In the war against overeating, the holiday season presents a virtual minefield of tempting sweets and sumptuous feasts that can result in unwanted pounds.
Faced with these dangers, do we just hoist the white flag of surrender?
“No,” say dietitians. Arm yourself with strategies to sidestep the kind of indulgence that leads to remorse when January rolls around.
The pervasive “overabundance of treats and food” makes healthy holiday eating difficult, said Mandy Burbank, a registered dietician with the Grand Forks, N.D., Public Health Department.
“Whether it’s the treats that are brought to the workplace or the tradition of getting together to make Christmas cookies, there’s an overabundance of calories. And it’s around us all the time,” she said.
“It’s hard to say ‘no’ when you walk into the break room and see all those treats,” she said.
In cold weather, people tend to turn to comfort foods, “cooking like Grandma did and with less healthy ingredients,” said Jennifer Haugen, registered dietician with Altru Health System in Grand Forks.
People today “are more sedentary; we’re not walking behind a plow,” she said. “We’re sitting and tapping at a computer. But our [eating] habits don’t really change. ... We have to make it a priority to be active or to schedule [physical activity].”
The risk of gluttony lasts “from mid-November to the first of the year,” Burbank said, “when that New Year’s resolution attitude kicks in.”
• During the holidays, she suggests finding ways to get more exercise. “Sneak in more physical activity naturally, like parking in another lot that is farther from work,” Burbank said.
• On the job, don’t keep candy at your desk, she said. You’ll cut 125 extra calories a day by placing the dish out of sight or six feet away from your workspace.
• Plan ahead, said Haugen. “Have healthful foods, like low-fat yogurt, available so you don’t go to the break room and have to have that brownie.”
• When you bring a healthy snack to work and tell yourself, “This is my snack,” you’re engaging in “mindful,” not mindless, eating.
• Try to include fruits and vegetables in meals and snacks, she said. Choose foods that are high in fiber, are vitamin-rich, are more filling and have fewer calories.
• Stay hydrated throughout the day, Burbank said. “The body doesn’t distinguish between hunger and thirst,” she said. Drinking plenty of water “can stave off the hunger pangs that come with trying to restrict calories.”
• Make the foods you usually eat more appealing by incorporating cranberries or other colorful fruits, Burbank said. “Add cinnamon and Craisins or raisins to a bowl of oatmeal. When foods are more attractive, people will usually choose it.” This is especially true for children, who are drawn to food that’s “fun-looking and really bright, really colorful.”
As a host
Presentation is paramount, too, when you’re hosting a party at home, Burbank said.
“When you serve healthy food as the first items on a buffet and on fancy dishes, people generally take more,” she said.
“Start the line with really pretty fruit, a nice vegetable tray or fruit kabobs,” she said.
When meal planning, Haugen said, she was taught “to always look at the plate.”
A meal of turkey, mashed potatoes and corn “is a ‘tan plate,’” she said. Switch out some elements for “Brussels sprouts and sweet potatoes, or a spinach salad with pomegranate seeds and vinaigrette. You get all the holiday colors [as well as] healthful foods.”
Add fruits, such as apples or pears, into stuffing recipes, she said.
“By blending cranberries with Brussels sprouts, for example, and using seasonal vegetables to get good colors into food, you’re blending different flavors.”
Haugen recommends tweaking traditional and comfort foods. In mashed potatoes, for example, omit sour cream, cheese and butter, she said, and used mashed cauliflower instead.
“It gives a creamy texture, and you’ve added a vegetable,” she said.
As a guest
Burbank suggests reducing your calorie intake throughout the day if you’re planning to attend a party that night.
Before the party, eat a snack from two food groups, Burbank said. “Eating something high in fiber and something high in protein will keep you feeling fuller longer.”
She recommends eating a piece of fruit with low-fat cheese or whole-grain bread “so you’re not famished” when you go to the party.
When you’re hungry, those high-calorie foods “will look twice as tempting,” she said.
“What foods look best when you’re hungry? Those that are high-fat and high-sugar,” Haugen said. “Don’t skip meals, with the idea that you’re going to ‘save up’ calories for later. If you don’t skip meals, you’re more likely to make wiser choices.”
At the party, use a smaller plate, Burbank said. “You will eat less.”
She suggests drinking one calorie-filled beverage followed by one non-caloric beverage, such as water. People are not aware of the calories they consume from beverages as much as those from food, she said. “So, it’s a pretty good place to overindulge _ even with fruit punch, and especially if they’ve added 7-Up to it or a calorie-full soda, which oftentimes they do.”
Give nonfood gifts that encourage physical activity, such as passes to a local water park or bowling, she said. Or, instead of food, give a service, such as free baby-sitting.
Food is part of our culture, Burbank said. “It’s tied into all those feelings that go with it. We like to treat ourselves. We like to treat each other.”
Those emotional underpinnings of tradition make it tougher to choose healthier options.
“It’s hard to break those habits,” she said. “They need to be not broken, but maybe adjusted a bit. ...
“Enjoy those traditional foods that you look forward to, just eat less of them.”