Make Weigh for the Holidays
A Healthful Goal for the Season of Temptation: Don't Gain a Pound

By Sally Squires
Tuesday, November 21, 2006

In this era of super-sized portions, the idea of eating large -- without being large -- might seem like a fairy tale.

Unless you know the secret of energy density.

That's the term nutrition scientists use to describe how foods that are puffed up with air or filled with fiber and water can help you feel full on fewer calories. Understanding the concept of energy density is proving important not only for weight loss, but also for long-term weight maintenance.

Just last month, researchers reported in the journal Obesity that nearly half of participants in a weight-loss program that focused on energy density either maintained their weight for two years or continued to lose pounds.

And they did it by eating "the same amount of food as those who regained pounds," says Jamy Ard, assistant professor of nutrition, sciences and internal medicine at the University of Alabama at Birmingham and lead author of the study.

Got your attention? "The difference," Ard notes, "is in the calorie content" -- which is much lower in foods with a low energy density.

Those who maintained their weight ate more of those low-energy-density foods, such as fruit, vegetables and whole grains, while people who regained pounds consumed more high-energy-density foods, such as meat, fat and high-calorie beverages.

"The thing about adding fruit and vegetables to a meal is that it gives you volume," notes Barbara Rolls, who studies energy density at Pennsylvania State University.

Fruit and non-starchy vegetables "have so few calories that it is hard to over-consume them," notes Rolls, author of "The Volumetrics Eating Plan" (HarperCollins). "You can get a satisfying portion without eating too many calories and you get the sensory satisfaction" of eating a lot.

In short, just the kind of sage advice that could help you at Thanksgiving and in the upcoming holiday season.

Welcome to the sixth annual Lean Plate Club Holiday Challenge. For those new to the Holiday Challenge, this isn't a diet. (Studies suggest that dieting during the holidays is doomed to fail even more than at other times of the year.) The goal is simply to maintain your weight over the next six weeks. Do that and you'll be a step ahead of the curve when you ring in 2007.

Here's why: A few years ago a National Institutes of Health study examined holiday weight gain. It found that people at a healthy weight add just about a pound during the holidays and generally take it off in the spring. No big deal.

But it's a different story for overweight and obese people, who now account for more than two-thirds of U.S. adults. The study found that they gain an average of five pounds and don't shed that weight in the spring. Through the years, that weight gain adds up.

So each week from now until the New Year, look here for weekly food and activity goals as well as tips to help you meet them during this joyous -- and stressful -- time of the year. Find a weight chart and forms to track your food intake and activity at http://www.washingtonpost.com/leanplateclub and in the free, weekly Lean Plate Club e-mail newsletter.

This year, we also plan to check in with some of the more than 200 Lean Plate Club members who volunteered to be followed as they take the Holiday Challenge. We'll update you on their progress. You can even follow a couple who are keeping video blogs at the Web site.

So how do you start? Begin the Holiday Challenge today by weighing yourself. Regularly stepping on the scale is one of the most important things you can do during the holidays, notes Thomas Wadden, director of the Center for Weight and Eating Disorders at the University of Pennsylvania in Philadelphia. It's also a habit that has helped people in the National Weight Control Registry (a group of several thousand "successful losers") maintain their weight over the long term. If you haven't faced the scale for a while, remember: The goal here is not to fret over what you weigh, but to maintain that weight from now until New Year's Day. To reduce errors, weigh yourself at the same time each day and wearing the same clothes, since body weight can fluctuate by several pounds during the day.

It's also important to find your caloric balance -- that is, to make sure the calories you eat equal the calories you burn. Do that by multiplying your weight in pounds by 10. So if you weigh 150 pounds, for example, you need about 1,500 calories to maintain your weight. If you get at least 30 minutes per day of activity, add 10 to 20 percent more.

This week's food goal is to eat two cups of fruit and 2 1/2 cups of vegetables daily. By reaching for these low-energy-density foods, you'll be able to control calories without feeling deprived.

The first big challenge is Thanksgiving. Budget about 1,000 calories for the feast. That enables you to enjoy plenty of food but doesn't give you license to gorge. (Here's how 1,000 calories add up: about four ounces of turkey, half a cup of stuffing, salad, green beans, sweet potatoes, cranberry sauce, a roll, a glass of wine and a slice of pumpkin pie.)

Want seconds? Reach for more vegetables or salad. Have a side of fruit with your dessert.

Also, be sure to stay active. No need to go to the gym. Walking is fine. This week's goal: Add five minutes today to whatever activity you already do. Build up to 10 minutes daily by the end of the week.

To get five more minutes of exercise, Lean Plate Club member Sandra Winans, a teacher at Colvin Run Elementary School in Vienna, walks the long way from class to class. She walks the stairs rather than riding the elevator. "I park as far away from the front door of the school as I can," says Winans, who is participating in the Holiday Challenge with other teachers at her school. "When talking on the phone, I stand."

During last year's Holiday Challenge, Lean Plate Club member Cecelia Lussen, 50, of Edgerton, Mo., started square dancing with her husband to help maintain her weight. They took lessons a couple of times a week.

For the first time that she can remember, Lussen maintained her weight during the holidays. "During past seasons, I gained at least five pounds," she says. "I was very surprised."

Since then, she has joined a weight loss group with friends at her church and shed 34 pounds. Says Lussen: "The Holiday Challenge started the ball rolling for me." The weight loss group "caught me. And I don't think I'm ever going back" to gaining weight at the holidays.

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