Celebrate a Healthy Holiday

By Sharon Palmer, RD

Are your holidays a flurry of chocolate boxes, cookie trays, cocktail parties and dinner buffets? If you find yourself gasping for breath by New Year’s Eve as you struggle to zip up your favorite party attire, you’re not alone. People commonly complain of holiday weight struggles, and scientists are beginning to understand the significance of this seasonal danger zone for weight gain.

A few studies have explored whether the holiday battle with the bulge is based on fact or myth. Researchers from the National Institutes of Health (NIH) studied weight gain during the six-week interval between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day in 195 healthy volunteers, reporting their findings in the New England Journal of Medicine.

They discovered that the participants gained an average of 1.05 pounds. That doesn’t sound like much, but when the study participants were weighed a year later, they still hadn’t dropped that extra pound. More significantly, weight gain was greater among individuals who were overweight or obese, with 14 percent gaining more than five pounds.

Don’t Let the Season Weigh You Down

The researchers also found that two factors protected against weight gain: Those who said they were much more active or much less hungry were the least likely to gain weight over the holidays.

In a 2006 Nutrition Journal study, Thanksgiving weight gain was investigated among 94 college students. A significant amount of body weight gain was discovered between the pre- and post-Thanksgiving holiday. On average, males gained 1.3 pounds, females 0.9 pounds, graduate students 1.8 pounds, and participants classified as overweight/obese gained 2.2 pounds.

What’s the big deal about gaining a couple of extra pounds over the holidays? Most people don’t appear to forge a successful New Year’s resolution to shed those extra holiday pounds later on. Research suggests that Americans are steadily gaining an average of 0.4 to 1.8 pounds each year during their adult lives. And the holidays may be the most likely season for packing some of that weight on. So this year, try a “zero weight gain” campaign.

Tips to lighten up your holidays
• Reserve calories. If you have a dinner invitation in the evening, save your extra calories for later by eating a lighter lunch. For example, instead of a thick deli sandwich, choose a grilled chicken Caesar salad without the dressing.

• Exercise, exercise, exercise. This is not the time of year to put off exercise. Burn off some of those extra holiday calories by cramming in even more physical activity, which offers an added bonus of holiday stress reduction.

• Don’t skip breakfast. Research shows that people who skip breakfast make up for those calories (and then some) later on. Fill up on a nutritious breakfast that includes a serving of whole grain, protein (dairy, soy, eggs or lean meats) and fruit to quell hunger pains later on.

• Watch out for the holiday goodie tray. For every tiny cookie and piece of fudge on the holiday cookie platter, you’re looking at about 100 calories that can add up very quickly.

• Don’t starve yourself. Don’t walk into a party with a growling stomach. That can derail your best intentions for healthful food selections. Take the edge off your hunger pangs with a pre-party snack of high-fiber fruit like an apple or pear.

• Take stock of the buffet table. Before you plunge into the first luscious party platter, walk the buffet line and locate the lightest, healthiest choices on the table. Look for green salads, broth-based soups, vegetables, poultry and seafood without sauces, and fruits.

• Fill up on high-fiber, low-calorie foods. Pile your dinner plate high with foods that fill you up quickly and stay with you – such as vegetables, fruits, whole grains and beans. Add a lean meat serving for balance.

• Size counts. If you plan on dipping into the party quiche, cut the portion in half to shave off hundreds of calories. You can still enjoy sampling something new at the holiday table while filling up the rest of your plate with lighter choices like salads or vegetables.

• More talking, less eating. Remember, holiday parties are about good conversation, not just camping out at the food table where the calories are waiting.

• Beware of calories from alcoholic beverages. Some holiday cocktails like spiked eggnog can rake in more calories than a slice of pumpkin pie. Try a wine spritzer to trim potentially hundreds of calories.

• Be the one who brings a healthy dish. No need for temptation when you are bringing the lightest, healthiest dish to the holiday party. Tote along shrimp cocktail, roasted skinless chicken, a fresh vegetable platter, or a fruit salad.

• Treat yourself. If you go all season without tasting your aunt’s famous pecan pie, you might be setting yourself up for a holiday binge. Make smart food choices during all the holidays to allow wiggle room to splurge on a small piece of your favorite treat.

Sharon Palmer, RD is a Registered Dietitian and writer covering health, wellness, nutrition, cooking, wine, restaurant reviews, and entertainment. She is passionate about environmental issues, eco-friendly culinary practices, sustainability, food safety, humane animal practices, and food security.

Sharon’s features have been published in a variety of publications, including Better Homes and Gardens, Prevention, Oxygen, LA Times, Cooking Smart, Delicious Living, Food Product Design, Today’s Dietitian, and Culinology. She has contributed to several books, including “Food & Cultural Issues for the Culinary, Hospitality and Nutrition Professions.”

Her new book, “The Plant-Powered Diet: The Lifelong Eating Plan for Achieving Optimal Health, Beginning Today,” is now available in bookstores. For more information, please visit http://www.sharonpalmer.com.

The articles written by guest contributors are the sole responsibility of the individual writers in terms of factual accuracy and opinion and do not necessarily reflect the views of the publisher of this blog.

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