The holiday season usually means lots of parties, food-related gifts, and decadent family recipes. It’s easy to see how we can over-indulge on these tempting and nostalgic treats. According to research published as a letter to the editor in in September’s New England Journal of Medicine, most American’s record their lowest weight in the first week of October and their highest just after New Year’s.
Wouldn’t it be nice if we could celebrate the holiday season with a little food and festivity without gaining 10 pounds? I think we can. It’s all about finding balance. Here are some tips I use for enjoying the holidays without gaining unhealthy weight.
Be a health-conscious host and guest. Whether you are hosting or invited to a party where you are expected to bring a dish to share, why not bring a tasty and healthy option or offer a menu that mixes healthy choices with more traditional items? If you’re hosting, set out bite-sized, healthy snacks such as air-popped popcorn, raisins, or nuts in pretty containers with slightly narrow openings. Your guests won’t be tempted to keep reaching for the snacks; they’ll have to pick up the glass and pour a few into their hand. Bonus, this method also prevents the spread of illnesses. Also, present food in various locations to encourage activities and mingling as well as eating.
If you’re a guest, remember that fresh fruit and chopped raw vegetables with a light dressing make a nice complement to all of the rich items available. Sweet and crispy roast vegetables or mashed roast vegetables are delicious and lighter than the cream-laden vegetables often found at holiday meals. Plus, if you bring it, you are certain to have something you like that is good for you too.
If you are planning a get-together, why not take the focus off food entirely. Turn candy- and cookie-making time into a time to create a non-edible project like wreaths or ornaments to give as gifts, for example. Playing a board game or going on a walking tour of decorated homes are nice ways to connect without an over emphasis on food.
Anticipate the challenges. Many of us have attended the same parties (with the same recipes) year after year. If you always overdo it on the pre-dinner cheese-and-crackers platter, take note now. Likewise, you might look forward to the tastiest of the healthier items your host typically serves. Knowing what to expect along with your strengths and weaknesses are will help you make a good plan.
And don't go to a party hungry. Saving up your appetite can have disastrous results. We often eat faster and more when we are hungry. An empty stomach can set us up to make poor choices. To avoid gobbling, eat a wholesome breakfast and lunch on the day to avoid overeating when the party food comes out.
Watch your portions. There are two or three approaches to managing portions. You can try choosing one of the special things from those available. For instance, you might choose a glass of wine before dinner or a dessert afterwards. Otherwise, your meal would be made up of the same portions of protein, carbohydrates, and vegetables you would eat during a normal meal.
Alternatively, you could have a bite (but just a bite) of everything offered. This way you can sample all the different foods. Most people would do better with even a combination of these methods—a bite of everything and a full serving of a favorite, for instance—than with no strategy at all.
In a worst case scenario, if you find that you have overeaten at one meal, go light on the next. It takes around 500 calories per day (or 3,500 calories per week) above your normal/maintenance consumption to gain one pound. It is impossible to gain weight from one piece of pie! No matter how you moderate, moderation is the key.
Watch your beverages. Drinking almost anything other than water is an easy way to accumulate extra calories. The calories in beer, ciders, wine, and other alcoholic beverages can add up fast. In fact, a holiday-sized mixed drink can have as many as 500 calories or more! (And alcoholic beverages can make it more difficult to moderate consumption of high calorie foods, too.) Try reduced calorie versions or alcohol-free versions. Traditional eggnog, for instance, is usually made with egg yolk and thick cream, but there are lots of healthier versions available in stores. You can even find soy nog!
If you enjoy the high-calorie drinks, have one then switch to water. I love to add fresh fruit, vegetables, and herbs like mint or basil to water. Cucumber and lemon slices are a refreshing combination. Not only do they taste delicious, they make ordinary water more festive looking.
Don’t forget to be active. Create a tradition of a brisk walk with your loved ones or a game of backyard football to get your family and friends off the couch and into the fresh air.
Whatever you do, don’t diet! The word “diet” signifies a beginning and an end. Anticipation of food restriction sets you up for binge eating over the holidays (“After all, if I’m never going let myself eat this again after January 1, I might as well eat as much as possible now!”) Besides, restrictive diets don’t work in the long run. They increase your loss of lean body mass compared with fat, slow down your metabolism, and increase anxiety, depression, food preoccupation, and binge eating. They actually make weight re-gain more likely. Instead, focus on increasing your consumption of healthy items or making a small change that you can maintain for a lifetime.
Imagine success. Most of us don’t enjoy the often-painful overstuffed feeling we can sometimes experience after a big holiday meal. Before the party, imagine what it will be like to have made a well-balanced selection of foods, to have truly enjoyed every bite, and to be perfectly and delightfully full. By following some of these steps and perhaps some of your own, you will have the gratification of knowing that you celebrated well and healthfully.
Kristin Irace RD, LDN, is a registered dietitian at Southwestern Vermont Medical Center. “Health Matters” is a column meant to educate readers about their personal health, public health matters, and public policy as it affects health care.