Healthy habits for the holidays

Vicky Hallett, Lenny Bernstein and Jennifer LaRue Huget
Columnists for The MisFits and Eat, Drink and Be Healthy
Monday, November 23, 2009; 12:00 PM

MisFits columnists Vicky Hallett and Lenny Bernstein give advice on staying in shape during the holiday season, and Jennifer LaRue Huget, columnist for Eat, Drink and Be Healthy, discusses making nutritious choices at holiday gatherings.

They were online Monday, November 23, at noon ET to take questions.


Vicky Hallett: Thanks for joining us for this pre-Thanksgiving chat! We're here to get the conversation going about keeping moving, eating right and generally staying healthy through the festive -- and feast-heavy -- holiday season. Also, looking for the right gift for your fitness freak family member/friend? We've got ideas...

And it might seem WAY too early to think about resolutions, but it's not. That's because Lenny and I are starting the New Year with a column about what you're striving to do in '10. We'd love to discuss some ideas here to get the ball rolling, but then please e-mail us (misfits [at] washpost [dot] com). If you have a goal you're not sure how to meet, we might be able to coach you through it.


Jennifer LaRue Huget: Welcome to our healthful-holidays discussion! I look forward to chatting with you all about ways to eat healthfully while enjoying all the delights of the season. Here's to eating, drinking and being healthy!


Laurel, Md.: How do you get rid of that extra fat around your midsection that you may gain during the holiday season?

Vicky Hallett: The very best way is to keep it from ever happening by maintaining your weight through sensible eating and, of course, exercise. Easier said then done though, I know.

And once it's there, it's like fat anywhere else on your body. Just like Santa Claus, there's no such thing as spot reduction. So you have to trim calories from your diet, and up your physical activity by doing a combo of cardio and strength training. A lot of folks think crunches alone can make their middles disappear, but it's not true.


Arlington, Va.: What foods should I stay away from this Thanksgiving?

Jennifer LaRue Huget: The ones you really don't like or that others are forcing on you. Other than that, you should eat all the things that you love and that make you feel as though you're really celebrating. Just keep your portions small and enjoy every single bite you eat.

Vicky Hallett: I think it's also key to remember there isn't just one way to prepare things. Just because your mom made mashed potatoes with five sticks of butter doesn't mean you have to.

My best example of this: pumpkin pie. My father-in-law had a heart attack a few years ago and now he eats virtually no (saturated) fat. So I had to figure out a seasonal dessert he could eat. I thought it would be impossible until I found a recipe for pumpkin pudding. It's instant vanilla pudding made with skim milk, mixed with a can of pumpkin and sprinkled with cinnamon and nutmeg. Super easy, super tasty and SO much better for you than the pie. Now it's a new holiday tradition.


Philadelphia, Pa.: How are turkeys raised when they are factory farmed? What is the difference between buying a free range turkey versus a factory farmed turkey?

Jennifer LaRue Huget: Factory farming generally involves small cages and no access to the outdoors. But free-range poultry are only required to have that access for 51 percent of their lives, and the "outdoors" might only be a tiny patch of ground. You might not notice any difference in taste or quality, but either bird might leave a bad taste in your mouth if you care about how the birds are raised.


North Potomac, Md.: How many calories are in the traditional thanksgiving dinner?

Vicky Hallett: If you believe the American Council on Exercise (and unfortunately, I do), it's 3,000 calories. And 229 grams of fat. Ouch.

But so much of that comes down to preparation and portion size. Certainly you can still eat turkey, mashed potatoes, LOADS of veggies and a slice of pie and come way below that.


Evanston, Ill.: Vicky and Lenny, where are you guys? What happened to the Tuesday fitness chat, one of the highlights of my week? I can only get the online version of the Post, so maybe you're in print and I'm not seeing you?

Vicky Hallett: Don't worry, Evanston! We're still in print! We're hanging out (along with Jennifer's column) in the new Local Living section on Thursdays. And online, you can find us on the "Health" page. Or, you can get us dropped directly in your inbox with the Lean & Fit newsletter.

Also, if Lenny seems particularly quiet today, that's because he's gone missing. Perhaps technical difficulties? We're gonna work on getting the whole gang together before the end of the hour...


Washington, DC: Let's say that despite your better judgment, you do go overboard for one meal. What's the best way to get back on track for the next meal and during your next workout?

Jennifer LaRue Huget: There are lots of little things you can do to get your eating back on track. For one thing, stop and notice how you feel after you've overeaten. Really notice every sensation: your belly kind of hurts, you feel tired and sluggish. Take note of those feelings -- even record them in your food journal, which of course you maintain religiously, right? -- and revisit them before your next pig-out opportunity. You might choose not to go down that same path again. Also, don't beat yourself up: We all over-indulge once in a while. Acknowledge that you overate and get on with life.


Washington, DC: Hello. I have been on the P90X program for the last month and I am seeing great results so far. I have two questions: First, whats your general opinion of the program? Second, is there any, ANY value to the idea that it's okay to binge drink every once in a while? My girlfriend always makes me feel like a fuddy duddy if I dont engage in a few games of beer pong, etc. I always feel that every time I drink, it "turns back the clock" on any progress I have made.

