The Medical Minute: Enjoy the holidays without packing on the pounds

By Jacklyn Van Arsdale

At this time of year, it is common to get caught up in the excitement and energy of social gatherings with friends and families where food and drink often serve as a centerpiece. It also is the season when baking sweet treats is more popular than usual. With all the festivities both at home and elsewhere, healthy eating and exercise are often put on the backburner. However, you do not want to regret too many tempting choices as you kick off the new year before too long.

Here are a dozen tips that could help you make better decisions as you navigate the holiday celebrations this year:

1. Holidays are special occasions. One special meal does not cause weight gain. The challenge comes when special occasions (holiday parties, dinners, and family gatherings) become frequent occurrences. Choose the events and the particular foods that are worth the splurge. Then adjust your exercise schedule and eating routine on the days surrounding the special occasion.

2. Don't deprive yourself. Labeling foods as “good” and “bad” can end up backfiring. Depriving ourselves of “bad” foods often causes us to crave the food more than ever. When we finally give in, we may feel so guilty that we decide we might as well eat the whole box. Instead, allow yourself a small portion of what you are truly craving.

3. Do not skip lunch before dinner. Skipping meals leads to ravenous hunger and over-eating until we are more stuffed than the turkey himself. Instead, eat your typical breakfast and lunch, and include protein and fiber to help you stay full until supper time.

4. Pay attention to the reasons behind why you are eating. Is your tummy grumbling? Is it because your Uncle Earl just made an uncomfortable comment? If you realize that you are heading towards the chips and dip as a result of stress or boredom, give yourself some options and consider another activity to alleviate the stress.

5. Start an active tradition. Bundle up and go for a walk, organize a holiday football game, or have a family Wii Fit tournament.

6. Make half your plate vegetables. This weight-loss tip can save hundreds of calories. Use the other half of your plate for small portions of your holiday favorites.

7. Watch the beverages. Alcoholic drinks, punch, sodas, and eggnog can rob our calorie “bank account” without contributing to a sense of fullness. If alcohol is part of your tradition, look for dry wine, Bloody Mary-type cocktails, or other lower-calorie options.

8. Drink plenty of water. It is easy to confuse thirst with hunger. Try this: 30 minutes before a meal, drink a large glass of water. (Note: for bariatric surgery patients- Do NOT eat and drink at the same time. Wait an hour or two after eating before having a beverage. Otherwise, the food will liquefy and drain through your new stomach, preventing you from feeling full.)

9. Going to a potluck? Bring the healthy fare. Make sure there will be at least one healthy dish you enjoy. Need an idea? Try a festive salad with mixed greens, cucumbers, tomatoes, dried cranberries, crumbled feta cheese and light balsamic vinaigrette.

10. Lean protein first, then the veggies. If there is any room left, enjoy a starch. Lean protein will help you stay full for a longer period of time. Veggies bring powerful vitamins, minerals, anti-oxidants, and even flavor. Carbohydrates are not bad and they do not need to be avoided. However, most of us will get plenty of carbs without the extra serving of mashed potatoes.

11. Prepare your vehicle. Busy shopping days can tempt us to stop for a less-than-healthy snack. Instead of being side-tracked by greasy burgers, steaming mochas, or a quick candy bar, stock your car with an "emergency food stash." Stock up on apples, string cheese, baby carrots, home-made trail mix with nuts, cereal, and raisins, or protein bars (Look for ones with fewer than 150 calories and 12 to 15 grams of protein). And don't forget the water bottles!

12. Try a salad plate for your supper. Eating from a smaller plate or bowl has been shown to significantly reduce the portions and calories we consume. Research also shows that diners who ate from smaller plates felt no less satisfied than those who consumed more calories.

May your holidays be enjoyable, delicious and guilt-free!

Jacklyn Van Arsdale is a clinical nutritionist with the Penn State Hershey Surgical Weight Loss program.

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Last Updated December 01, 2011