Thanksgiving marked the start of the holiday season, which is a challenge for anyone trying to eat responsibly, since most holiday traditions center around food.
"The problem is that many people don't stop their holiday overeating during the six-week period between Thanksgiving and the New Year," said Julie Stefanec, RD, LD, Assistant Director of Food and Nutrition/Outpatient Dietitian at Salem Community Hospital.
"When people overeat, they tend to do so in binges, such as eating a large amount of food over a short period of time. The result is a couple of extra pounds around the hips or waist the following week. Parties and buffets usually present the greatest challenge, since dining in a group causes the average person to eat about 40 percent more calories than he or she normally would eat alone.
"Our culture teaches us that one way we show love is by encouraging people to eat more food," Julie advised. "The holiday foods we crave are often considered to be comfort foods and symbolize our desire for closeness and a return to happier times or fond memories. We need to educate people that healthy eating is a better way to show love rather than focusing so much on elaborate, high-fat, non-heart healthy meals."
Holiday Eating Tips
It's not easy to eat healthfully during the holidays. But with a little forethought and planning, you can still enjoy your favorite foods of the season.
Don't go to a party hungry: "We often eat faster and more when we are hungry," she cautioned. "Arriving at a party on an empty stomach usually leads to poor food choices and overeating. Never 'save up' your calories in advance during the day by not eating. Instead try to have a light, nutritious snack before you leave the house. You'll still be hungry enough to enjoy the holiday foods, but not so hungry that you overdo it."
Load Up on Low-Fat: "A good rule of thumb is to use about two-thirds of your plate for whole grains, fruits, and vegetables and one-third for other types of foods," Julie suggested, "then wait about 10 minutes after eating. If you still crave those high-calorie, high sugar content foods, chances are that you will only be able to eat them in smaller amounts.
"In addition, only eat the foods you really, really want. Pass up other items on the menu or buffet line for that special dish you look forward to all year long. Don't waste your calories on party munchies like chips or peanuts."
Slow Down: "Slowing down to chew your food sufficiently will help you eat less," Julie added. "Keep in mind that it takes about 20 minutes for your body to signal that it's feeling full. If you chew more slowly, you'll eat less while giving yourself time to know when you've had enough."
Washing it Down: What you drink during the holidays can add calories. Instead, try to drink water before, during and after your meal. Remember that many holiday drinks are loaded with calories:
- Eggnog = 350 calories for 1 cup, before adding alcohol
- Martini = 160 calories for 4 ounces
- Wine = 100 calories for 5 ounces
- Christmas ale = 225 calories per bottle
Be Realistic: Don't try to diet during the holidays, just aim to maintain your present weight. "The holiday season is the most difficult time of the year to lose weight," she continued. "Attempting to follow a strict eating plan can induce you to binge on the foods you tried to eliminate and cause you to gain weight. Instead, focus on maintaining your weight over the holidays by controlling food portion sizes, making healthier choices, and getting regular physical activity. When we're not eating well, we tend to avoid the scale. Studies show that weighing yourself every other day during the holidays will help you keep your weight down."
Get Moving: Ramping up your exercise regime is a great way to burn off some of those extra calories before the extra pounds appear. Make a goal between Thanksgiving and Christmas to achieve a certain number of exercise sessions or minutes working out.
Sleep and Stress: The holidays are an especially busy and stressful time of year, with shopping, cooking, and entertaining demands that may result in a lack of sleep. High levels of stress and low amounts of sleep are proven to make a person heavier. They put strain on your adrenal system, which leads to insulin sensitivity, increased hunger and more rapid aging. If you feel stressed and are sleeping less than seven hours a night, your body is more likely to hold onto its store of fat.
Get Back on Track: If you do indulge in some holiday overeating, don't panic. The best thing to do is to get back on schedule as soon as possible. Go to bed and get up at the usual times, eat regular meals, go exercise and try not to overindulge the rest of the week.
"The holiday season doesn't represent just one day of overeating," Julie concluded. "Food and celebrations go hand in hand, so try to follow your plan throughout the season and avoid those extra holiday pounds."
Julie Stefanec, RD, LD, is the Assistant Director of Food and Nutrition/Outpatient Dietitian at Salem Community Hospital.