Stick to Your Diet This Holiday Season

WebMD tips for dieters on most popular diet plans.

By Denise Mann
WebMD Feature

Reviewed By Brunilda Nazario

For some of us, the holiday season is a time to rejoice and catch up with family, distant cousins, or old friends. But for the millions of Americans on diets, the season from November to January can be extremely stressful.

Whether you count calories, fat grams, carbs, points, or colors, holidays can be vexing to the waistline. In an effort to keep your holidays merry, WebMD got the scoop on how to stick to many of the top diets this season.

The good news is that "if you are on a particular diet, it can usually be accommodated at the holidays because there is so much to choose from," says David l Katz, MD, MPH, associate clinical professor at the Yale University School of Medicine and founder/director of the Yale Prevention Research Center in New Haven, Conn.

For example, "if you are on a diet that is relatively restricted in carbohydrates, chances are there will be cheese, shrimp, turkey, or other meats, and you will wind up with more things to choose from than on any other day," says Katz, author of The Way to Eat: A Six-Step Path to Lifelong Weight Control.

"Conversely," he says, "if you are on a point system which steers you to low-calorie foods, you should have lots of options including vegetables, salads, and beans," he tells WebMD.

That said, Katz is not a fan of fad diets. "If we could shift focus from being on a diet to eating well every day, it would be much easier to accept that you can indulge during the holidays and not do any harm," he says.

Katz's general advice? "Don't sit in front of food all day and don't sit all day."

Instead, combine your holiday gatherings with physical activity, whether touch football for the young and vigorous or a walk around the neighborhood for the older folks, Katz says. "There is no reason to celebrate the holidays by eating all day in anticipation of a big meal."

A new study suggests that Americans probably gain only about a pound during the winter holiday season. This finding runs contrary to the popular belief that most people gain from 5 to 10 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, according to research out of the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the National Institute of Diabetes & Digestive & Kidney Diseases in Bethesda, Md.

Here's how to make sure the only one who loosens his belt this holiday season is Santa. No matter what diet you are on, all are pretty holiday friendly. Enjoy!

What Color Is Your Thanksgiving Feast?

Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, an assistant director of the UCLA Center for Human Nutrition and contributor to the book, What Color Is Your Diet? says that this plan is particularly apropos for the holiday season.

"I think it's festive," she says. "There nothing nicer than looking at a colorful plate of food, compared to something that is brown or beige," she tells WebMD.

The What Color Is Your Diet? plan is based around eating at least one food from seven vibrant color groups every day. Basically, this way of eating turns your plate into an artist's palate.

This Thanksgiving, "Try a small portion of cranberry sauce," she suggests. "Cranberry is in the red/purple group and contain polyphenols, which fight cancer, and cranberry also contains pigments shown to be beneficial for brain function and possibly aid in heart disease prevention," she says.

If there is a sweet potato or yam dish available, go for it, she says, provided it's not too overloaded with butter or marshmallows. "These are in the orange group and are a rich source of beta-carotene, which the body converts into vitamin A."

Also, "Pumpkin pie is in our orange group and you could get some benefit from the pumpkin, if you didn't eat the crust," she says.

If you are the host, "Start with a fruit or spinach salad, or a vegetable-puree, carrot, or pumpkin-based soup which gives you colors and fills you up," she suggests.

Simply a guest? "Have a large, colorful salad before you leave so you don't walk in absolutely starving, and you know you got your fruits and vegetables taken care of," she says.

A Very Volumetrics Christmas

If you adhere to the volumetrics diet, which is based on eating low-calorie, dense, high-volume foods, you feel like you've eaten plenty, even though you've eaten fewer calories.

"The holidays are challenging for everybody because we are surrounded by so many treats and so much variety," says Barbara Rolls, PhD, who holds the Guthrie Chair in Nutrition in Penn State's College of Health and Human Development in State College, Penn.

"So people really need to think it through before they start mindlessly eating at a buffet," she tells WebMD.

For volumetrics advocates, "often the salad and greens are at the beginning and it's really important to have a full plate and when sampling high-calorie dishes. Go for the ones that are more special and don't get often enough," she says.

If you eat a big portion of a low-calorie first course, it will help you eat less throughout the meal, she says.

Be mindful of alcohol, she warns. "Alcohol tends to loosen restraint over what you are doing, and after that first glass of wine, all of your resolve may go out the window and alcohol calories will add to food calories," she says.

'Tis the Season to Stick to Atkins

About 25.4 million people, or 12.7% of U.S. adults, say they have tried the Atkins diet, according to the National Marketing Institute.

On it, you're eating almost pure protein and fat. You can consume red meat, fish (including shellfish), fowl, and regular cheese. You can cook with butter, have mayo, and put olive oil on your salads. But carbs are severely restricted to less than 20 grams per day in the first two weeks.

So how does that translate into your Turkey-day festivities?

"Before you get there, make sure you have something to eat so you don't go too hungry," says Colette Heimowitz, MS, director of education and research at Atkins Nutritionals in New York City.

"Most of us will skip a meal knowing we are going to eat a lot, but its better to have protein, salad, and olive oil dressing so you are full and not tempted," she tells WebMD.

If your goal is to maintain your weight loss, pick your poison and decide ahead of time what you will cheat on -- whether a glass of wine, a half a cup of stuffing, or a sweet potato, she suggests.