Vicky Hallett: Have to admit I've still never tried it. Something about all of the shirtless people on the Web site weirds me out. That said, it appears to offer a wide range of workouts that keep your muscles guessing and that's just about the best thing you can do in any exercise program. Keep mixing it up and you won't plateau. I think the most important thing is that you're enjoying it -- any exercise plan you can stick with is a good one.

I'll let Jennifer tackle your beer pong woes.

Jennifer LaRue Huget: No, there is no value to the idea that it's okay to binge drink every once in a while. While regular, moderate alcohol consumption is thought to have some health benefits (for those who enjoy drinking, that is; experts don't recommend starting to drink just for the health benefits), binge drinking confers no benefits. Go ahead and be a fuddy duddy.


Washington, DC: I'm fairly new to running, and this will be my first winter running outside. I'm looking for pants, but I'm pretty short (5'4) and can't seem to find any that are short enough. Any suggestions on a brand, or where to look? Thanks!

Vicky Hallett: Lululemon is super duper expensive, but one of the perks of the high price tags is that hemming is included for all of their pants. Of course, you could also buy cheaper pants (at say, Target), and take them to your friendly neighborhood tailor.

If you're new to running and stocking up on gear generally, allow me to also suggest that you head to a specialty running store. We have a bunch of great ones in the area (Pacers, Potomac River Running, Fleet Feet), and the folks there will be able to give you great advice about how to keep yourself warm and safe during winter running. Don't forget about reflectivity too!!

Lenny Bernstein: I strongly recommend running stores. RnJ in Rockville and Bethesda has a great selection and the best prices I've found. You will almost certainly need two pairs: one for those 30-45 degree days, and one for those occasional days when you want to run in, say, 10-degree weather. Ask for advice and anyone who works at a running store will be able to help you out.


Re: Petite workout pants: I've seen Champion workout pants in petite lengths at several Target stores in Northern Virginia.

Vicky Hallett: Gotta love Target. No friendly neighborhood tailor required.


Lenny Bernstein: OK, no one has asked, but I just want point out something else about Thanksgiving and weight-management: It doesn't hurt to get out there and exercise before you sit down to all that food. Nationally, it is the biggest day of the year for running events. There is definitely a 5K or 10K near you. And lots of other places are sponsoring yoga, exercise classes and other activities on Thanksgiving morning. If all else fails, get out there and take a brisk walk with friends and family. I've got a list of many things you can do in my next column, which appears in the paper Thanksgiving morning and will be online before then.


Richmond, Va.: Are the sleepy effects of tryptophan something to really worry about after eating a lot of turkey? Or are they just an excuse to be a lazy couch potato?

Jennifer LaRue Huget: Tryptophan may indeed contribute to making you sleepy, but it's not like taking an Ambien. You can overcome the lethargy by getting up and getting moving after your meal; even just a walk around the block will help perk you back up.


pumpkin pie alternative: I don't think something made with instant vanilla pudding (chemicals, artificial flavors and colors, 350 mg sodium per box) is necessarily a better heart-healthy alternative to homemade pumpkin pie. There is some fat in evaporated milk, but you can buy a fat-free version. My pie recipe has one egg in it and no other fat. Most of the fat in any pie is in the crust, so why not just make a crustless pie instead?

Vicky Hallett: Crustless pie, even better! Just slightly more work for someone who's lazy like me.


Alexandria, Va.: What's the most dangerous food, health wise, to indulge in over the holidays? Any foods that you wouldn't suspect that would be so horrible for you?

Jennifer LaRue Huget: Well, I think for many people it's that green-bean casserole with the mushroom soup and canned fried onions on top. It's full of fat, sodium and calories, but I think because it has green beans in it people view it as their vegetable. At least everyone knows that stuffing, for instance, is usually high in fat, calories and sodium: nobody pretends its health food. (But it is yummy, right?)


Potomac, Md.: Is there any advantageous time to exercise relative to the big meal on Thanksgiving (or Christmas) Day? That is, is it likely to change the way you eat or to be more effective? Better before, later, or doesn't it matter?

Jennifer LaRue Huget: I'm not the fitness expert here, but I'll chime in and say that getting some exercise on Thanksgiving and other big holidays is way better than getting none, no matter what time of day you do it. One thing I know from experience, though, is that it's better to do it early in the day, because it gets easier to make excuses as the day goes on. And once it gets dark, it's just that much harder to get out and get moving.


Running Pants: Re: the short runner, I have the opposite problem. I bought pants recently from Athleta online and they were very long and very warm. They had several pairs of running pants with three or four different inseam lengths. Good luck!

Vicky Hallett: Another idea for the short runner!


Food Lover: I don't want to be a total killjoy for Thanksgiving and Christmas, but I want to be smart about it. Can you offer some suggestions on the best ways to eat and drink (and be merry)? Like, is wine better than a vodka drink? Is pumpkin pie better than apple? Is there a resource that can tell me these things?

