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The Panel: Holiday Eating

Bodybuilders are arguably some of the most rigid athletes around. The attention to detail needed to become successful results in a monotonous and repetitive life. But what happens over the holidays? Are they supposed to forget what they're doing and go off the rails, or do they just completely avoid social gatherings? We got the Animals together to discuss what they do and do not do when it comes to holiday eating.

Evan Centopani

As we begin to move into the holiday season, we must consider our individual goals. If you are a serious competitive bodybuilder and happen to find yourself in contest preparation during the holidays, then treat that day as you would any other. Time waits for no one; every day of contest prep is an opportunity to move closer to being your absolute best come the day of the show. When I diet, I have a base diet that I follow but I make fairly regular adjustments as needed. Oftentimes, these small adjustments are made day to day. For example, if I were in a contest prep and I woke up Thanksgiving morning flat and in need of more calories, I would use what was available to me to boost my calories and refuel myself. Would I eat like a pig and have a bunch of crap? No. I already know, more or less, what is going to be available to me on a day like Thanksgiving. Protein is plentiful in the forms of turkey and possibly a roast, there is no shortage of veggies, and carbs can be had from sweet potatoes. So while I might increase portions of these foods, it’s all pretty standard.

But there is only so much turkey and sweet potato I can eat. If I happen to be looking for a punch of extra calories, I might start looking to other foods. However, I have to consider the fact that in a contest prep, I eat a lot of food—6 times daily. If I eat anything that is going to mess up my stomach and prevent me from eating on time, my overall food consumption for the day might end up being less than normal. Not what I want. So I am careful to select foods that I know are not going to mess up my stomach and therefore my total food intake.

For example, I know that I can get away with eating apple pie and feel totally fine, whereas mashed potatoes will wreck my stomach (likely from all the butter and milk). If I’m looking for extra calories that won’t bother my digestion, I have no problem eating several pieces of something like apple pie. If I did not need extra calories on a holiday day, I would either bring my own food if I was not confident in the food being served or I would eat some turkey, plainly prepared sweet potato and veggies, and stay strict on my diet.

Whether or not I can get away with eating freely on a day like Thanksgiving in the middle of a prep is irrelevant. I’ve learned that in times of serious training, you have to do whatever you can to bolster your confidence. You can feel good about knowing that you adhered strictly to your diet. Conversely, knowing that you indulged for no other reason than everyone else was doing the same can only cause guilt and doubt. So if I were in a prep, I would eat accordingly regardless of the holiday. That can mean eating without deviation or it can mean eating above maintenance.

On the other hand, I take the same approach to eating in the off-season. I never eat in a way that will upset my stomach or impede my ability to consume the volume of food that I need to consume. That is always rule number one. The main difference for me in the off-season vs pre-contest is that, whether I need increased calories or not, I will eat them and enjoy the holiday. How much will I eat? As much as I can tolerate without causing discomfort. I’m not one to binge eat or to eat all sorts of crap. Not only do I not tolerate it every well, but I don’t have much of a desire for it. But in an off-season, at least for me, eating enough is a challenge so I welcome the opportunity to eat more during a holiday.

In the end, holiday eating and how to approach it is an individual matter. If I were going to give any advice or guidelines, I would say to always eat in a way that supports your goals. If you’re in a prep, take that seriously; doing so will help you both physically and mentally. If you’re due for a refeed, do so responsibly. Never eat in a way that will make you sick, and if you have an eating disorder, don’t let the holidays throw you off course if you’re on track. Finally, whenever possible, enjoy yourself and your time with friends and family. If you’re not training for something, take a breather and let loose a little bit.

John Jewett

As I have progressed through the ranks, I have fewer cheat meals in the off-season. Holiday foods are typically easy to get close to your normal daily food selection, so with a reasonable portion I don’t consider it a cheat meal. Holiday meals have become more about the family experience than a focus on food choices.

An ideal holiday meal would be 8-10 oz of turkey and ham. I limit the higher fat sides, bring my own rice and sometimes mashed potatoes to the meal, and eat as much vegetables as I want.

Training is always structured, so my training won’t vary over the holidays. If the holiday lands on an off day, I will still go to the gym and at least do some cardio, abs, calves, and arms. I will do extra walking for the day to make up for the extra calories and to aid digestion. I also shift carbs and fats from other meals to my holiday meal to not go over my daily calorie intake by too much.

Gary Turner

On holidays, I eat my normal meals on plan until the final 2 meals which I substitute with the holiday meal. I then eat my fill. I eat a modest dessert because those types of foods really don’t have any benefit to a bodybuilder. On 2-day holidays (such as Christmas Eve and Christmas Day), I choose one of those days to stay on plan and the other for eating. This depends on when I'm training.

I allow myself as much turkey, ham, stuffing, sweet potatoes, and other sides as I want, but within reason. I don’t eat to get sick. I limit desserts to just enough to satisfy a sweet tooth, and I usually take this opportunity to drink a diet soda which I normally do not do on training days.

Training is always structured so my training won’t vary over the holidays. If the holiday lands on an off day, I will take the day off. Nothing changes, whether it be scheduling or intensity of training. I do not do extra cardio to offset holiday meals as this serves as a scheduled “cheat meal” in the off-season. I utilize the extra calories to help me get bigger and reach new levels.

Vincenzo Masone

Thanksgiving is a day for me to relax and unwind. I eat whatever I like that day and don’t hold back. Unless of course a competition is near—then I will make adjustments accordingly. But for the most part, every year it’s just a normal day training in the morning as scheduled, and then I enjoy myself with as much food and desserts as I wish. Thanksgiving always lands in the off-season, so when I am trying to maximize my bodyweight, it’s a perfect day to take advantage to load up.

Derek Lunsford

Thanksgiving is more about the experience than anything else. Being with family is what makes Thanksgiving, and any other holiday, meaningful. The food is nice because it’s different than the general bodybuilder diet, but the food is not what makes Thanksgiving special. Generally I eat fairly clean, sticking to bodybuilder type meals during the day. In the evening, when family gets together, I tend to pick at the appetizers and food that everybody made/brought.

When it comes to picking my food at Thanksgiving dinner, I like to decide ahead of time whether I’d like to keep my fats low or my carbs low. At my house, I know I’m going to be eating a higher carb meal. So what I do is try to lower the amount of fat I consume. I don’t specifically count macros or calories, but I’m generally aware of what has higher fat/carbs in each food. I may skip a certain dish just because it has higher fats, but the carbs are still going down.

In my off-season I typically go by how I feel. If I need a rest day I’ll take one. But I do prefer training on days I know I’m eating more food, especially a Thanksgiving meal. The hard part for some people, depending where you live, can be finding a gym that’s open. It’s important that you schedule ahead of time. Call the local gyms and ask what their holiday hours are. If you want something bad enough, you will find a way to make it happen. Will I train? You better believe it!

I like to schedule a little extra cardio when I know I’m going to be devouring food at a holiday get together. Big meals call for big training and burning more calories overall. Typically I will add more cardio on the days I’m eating heavier if I want to keep my weight and body fat to a minimum.

Discipline and family do not have to conflict with each other. If you’re disciplined enough, then you can train and spend the entire day with your family. Again, if you want something bad enough you will find a way to make it happen.

I’m a sweet tooth kind of guy. I have always loved desserts of all kinds, but I also know what the sugar will do to me physically and mentally. I know from my experience that once I take one bite of sweets, I always come back for more. Best thing for me is to just avoid sugary foods. I’m not saying I won’t have them on occasion, but once it starts it’s hard to stop the sugar cravings.

Live your best life with those who love you and don’t stress.

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