Surviving the Holidays Without Gaining a Pound

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD, LD

The opportunities to eat around the holidays seem endless, beginning on Halloween and not ending until New Year's Day. Toss in an out-of-control list of things to do – from parties to host and attend to gifts to wrap and ship – and it's no wonder most of us pack on the holiday pounds.

But this year can be different. Before the frenzy begins, establish a plan and detailed schedule for how you will manage all the things you need to do between now and New Year's Day. A few ideas to help ease the holiday stress:

  • Consider shopping online
  • Send out a holiday newsletter or photo card to everyone on your list
  • Scale back your social calendar to allow some down time to enjoy the spirit of the season

Even though it seems impossible to squeeze in more activities, your fitness routine is a priority. Physical activity of any kind, whether working out at the gym, doing a fitness tape at home, fast walking at the mall or going for a daily walk – helps you cope with stress while it burns calories and keeps muscles strong.

Don't Strive for Diet Perfection

Once you have your to-do list under control, the next task is figuring out how to enjoy the bounty of food without going on an eating frenzy. My strategy to get through the holidays without gaining a pound is to aim for "social weight maintenance." Forget about weight loss and focus on keeping the needle on the scale right where it is today. Don't expect to be perfect around the holidays. For the next six weeks, you need to allow yourself some flexibility so that you can enjoy your favorite holiday foods.

To maintain during the holidays, enjoy small portions of your holiday favorites but be careful not to go overboard. Follow the "80/20 rule": 80% of the time, you eat healthy foods and 20% of the time, you splurge a little on those once-a-year favorites. And 100% of the time, do at least 30 minutes a day of physical activity.

Best Bets on the Buffet

Making smart choices allows you to eat plenty of food and not feel deprived. To shave calories, go easy when adding nuts, cheese, cream sauces, gravy, butter, and whipped cream – additions that don't add much to the meal, but can add plenty to your waistline. Whenever you make holiday dishes, try to slash calories by using lighter, low fat or fat free ingredients. Experiment with new healthier recipes that may just become your new traditional favorites. Trim calories wherever you can so you leave the party feeling satisfied, but not stuffed.

Here are my picks for the best and worst holiday food choices:

Best Bets Worst Bets
Pretzels, low fat popcorn, baked chips with salsa Cheese straws, fried snacks (potato chips)
Handful of plain nuts Handful or more of candy or candied nuts
Fresh fruits and vegetables with low-fat dressing Fried veggies, wings, creamy or cheesy dips
Shrimp cocktail, clams, oysters, smoked salmon Fried seafood
Low-fat cheeses on water crackers, low fat crackers or Melba toast High-fat cheeses and crackers
Vegetable or broth-based soup Cream soups or bisques
Baked sweet potatoes Sweet potato casserole
Cranberry relish or gelatin salad Cranberry sauce
Mashed potatoes with a dab of gravy, or a plain baked potato Lots of gravy with your mashed potatoes or loaded baked potato
White-meat turkey without skin Dark-meat turkey with skin
Lean meats without visible fat Processed meats, sausages, fatty meats
Simply prepared veggies Veggies in cream sauces, casseroles or topped with fried onions or cheese
Cornbread-, oyster- or fruit-based stuffing Stuffi ng with sausage or high fat meats
Whole-wheat dinner rolls Croissants, butter rolls
Pumpkin pie with nonfat topping Pecan pie with whipped cream
Fruit sorbet, sherbet, or frozen yogurt Cake or ice cream
Apple cider, mimosa, or bloody Mary Eggnog
Chocolate-dipped strawberries Fruitcake or fudge

Focus on Fun, Family and Friends

Don't let food have the spotlight. Take the focus off food by getting family and friends involved in some fun activities during holiday parties. Go outside for a walk, sledding, ice skating, or building snowmen. Indoors, try a spirited game of charades, or rent an instructional dance video followed by a dance-off. Dancing goes hand in hand with the holidays so why not make dancing after eating a new holiday tradition for a great form of fun and recreation?

I Went Overboard!

The best-laid plans sometimes fail. If you over indulge, don't beat yourself up but make a pledge to be more in control next time. To compensate, eat a little less and exercise a little more the next day and learn from it so it won't happen again at the next holiday function.

Establish your own personal ground rules and do your best to stick to them, at least 80% of the time. Prioritize a little exercise every day; it will pay you back with renewed energy, stress control and even help you sleep. And remember to relax and enjoy, the holidays are supposed to be fun!

Holiday parties are much more than food and drinks. They are a time to delight in the traditions of the season, and enjoy the company of family and friends. If you keep the focus on the spirit of the season and heed the diet advice, you should get through the holidays without gaining a pound.

My Top 10 Personal Holiday Party Strategies

Over the years I have subscribed to a few basic rules whenever I go to a buffet or party:

  1. Always wear a snug-fitting outfit that does not easily expand so you have to hold in your stomach and use good posture.
  2. Carry a clutch bag that keeps one hand occupied.
  3. Eat a small but filling meal before leaving home such as a bowl of vegetable soup or a vegetable salad. This way you are not starving upon arrival and can take your time making a plan of what you will eat.
  4. If you don't love it, don't eat it. This is my golden rule at all times. I hate wasting food, but I hate extra pounds even more.
  5. No lingering around the buffet table, bar, appetizer or dessert areas. Socialize with your friends away from the food and drinks.
  6. Limit cocktails to two, with sparkling water and lime (which looks like a cocktail) enjoyed between drinks. Alcohol calories add up and if you limit it to two, you will feel better in the morning.
  7. Engage in mindful eating: make a single plate of food, sit down, and take your time to savor the tastes, flavors and enjoy every bite. This helps you recognize when you are full and reduces the likelihood of mindless eating the rest of the evening.
  8. Follow the 80/20 rule and indulge – but just a little and no second helpings.
  9. Anticipate those extra calories by eating light and exercising more on party days.
  10. You don't have to eat it all; sometimes all it takes is a few bites.