Family Holidays: A Dieter's Survival Guide

Your game plan for sensible celebrating

By Kathleen Zelman, MPH, RD/LD
WebMD Weight Loss Clinic - Expert Column

Drinks before dinner, Aunt Sarah's famous pies, the family favorite sausage dressing, and all those other wonderfully delicious, traditional holiday foods just waiting to be gobbled up: What a quagmire for a dieter!

Should you forget about your eating plan for a day, and eat to your heart's content? Or should you try to stay on course as you navigate this minefield of temptations and family prodding?

My advice: Do both.

Throughout the holiday season, temptations are everywhere -- a busy social schedule, office and school parties, family functions, and neighborly gestures of sweets and treats. You need a strategy for dealing with the abundance of calories that are part and parcel of the holiday season.

Just Try to Maintain

Most people gain 2-5 pounds each year during the feasting season that starts at Thanksgiving and ends New Year's Day -- unless you live in New Orleans, where it continues through Mardi Gras. So how do you buck this trend and keep from adding back those hard-lost pounds?

The plan: Aim to hold steady at your current weight and focus on not gaining any additional pounds by Jan. 1. Adhere strictly to your plan until Thanksgiving, then cut yourself some slack ­ but not too much.

Just knowing that you don't have face the pressure of losing weight during the holiday season -- and that you won't feel deprived as others celebrate -- will make it easier to balance your calories for maintenance.

If you prefer to keep losing, on the other hand, by all means stick with your eating plan through the holidays. Just be mindful that a dieter's most difficult time of year is upon us.

The Sensible Splurge

It is so hard to resist temptation, but it gets easier if you're equipped with a plan. Follow these tips to help you survive family gatherings without sabotaging your diet.

  • Review your eating plan and see if you can reserve a few food items during the week to save up for the holiday feast. Be careful not to take away too much food, which could leave you hungry during the week. Getting hungry between meals can lead to bingeing, and we sure don't want that to happen!
  • Portion control is critical to prevent weight gain. Enjoy small portions of foods high in fat and calories, share a dessert, limit alcohol, and fill up on simply prepared, nutritious selections like turkey breast and vegetables.
  • Enjoy a small but filling meal before the gathering to prevent overeating. Include a lean or low-fat source of protein, as well as fiber from fruits, vegetables, beans, nuts, or whole grains for lasting fullness. A salad, a bowl of vegetable soup, or a sandwich on whole-grain bread are all good examples of mini-meals.
  • Don't stand near the buffet or appetizers at a holiday gathering. Instead, survey the offerings, choose the best nutritional bets, put them on a plate, then go sit down and enjoy the meal. It's hard to know when you've had enough food when you stand around nibbling!

Make Time for Fitness

Finding time for daily physical activity is one of the most important strategies to avoid holiday weight gain. Do everything you can to maintain your routine and fit in fitness each day. It burns calories, keeps your muscles strong -- and helps you cope with the stress that is often associated with the season.

On party days, pump it up a notch. If you usually walk for 45 minutes, try to push it to an hour. Adding a little intensity or duration to your physical activity will allow you to splurge a little at the festive gathering.

Bring a Healthy Dish

Arrive at the party with a dish to share with family and friends. Most hostesses delight in letting guests add to the bounty, and it gives you a chance to make sure there is healthy food for you to enjoy.

Browse our recipe collection or ask our "Recipe Doctor," Elaine Magee to lighten your favorite holiday dish.

Host a Nutritious Party

I will eat whatever you serve me at your house, but when you come to mine, expect to enjoy the taste of eating right. My family always insists on bringing the sweet-potato casserole at Thanksgiving because otherwise, they know they will be served plain, roasted sweet potatoes that bubble with natural caramelized sugars.

The stuffing in my turkey is full of apples, celery, onions, whole-grain bread and nuts, with a minimum of fat. Veggies are simply prepared and abundant on the table. Gravy is defatted, mashed potatoes are made with low-fat milk and fat-free sour cream, and salad dressings and dips are made with low-fat ingredients. It really is easy to cook healthfully, as long as you're equipped with good recipes.

Call it the curse of a dietitian. Healthy cooking is in my veins, and as a result, my holiday meals and parties are always a dieter's delight. Let me assure you, the food is wonderful, because nutritious and delicious can be synonymous.

So why not give it a try? Let this be your year to host a healthy holiday affair.

"Eat, Eat, Eat!"

Well-meaning family members can sabotage your best efforts with their insistence that you eat more. Your challenge is to politely, but firmly, decline second helpings because you "couldn't possibly eat another bite," or whichever excuse you choose. If you are handed goodies on your way out the door, drop them off at a shelter, give them to a friend, or bring them to work. Keep them out of your house so you won't be compelled to finish them off.

New Traditions

Family holiday traditions are something we all know and cherish. Keep in mind that when you're trying to establish new, healthier eating patterns, you can continue to enjoy the holidays with family -- just not exactly in the way you used to.

So establish a few new traditions. Start the day with a family football game, or take a family walk. Try new, lighter recipes. Serve "mocktails" instead of cocktails. Approach this year with a can-do attitude that allows you to savor the taste sensations of the holidays without overeating or feeling deprived.

Most important, move food out of the limelight and focus on the love and fellowship of family and friends -- the real reason we gather to celebrate the holidays together.

Originally published Nov. 12, 2004.
Updated December 2006.

©2006 WebMD Inc. All rights reserved.

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