is the author of the acclaimed comic novel The Retail. A writer and editor by trade, he also serves as the Strategy and Tactics Editor for Diplomacy World, the flagship publication of the Diplomacy hobby. Beyond health and fitness, other things he gets rather excited about include He-Man and the Masters of the Universe, bombastic European power metal, and St. Louis Cardinals baseball.

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