I hope you enjoy reading this while reclined in front of your Christmas tree, eating a plate full of homemade Christmas cookies. 

I hope even more so, that you’ve been to the gym today and got some lifting done, so those cookies know where to go – towards your gains.

Gains (for the sake of this article) – improvements in athletic ability, strength, endurance, recovery, and/or muscle hypertrophy. Ideally, gains are made with a slight to moderate increase in calorie consumption, as to not add an unwanted amount of body fat during gains season.

“I want to make gains in strength after that heavy lifting session, so when I get home, I’m going to eat 5 Santa cookies along with my eggs for lunch.”

We all know the holidays are packed with good food, (hopefully) good company, and great treats that are lurking everywhere you look. Some people choose to fight the holidays, announcing, “I will NOT gain more than 2 pounds this year!” Maybe you’re even bold enough to say you’re going to lose weight over the holidays, or at least try once it becomes 2017. I hope to convince you that you shouldn’t be afraid of the holiday food, the possible weight gain that may accompany it, and the possible feelings of disappointment that may accompany that.

This is the best time of year to change your mindset when it comes to “treating yourself.”

I’ve been sticking with a very consistent diet for approximately 9 years now, and I look forward to the holiday treats because I don’t eat those types of food very frequently throughout the rest of the year. I already have a plan and I know I can stick to it because I’ve practiced it more than you (yes, you). Over several days surrounding Christmas, my usual diet of carbs filled with fiber-rich oats, sweet potatoes, rice, and beans changes slightly. Some, but not all of those foods, are replaced with tastier, season-friendly carbs – such as popcorn balls, almond bark pretzels, Santa cookies, and peanut butter stars.

The reason I believe most people go overboard during the holidays is not because of the food itself, although usually higher in calories and void of nutrients, but because of the lack of adjustment regarding their “usual” diet.

See the interesting graph below, showing which time of year that people are gaining the most weight in the United States, Germany and Japan. Clearly, the spike during December to January speaks for itself.

New England Journal of Medicine

If you’re someone who continues to eat your normal diet, exercises the same amount at the same intensity, and adds on a few (or several) Christmas goodies per day, you can bet you’re going to start the new year with some “new you” in places you didn’t want more of you. The key, to me, is not avoiding “unhealthy” foods (because they’re so dang delicious and should be enjoyed during this time of year anyways), but keeping your overall calories and macronutrients in check. For example, when it comes to going overboard on carbs (which is most likely with cookies around) and calories in general, consider:

Want a nice slab of fruitcake with dinner? Don’t eat your usual bowl of oats with fruit and brown sugar in the morning, but be sure to eat a few servings of veggies to keep your fiber intake up, which you would lose by skipping the oats. You’ll get plenty of carbs from the fruitcake.

Want to sample a little of the seven different kinds of Christmas cookies you’re making with your family this Saturday afternoon? Probably don’t need to have cereal for breakfast (how about eggs?), potatoes with dinner, or popcorn with the movie that night. The number of carbs you eat that day will likely even out, or at least be close to a normal day.

See how each choice you’re making comes from a conscious decision about the entire day? No need to freak out about calories or an extra hour of cardio 4 days per week in December. Just think about what you’re eating and how much you’re eating of each certain type of food. If you want to, track what you eat for a few days and see how many calories you really are eating during the holidays compared to your usual diet.

When it comes to exercise, keep it consistent and you’ll be just fine. The ideal time for me to eat Christmas goodies (and you can experiment for yourself) is after resistance training and running or some other type of cardio. I feel better, don’t end up sluggish an hour later, and I don’t get any sugar-high stomach aches. The muscles are primed to inhale the carbs and protein you eat post-workout, and if you’re going to enjoy something you normally wouldn’t eat on a regular basis, use those carbs for good – like increases in strength and muscle mass – instead of for bad – like an extra roll to go with your Hawaiian dinner rolls.