In Korea, the winter holidays are celebrated with tokkuk, a specially prepared soup made with rice cakes. North Americans should be so lucky; instead of slurping bowls of healthful, low-calorie broth, our holiday eating traditions lean more toward meat-and-cheese platters, oily potato pancakes, and boozy cocktails. It’s not exactly healthful fare, which is why many of us rate the holidays as a time of year for dietary disasters.
To guide you through this year’s party circuit, we went to the pros—registered dietitians, nutrition professors, and professional eating coaches—and compiled their top eating strategies. Follow their advice, and you can expect to go to five parties in five days without gaining unwanted pounds. You won’t have to skip your favorite foods, either, because not one of our experts advocates rigorous self-denial or suggests that you chuck the seasonal foods you love—treats such as sweet potato casserole, a slice of Christmas ham, or sugar cookies—for tasteless substitutes. Still, feasting on a nice bowlful of rice-cake soup every now and then wouldn’t hurt you.
Avoid caloric catastrophes
Before you attend festivities, “it’s imperative that you continue to eat balanced meals throughout the day,” says Andrea Beaman, a holistic health counselor and macrobiotics advocate from New York City. “Don’t go to the party hungry,” she warns, “because that leads to the temptation to pig out on all of the snack foods—chips, dip, finger foods, desserts, and other highly refined foods.” Eating balanced meals will keep you physically satisfied, and then “you can have a little bit here, a little bit there, without overdoing it.”
At the buffet or dinner table, “go for taste,” advises Mitzi Dulan, a registered dietitian and sports nutritionist from Kansas City, Kansas. “I make an appetizer that I call the Baked Brie Bomb. It’s so rich that most people hit their limit after a few nibbles. You would be in big trouble if you ate the whole thing, but I find that a few mouthfuls of something flavorful is more satisfying than loading up on low-cal items,” she says.
Beaman agrees that a little morsel of rich food, savored, can be very satisfying, but she suggests filling up on fresh fruits and vegetables first and hitting the chips with creamy spinach dip second. “The more vitamin-rich, nutrient-dense food you put into your body, the less room you have for the other stuff.” Megan McCrory, PhD, a research associate professor at the school of nutrition and exercise science at Bastyr University in Kenmore, Washington, opts for lower-calorie-per-bite items such as lean meats, plain sweet potatoes or mashed potatoes without the gravy, fresh vegetables, and healthier desserts such as slivers of apple or pumpkin pie.
When festivities run round the clock, McCrory believes it’s critical to avoid snacking between meals—adding perhaps hundreds of calories to your per diem total—unless your next meal isn’t for several hours. It’s tempting to pig out on the tin of Danish butter cookies with the promise that you’ll deny yourself at the next meal. But McCrory warns that eating refined carbohydrate- and sugar-laden snacks actually tends to make you eat more later because the quickly digested food causes a spike in blood sugar—followed by a rebound decrease that stimulates hunger pangs.
Finally, “always chew well,” says Beaman. “The more you chew, the more the body makes a connection that food is there and is satisfied.”
Maintain a reasonable workout schedule
Several of our experts pointed out that at any time of the year, weight control boils down to balancing the number of calories you consume with how many you burn. For Paul Spencer, an athletic trainer in Arcata, California, the easiest, most effective workout is walking. “Rather than drive short distances, walk. Walk for half an hour to 45 minutes before a meal. Walk after a meal,” he suggests. The important thing is to avoid letting your body slide into a state of complacency—a danger if you don’t exercise for more than three days, he says. If you’re on the road, take a jump rope, he suggests, and do simple exercises like jumping jacks or push-ups. “It’s easy to obsess over the ‘perfect’ workout,” he says. “But a little bit of something is better than a lot of nothing.”
Walking is also on the A-list of holiday workouts for Lara Hassan, a registered dietitian with the Cooper Clinic in Dallas. “There’s always so much shopping to do—sometimes it feels like I’m at the supermarket and the mall more than I’m with my family—so I keep track of my ‘shopping miles’ by using a pedometer,” says Hassan. She also does power yoga workouts three times a week, and says that the morning sessions help her feel she’s attending to her own needs during a season when she’s busy preparing meals and organizing parties for others.
