Healthy Eating At the Holidays

by Brick O’Neil

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday December 17, 2008

We survived the endless Thanksgiving buffets and meals intact, but we still have Christmas Eve and day, New Years Eve and day, and Valentines. Not to stress, here are holiday eating tips.

Physician John La Puma, MD, says it well: even totally out-of-control days won't lead to significant weight gain if you have only few of them a year. "I think the idea of feasting that Thanksgiving represents is kind of lost in American society because we tend to feast all year long," he tells WebMD. "The problem isn't Thanksgiving, it is the fact that many people don't stop eating between Thanksgiving and the New Year," he says.

Pete Thomas of Biggest Loser fame has some tips to share:

  • Enjoy the foods you really love in reasonable portions, but skip the foods you don't.

  • Plan activities to compliment the day that everyone can do together. "Make it about more than just the food," he says.

  • If you are the cook or are contributing to the holiday meal, make a dish that you like that meets your nutritional needs.

  • Clear the table and put the food away immediately after the big meal and send food home with guests.

  • Have reasonable expectations.

    When preparing a holiday meal, know your serving sizes. Keep track of how much food you're making and keep in mind how many guests are coming. Usually a pie or cake serves 10 to 16 people; therefore you may decide you only need to make one dessert. If you're hosting only a couple of guests, serve a slice of pie on a dessert plate or Cr?me Brule in a ramekin dish. Likewise, if your cake makes two layers, frost only one, and then you can freeze the other for another occasion.

    Look for nutritional opportunities when preparing or indulging. Many foods we eat during the holidays are healthier than you think; containing antioxidants and nutrients that may help prevent disease. For example, one baked sweet potato contains nearly 500 percent of the recommended daily amount of vitamin A and almost 50 percent of your vitamin C. "There's an added benefit to obtaining these vitamins, minerals, and phytochemicals from a variety of foods, since they work synergistically to create positive health effects," says Melissa Ohlson, R.D., a spokesperson for the Cleveland Clinic Heart Center.

    But don't stress about weight gain. Myth holds that people put on five to seven pounds during the holidays. However, the average weight gain during the six-week span from Thanksgiving to New Year's is just less than one pound, according to a yearlong study of nearly 200 people published in The New England Journal of Medicine. Even though enjoying delicious holiday dishes might not increase your waistline by as much as you'd expect, calorie consciousness is still important. "Create a calorie deficit by exercising to burn off extra calories before you ever indulge in your favorite foods", suggests Connie Diekman, MEd, RD, former president of the American Dietetic Association (ADA).

    While you might think it makes sense to save up calories for the big meal, experts say eating a small meal in the morning can give you more control over your appetite. Start your day with a small but satisfying breakfast -- such as an egg with a slice of whole-wheat toast, or a bowl of whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk -- so you won't be starving when you arrive at the gathering. The old adage holds true: drink a glass or two of water before partaking in that holiday meal.

    Last, another great trick to losing weight and enjoying both the meal and guests: Eating slowly. Put your fork down between bites, and taste each mouthful. This is one of the easiest ways to enjoy your meal and feel satisfied with one plate full of food, experts say. Finally, just the simple act of recording what you eat can help you cut calories. In a recent study of 1,685 adults published in the American Journal of Preventive Medicine, the more food records a person kept, the more weight they lost.

    Brick is an Health & Fitness contributer.