Avoiding holiday weight gain

Halloween candy, Thanksgiving feasts and holiday parties: The last few months of the year can test even the most disciplined weight watcher. Deborah Balfanz, PhD, teaches a group behavior change/weight management class for the Health Improvement Program at Stanford and offers tips on how to reduce your caloric intake this season.

How much weight does the average American put on over the holidays?

Despite our worst fears, the average American really only puts on one pound during the holiday season — which doesn’t sound like much, unless you gain that extra pound year after year. 

What tips can you offer on managing the overabundance of food that comes with the holiday season?

First, try to remember that the holiday season is about more than just food. Next time you go to a holiday party, take time to admire the decorations. If there is entertainment, be sure to enjoy it. Focus on visiting with friends and family whom you haven’t seen in a long time. That said, be honest and acknowledge that it would be unrealistic not to indulge in some holiday treats. The key is to do it mindfully, and in moderation. 

One way to indulge "with purpose" is to make sure you don't show up to a party starving. You know you're not supposed to go grocery shopping on an empty stomach. The same is true for parties. Many people make the mistake of "saving up their calories" for the party. But that plan backfires because when we're ravenous; our self-control goes out the window and we consume way too many calories. Instead, consider eating a healthy snack before going to a party, such as yogurt mixed with high fiber cereal, or some hummus with veggies.

Once you're at the party, instead of going on “auto pilot” and digging into every dish, do a quick survey of the treats. Of the less healthy dishes, select two or three you really want to try. (For me, it's deviled eggs!) For the rest of the meal, stick to healthier options, such as crudité, fresh fruit, salads, and lean meats. To help ensure that there is a healthier food option, volunteer to bring some food to a party. Fresh veggies with a low-fat dip, fresh fruit, low-fat cheese and multi-grain crackers, whole wheat pita and hummus, or chilled shrimp are all healthy, easy-to-prepare options. And you know that the party host will appreciate it.

What about alcohol?

I'm not telling you not to drink, but alcohol is doubly disastrous for weight management. First, alcoholic drinks can be loaded with calories, and because we drink (rather than eat) them, we often fail to recognize them as a significant source of calories. Additionally, alcohol lowers inhibitions and increases the likelihood that we’ll go back for seconds (or thirds!) of that chocolate cake or deviled eggs.

Does it matter what I hold or where I stand?

Yes. When you’re at a party where appetizers abound, try to keep one hand “busy” by holding a cup of water or seltzer. Having only one hand free makes it harder to gobble untold calories’ worth of appetizers. As an added bonus, you can take sips of your drink, or crunch on ice, when you have the urge to eat something. Also, make a mental note not to hang around the food. We all know the expression, “Out of sight, out of mind.” The converse is also true. The more you see food, the more you’ll want it. To help curb unnecessary eating, don’t hang out near the buffet table or the bar at holiday parties.

What about the social graces around holiday eating?

If you're invited to a holiday meal at someone else's house, you might want to practice saying "no” before you go. This can be hard for many of us, but remember: just because someone offers you food doesn’t mean you have to accept. You can politely decline saying, “Thanks, it was delicious, but I’m stuffed.” If you feel really guilty, ask the host if you could take home some leftovers to enjoy later.

Can holiday stress affect our eating habits and our health? 

Living up to unrealistic expectations, along with added responsibilities, can make the holiday season a very stressful time. During times of stress, we tend to forgo healthy eating and give up exercise. This is unfortunate, as both are great ways of handling stress. Physical activity is a great stress reliever, as well as a way to keep our weight in check. While it might not be realistic to set aside a large chunk of time each day to devote to exercise, try to accumulate 15-20 minutes of daily walking. If you attend a party with music, be sure to hit the dance floor.

Make a concerted effort to protect your downtime. Whether it’s an invitation to a party, or a request to run an errand for someone, you have the right to politely decline. Most of us can tell when we reach the breaking point, but better to take it easy before you get there. Indulge in self-pampering. Most of us have special rituals we use to unwind, such as taking a long bubble-bath, meditating, dancing, or vegging under the covers with a good book. Ideally take 20 minutes to devote to yourself every day. If you don’t have a way to relax, think back to what you enjoyed as a child, and try that activity.

I’ve let myself down in the past. Why should I believe that things could be different this year?

I think the most important thing is to have realistic expectations about what will happen this year. During the holiday season, it’s especially important to take into account a particularly hectic schedule and proximity to tempting foods. Acknowledge that you will likely need to modify your regular routine. Instead of throwing all healthy behaviors out the window from October to December and swearing to be "perfect" come January, take steps to engage in the healthiest behaviors that you can, given the constraints of the holiday season. If you do that, you should have no trouble surviving the holiday season, and you might even enjoy yourself and actually thrive.

Interview conducted by Julie Croteau and edited by Lane McKenna Ryan.

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