The holiday season brings us some of our most beloved American traditions: gift exchanges, bright lights, heated family debates and, of course, overeating.
Between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, the average person gains about a pound, according to the National Institutes of Health. But there's a catch — that pound represents well over half of the average adult's annual weight gain. As a result, NIH experts have concluded, holiday eating is a major factor in lifetime weight gain and a key contributor to obesity. Fortunately, there are ways to manage the season to limit your gains and protect your losses.
1. Maintenance Is a Worthy Goal. Simply maintaining your weight during the holiday season should be considered a victory. Note what you weighed before Thanksgiving and go back on the scale twice a week — always in the morning, before you eat — through Jan. 1. If you see your weight creeping up, put more energy into working out and shrink your non-holiday meals.
2. Before a Feast, Avoid a Fast. It seems obvious: You're having a big dinner tonight, so to keep from gaining weight, you should skip breakfast or lunch — or both. The only problem: This is a terrible idea. Every weight-loss expert will tell you it's far better to eat regular, if smaller, meals before a big night out. If you show up at the party starving, you'll have a tougher time avoiding overeating — your body does need calories, after all, and when your stomach is empty, your brain takes longer to process a feeling of fullness, which can lead to you consume more than if you weren't quite so hungry. Considering that, and factoring in the calorie counts of some holiday dishes and drinks, the day could still end up a net loss (by which we mean a net gain) even if you skipped two meals. It’s actually wise to have a snack right before you head out the door for the night, like a handful of nuts and raisins, a cup of yogurt or a granola bar. We all tend to do a lot of snacking on arrival at a party. If you show up without hunger, you can better avoid those empty calories.
3. Tostitos or Uncle Bill’s Stuffing? It’s Your Call. You know what you want most at a holiday dinner: turkey or ham with all your favorite side dishes. Trouble is, the entree's not reaching the table for a couple of hours after you arrive. Instead, you're faced with an array of appetizers, like mini-hot dogs, chips and dip and cheese and crackers.
Remember this: Whether it's Christmas, Passover or Arbor Day, mindless eating is the biggest threat to any diet. When you let your mind check out and start grabbing cracker after cracker before a meal, you're torpedoing your healthy-eating strategy. You should pass on them altogether, following this philosophy: Eat the things you get only on the holiday and ignore the things you can have anytime. Veggies are an exception, of course, and if they're part of the appetizer mix, go ahead and munch (but without creamy dips). They’ll address your hunger until the main course is ready.
4. Fill Your Plate Once, Then Pretend You’re in France. Holiday dinners are often buffets, which are dangerous because they invite piling on and having seconds. Commit to filling your plate only once. Start with solid portions of turkey and veggies, then cover the rest of the real estate with a sampling of starches, making sure to get a bit of everything so you don’t feel cheated (and don't insult any family chefs). And do yourself this favor: Go easy on the sauces, especially if they’re made with cream or meat drippings. They can undo a lot of good work.
When you sit back down, chat, argue, marvel at the children and generally let your meal linger like you were a snooty European “slow food” devotee.
5. Stand Tall — and Away From the Food. Standing burns more calories than sitting. It’s also harder to manage a huge plate of food on your feet. So standing and chatting will serve you better than planting and gorging as the evening goes on. And while you're up, stroll away from the food. Lingering in the kitchen or at the buffet may not lead you to overeat, but it’ll sure make you think about it.
6. Be Last in Line for Dessert. One of the great things about holiday dinners is that they last a long time. Often, no one has to work the next day and everyone wants to savor the time with family and friends. Since no host wants to insult anybody by pulling away the dessert trays too soon, it's up to you to pace yourself. Try this: Be the last person to get dessert. That way, by the time you finish your first (and only) treat, everyone else may be almost through with their second. And when it comes to dessert, go with what's really special, like your sister-in-law’s chocolate cake, instead of store-bought cookies.
7. Alcohol Can Pack a Punch — and Calories. It's natural to have a drink or two at a holiday gathering, but keep in mind that alcohol lowers your inhibitions. In extreme cases, that can lead you to dance on the conference table at the end of the office party. But more often, it can mean you find yourself scarfing down fistfuls of candy at the end of a family gathering. Along with alcohol, holiday drinks can also be laden with calories, so watch your choices: While a glass of hard liquor or wine may check in at about 100 calories, a tumbler of egg nog has 450. Ho ho NO! Water, on the other hand, will boost your metabolism and help keep you feeling full, so it should be an important piece of your holiday dining plan.
8. Don't Negotiate With Yourself (or Kick Yourself). When you go out for a holiday dinner or party, make a plan and stick to it. Whether you intend to have just one or two drinks or one dessert, stay with the program. That internal voice saying, “OK, have two brownies, then skip breakfast tomorrow” is not your friend (if for no other reason than you shouldn't skip breakfast).
Similarly, don’t beat yourself up after a big night out. If you know you overdid it, you don’t need to go on a crash diet. If you’ve been steadily working to cut down, a holiday binge may set you back a few days, but if you get right back on track, the one-night lapse will fade into the rearview mirror like your uncle’s tacky lawn decorations.