"Decide which one you would prefer and stick with that and eat around the rest of the carbs," she advises. "If your goal is to continue your weight loss, stay beneath your carbohydrate threshold."

Other tips: "Make stuffing with nuts instead of flour and use low-carb bread," she says.

"These days, there are so many low-carb alternatives to high-carbohydrate foods, so think ahead and be prepared," she says. "Most of the meals revolve around protein, and as long as you are controlling your carbs, you don't have to be concerned about fat."

Adds Kissimmee, Fla.,-based George Stella, aka "the low-carb chef": "Turkey, ham, and roast beef or any of the proteins are all zero carbohydrate, so you've got a free hand unless anything is breaded."

Just "be careful of sugar glaze on the ham, and if that's the case, just don't eat the outside," he says.

As far as gravy goes, "stay away from thickened gravy; ask your host to put aside half of the dripping before thickening," Stella suggests.

Christmas in South Beach

Developed by a Florida cardiologist Arthur Agatston, MD, the popular South Beach diet allows normal-sized helpings of lean meats such as chicken, turkey, fish, and shellfish. Vegetables, nuts, cheese, eggs, and salad with real olive oil dressing are also allowed. The South Beach diet groups "good" and "bad" carbohydrates based on their glycemic index -- a measure of how foods affect your blood sugar -- and how processed the carbohydrates are.

"Eat the turkey breast and green beans almondine. Hold the cream of mushroom soup," says Byron Richard, MS, RD, CDE, a dietitian at Tulane University Hospital in New Orleans.

Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, a professor of nutrition at Tufts University in Boston, adds that "you have to come to the realization that if you stick to the South Beach diet during the holidays, you can't have all the foods you would normally have and you must make a decision as to whether you will modify the diet slightly or be strict."

Basically, South Beach dieters, like most dieters, need a strategy ahead of time. "You can breach the diet for three weeks in small portions, but the problem is if you break down and feel guilty afterward," she tells WebMD.

In a nutshell, South Beachers can decide to either "make small breaches so you eat very little bit of whatever is out there or decide ahead of time to have a full plate like everyone else with different stuff," she says.

She suggests setting limits at the beginning. "If you love candied sweet potatoes, decide you will eat them but not cheat with anything else."

At the thanksgiving feast, "there is typically turkey, lots of vegetables, and sweet potatoes, if baked," that you can eat. "Ask the cook if he or she can just bake sweet potatoes as opposed to baking them in brown sugar or sequester food before someone throws sauce on it" she tells WebMD. "Make sure you have options whether in the table or in the kitchen."

Festive Flex Points

Weight Watchers new Flex Points diet is "great and it's easier for the holidays because you always have 35 flex points to rely on each week," says Linda Carilli, RD, general manager of public affairs at Weight Watchers International in Woodbury, N.Y. The extra points are like mad money.

"If something is being planned like a holiday dinner and you want to save up points, you can," she says.

First and foremost, she says, "decide not to try and lose weight during holiday week. Maintaining your weight is a major accomplishment, and this will already ease up on the angst," she says.

Also, think about the holiday fare that you love and make sure you partake because deprivation is fattening, she says.

Smart eating strategies can help, she says. "Hold on to your glass if you want to keep picking and be sure to sit next to someone you like so you can enjoy their company and not just nibble on pie," she says.

Other strategies include "storyboarding" or mapping out how it will be. "If there are emotional torpedoes in your family, think about them ahead of time and prepared," she says.

Here's a Thanksgiving Dinner Scorecard for Weight Watchers followers:

1 oz crackers (3)
1 oz low-fat hard cheese (2)
4 oz turkey breast (4)
2 tablespoons canned cranberry sauce (1)
1/4 cup brown gravy (2)
1/2 cup stuffing (4)
1/2 cup mashed potato (2)
1/2 cup candied sweet potato (4)
1/2 cup green bean casserole (2.5)
1/2 cup cooked carrots (0.5)
1 small glass wine (2)
1 small slice (1/16 of 9" pie) pumpkin pie (4.5)
1 small slice (1/16 of 9" pie) apple pie (4.5)
1/4 cup light aerosol whipped cream (1)

Total POINTS values used for the day: 44 (POINTS Target 24 + 20 FlexPoints)

To reduce POINTS values, substitute the following:

7 fat-free crackers for regular; savings -- POINTS value: 2
Fat-free cheese for low-fat cheese; savings -- POINTS value: 1
1/4 cup canned turkey gravy for the brown gravy; savings -- POINTS value: 2
1/4 cup stuffing instead of 1/2 cup; savings -- POINTS value: 2
A piece of fruit for one piece of pie; savings -- POINTS value: 3.5

Originally published Nov. 13, 2003.

Medically updated Oct. 18, 2004.

SOURCES: David Katz, MD MPH, associate clinical professor, Yale University School of Medicine; founder/director, Yale Prevention Research Center, New Haven, Conn. Susan Bowerman, MS, RD, assistant director, UCLA Center for Human Nutrition; contributor to the book, What Color Is Your Diet? Barbara Rolls, PhD, College of Health and Human Development, Penn State. Colette Heimowitz, MS, director of education and research, Atkins Nutritionals, New York. George Stella, Kissimmee, Fla. Linda Carilli, RD, general manager of public affairs, Weight Watchers International, Woodbury, N.Y. Byron Richard, MS, RD, CDE, Tulane University Hospital, New Orleans. Alice Lichtenstein, DSc, professor of nutrition, Tufts University, Boston.

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