For Ann Yelmokas McDermott, PhD, LN, a nutrition scientist at the Jean Mayer USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging at Tufts University in Boston, the hardest thing about exercising in the winter is getting started. “It’s easy to justify letting go of exercise, due to a busy winter schedule,” says McDermott. “I focus on just making it to the pool or gym and give myself permission to do a less rigorous workout if I am feeling tired. Usually once I get started, I find out that I am feeling just fine, and afterward I feel an extra sense of accomplishment.”
As a host, offer healthy treats
“A lot of people are offering healthier options at their parties these days,” says Beaman, who likes to serve colorful crudités and healthful Mediterranean fare such as baba ghanoush, hummus, and tabbouleh. “You can lay these out with pita points—pita cut into triangles, drizzled with olive oil and herbs, and toasted in the oven—instead of deep-fried tortilla chips.” McCrory offers her guests roasted garlic with whole-grain toasts and a bowl of fruit.
If you’re going traditional, some foods may be more nourishing and satisfying than others, Beaman points out. “Pumpkin pie, particularly if it’s homemade with fresh pumpkin, has a lot of beneficial beta-carotene.” Nuts are hearty and have essential fatty acids that are good for cardiovascular health, she adds, as well as protein. And Beaman says butter is OK—as long as it’s organic and therefore free of pesticides and bovine growth hormones. “Grandma’s cookies made with real butter are so much more satisfying than ones made with fake butter or no fat, and tons of added sugar to make up for the lack of it,” she says. Besides superior taste, “the fat actually slows down the absorption of sugar, so you can eat one cookie and feel satisfied.”
At the market, Beaman makes sure that all the ingredients she buys for holiday foods are organic—even desserts.
“I know that the food is naturally grown, chock-full of vitamins and minerals, and good for me and my guests,” she says. And don’t forget the golden rule of shopping, Dulan advises: “Avoid going to the supermarket when you’re hungry. Eat a good-size snack first so everything in the store doesn’t seem tempting.”
The average American gains only about a pound during the holidays (New England Journal of Medicine, 2000, vol. 342, no. 12), so why all the fuss? Because we tend to keep it on. “That could mean ten pounds in ten years,” says McCrory, “and coupled with other reasons for weight gain, it could spell trouble.” Perhaps the most stressful thing about that extra pound or two is the feeling that you are setting a trend for the rest of the year. Although it’s good to take holiday eating seriously, say experts, keep in mind that one night of indulgence doesn’t necessarily mean anything.
For Beaman, the key to avoiding—or surviving—a holiday eating binge is to pay close attention to the interplay between emotions and diet. “I used to reach out for comfort foods when I was around my family, but what I really wanted was a hug, or a little love and attention. When I finally made that connection—that what I was seeking was not really food at all—it was easy to grab one of my nephews or my sister or my dad and hold them in my arms, or take a walk, or have a conversation, and not disappear into a big bowl of ice cream,” she says.
Holidays are a time of abundance, so when you encounter a celebratory smorgasbord, it’s best not to feel bound by a rigid lists of dos and don’ts, our experts say. “I don’t think of holiday foods as tempting, because I don’t think of them as forbidden,” says Beaman. A sliver of chocolate cake, eaten mindfully and chewed well, can be healthier than an entire pot of brown rice that gets shoveled into your mouth unconsciously, she says.
Dulan agrees that labeling foods you genuinely love as “bad” or “unhealthy” is counterproductive. “There are very few foods that are truly ‘bad’ for you,” says Dulan. “It’s really just a matter of moderation. I love holiday treats, and I even exchange dozens of Christmas cookies with my friends every year. But instead of going overboard when a new batch arrives, I make sure that I eat just one or two and really take time to savor each bite.”Mark Eller wrote “Shopping Cart Overhaul” for our July 2004 issue. And, frequent Delicious Living contributor Radha Marcum plans to ski off those extra servings of chocolate and pie this holiday season.