During the holidays, food isn’t just food. It’s a delicious experience loaded with tradition and temptation. But if you’re not careful, in the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, the indulgent delights of stuffing, mashed potatoes, pumpkin pie and eggnog can become the harsh reality of extra pounds.
The good news? A study by the National Institutes of Health concluded that, on average, most of us gain only about one pound between mid-November and mid-January. It doesn’t sound like much until you consider that an extra holiday pound doesn’t typically melt away after the ball drops in Times Square. Instead, it’s a catalyst. Studies show that holiday weight gain is a major contributor to weight gain throughout the year.
Plus, the one-pound holiday weight surplus is an average. “In my experience, there are plenty of people who gain more like six to eight pounds,” says Linda Spangle, a weight-loss counselor and author of 100 Days of Weight Loss.
Still, the holidays don’t have to be a big issue. To survive the season and beyond with your waistline intact, party healthy, not hearty. The key is developing strategies that keep your portions—and your appetite—under control. These temptation-taming tactics can help.
Have a Game Plan. “For several days before a holiday party, cut back on both fat and calories,” says Riska Platt, RD, a nutrition consultant for the Cardiac Rehabilitation Center at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. That way, you’ll be able to eat a little more without worrying about it. But never arrive at your celebration starving, or you’ll overeat. Instead, have a piece of fruit, a small salad or a cup of low-fat yogurt before leaving home. A solid snack will keep you from pouncing on the bowl of nuts or potato chips as soon as you arrive.
Cook in Your Skinny Jeans. If you’re doing the cooking for the party, slip into something less comfortable while you’re working away in the kitchen. Tight clothing will help you remain aware of your waistline and curb the urge to nibble. If you’re wearing an apron, tie it snugly.
Prevent a Test Fest. If you’re preparing a dish you’ve never made before, go ahead and taste along the way. But use a teaspoon and sip water frequently to cleanse your palate. If you’re making a repeat recipe, there’s no need to taste test. Pop in a stick of gum to curb the urge to nibble.
Use Delay Tactics. When you arrive at a party or family gathering and it’s time for drinks and appetizers, have a glass of seltzer, seltzer mixed with fruit juice or diet soda. Hold off on the hors d’oeuvres and cocktails for a while and mingle without anything. “The longer you put off eating and drinking alcohol, the less time you’ll have to overindulge,” says Cathy Nonas, RD, author ofOutwit Your Weight. Moreover, research shows that consuming alcohol and high-fat appetizers may cause you to eat more during the main course.
To avoid feeling deprived and pressured to partake, pour your seltzer, juice spritzer or diet soda in a wine or high-ball glass. “No one will know you’re having a completely low-damage drink,” Spangle says. If others offer you food or pressure you to indulge, avoid saying: “No thank you. I’m watching my weight.” “That will draw you into uncomfortable conversations about why you really shouldn’t be a party pooper,” Spangle says. A better idea: Repeat this comeback: “Not just yet. I’m going to wait a little while.” “It’s a magical line, one that most people won’t challenge,” Spangle says.
Limit Your Choices. At holiday parties with an appetizer or buffet spread, “Follow the rule of two,” says Brian Wansink, Ph.D., director of the food and brand lab at Cornell University and author of Slim by Design. That is, don’t put more than two foods on your plate at any given time. By doing so, “you’ll intuitively limit your choices, while focusing on your favorite foods so you don’t feel deprived,” he says.
In one study Wansink conducted, participants who followed that guideline ended up eating 36 percent less over the course of an evening compared to those who didn’t. At sit-down dinners, use a different strategy: Go ahead and fill three-quarters of your plate with healthy, lower-calorie options, such as salads, grain dishes and vegetables, and reserve the remaining quarter of your plate for anything you want, whether or not it’s low calorie. Then savor each and every bite.
Beware of seconds. Another helping of mashed potatoes (110 calories), a slice of turkey breast (120) and a narrow sliver of pecan pie (215) don’t seem like much. But do the math and you’ll discover that “just a little but more” can easily add up to more than 440 calories and about 14 grams of fat. To tame temptation, take a 20-minute intermission. Have a cup of tea, or hang out in the living room away from the holiday spread, to see if the urge to refill your plate passes.
Stash Leftovers Out of Sight. Once your holiday dinner is over, store leftover turkey, stuffing, mashed potatoes and the like in opaque containers. Or, “wrap leftovers in aluminum foil, not plastic wrap,” says Gerald J. Musante, Ph.D., author of The Structure House Weight Loss Plan. We’re all on a see-food diet. The mere sight of food can stimulate your appetite and cue you to eat when you didn’t plan to, he says. By hiding food in plain sight, you won’t be constantly tempted every time you open the refrigerator.
Exercise Daily. Throughout the holiday season, squeeze in exercise every day, even if it means just putting in a 20-minute yoga DVD after the kids have gone to bed. Working out quells your stress level, boosts metabolism and provides a feeling of well-being that can fuel your resolve to eat healthy. “When you exercise consistently, you’re less likely to say, ‘Oh, forget about it. I’m just going to pig-out tonight,’” Spangle says.
Sandra Gordon is an award-winning freelance writer who delivers expert advice and the latest developments in health, nutrition, parenting and consumer issues.