Vicky Hallett: Sounds like you want the "Eat This, Not That" guide to Thanksgiving. Men's Health's Web site ( has lots of great info comparing one food item to another.

I also think you'll dig this article in Esquire:

Jennifer LaRue Huget: I agree with Vicky on both the sources she recommends. In general, too, my philosophy is that you can go ahead and enjoy a slice of whatever kind of pie you choose -- but make it a reasonable size, don't have seconds, and be sure to savor every morsel so you feel fully satisfied.


Arlington, Va.: I've gained several pounds over the past year. Bottom line is I want to lose about 10 by mid-January. For the holidays, my strategy is this:

1. Weigh myself every day. (I blame my weight gain on the fact that I stopped doing this over the summer.)

2. Stop drinking alcohol except on festive occasions (like T-day.

3. Add weight training to my exercise routine.

4. Stock up on low-fat cocoa packs for a sweet treat.

5. Keep all holiday baking treats out of the house.

Regarding #3 -- can you recommend any fitness DVDs with good weight training programs?

Vicky Hallett: Sounds like a solid plan! As for weight training, I'm a huge fan of Jackie Warner's new DVD, "Personal Training With Jackie: Power Circuit Training." She targets each large muscle group with three exercises followed by a combination of all of them in a "power burn." And it does. Holy cow.


Washington, DC: What to do when you're trying to lose baby weight but you want to enjoy dinner at the in laws, who are big fans of pork fat and consider it an insult NOT to eat lots of food. What should I do to combat the fat?

Lenny Bernstein: I'm gonna sound like Carolyn Hax here, but I would combat the in-laws. They've got to understand why you need to eat a certain way and not take it so personally. There will be a number of vegetarians at my Thanksgiving; no one is going to be upset when they pass on the turkey.

Jennifer LaRue Huget: I learned a fantastic tip from Brian Wansink, author of the book Mindless Eating, which I'll be featuring in the December 3 edition of Eat, Drink and Be Healthy: He told me that people who are trying to push food on you don't notice how MUCH of that food you take but how many servings you take. So you could take a weensy bit of pork and an even weensier second serving, and they'll likely be satisfied because you took seconds. Hope that helps!


Jennifer LaRue Huget: To the person trying to lose weight during the holidays: I sure admire you for getting a grip on your weight and committing to trimming down, but it's a long-standing tradition here to not recommend trying to LOSE weight during the holidays by depriving yourself of all the seasonal treats you love (which might just make you grumpy) but instead to try to maintain your weight through the new year.


Washington, DC: At 5'5" and 150 pounds, I am now the heaviest I've ever been. I've always been gym-phobic but decided to start moving and joined a gym three weeks ago. I'm shocked at how much I'm enjoying it. I go five to six days a week. I've been doing aquarobics, yoga, zoomba and some personal training sessions. Any tips on how to fit this all together? How often should I do the exercises the personal trainer taught me? When should I add more cardio?

Lenny Bernstein: That is fantastic. Remember one thing: You want to be in this for the long-term. So while your new habits are great, don't burn yourself out. That said, I would try for four cardio sessions and two weight-training session per week (depending on the length and intensity of each). And of course, ask the personal trainer, who probably knows your exercise needs by now.


Feeling Pudgy in DC: I recently gained a few pounds -- not a ton, but I'm maybe six to eight more than I'd like. What do you think is the best way to take off a little weight? Weight watchers seems too drastic (and pricey) for such a small goal, but then again, making teensy cuts here and there doesn't seem to be helping.

Vicky Hallett: Like Jennifer mentioned, now might not be the best time of year to launch into a weight loss program. The holiday party circuit is pretty good at derailing better eating plans.

But I think the best thing to do in terms of exercise is to shake things up. Try something totally new -- maybe kickboxing, CrossFit, capoeira. Give your body a total shock. Because it's novel, you're more likely to be excited about it and do it more.

Jennifer LaRue Huget: I would also start keeping a food and exercise journal and see if you can figure out what has led to your little weight gain. If you can identify those new habits you've adopted, maybe you can work on breaking them. Many experts do in fact now recommend making a series of small changes in your diet rather than wholesale, dramatic changes that will be hard to maintain in the long run. Good luck!


NY, NY: I have a recent knee injury that's kept me from the gym. I can do upper body workouts but not my normal cardio routine. How do I keep those holiday pounds off?

Vicky Hallett: If your knee is totally out of commission, you can try to find an upper body erg. It's made just for upper body cardio. And don't forget that when you put resistance moves together quickly, your heart rate can soar.

Jennifer LaRue Huget: Unless you can in fact find an exercise routine that burns as many calories as your regular routine does, you will in fact have to compensate by consuming fewer calories until you recover. You are so smart to be aware of this, though. Your recognizing in advance that you need to keep portions in check should help you plan accordingly.


Washington, DC: I try and do cardio five to six times a week and lift weights two days a week. During the winter months I end up slacking off due to my dislike for the gym, and it getting darker early. Often times I end up exercising by walking up and down on a box step for about an hour while watching TV in the evenings. Am I fooling myself by counting this as cardio vs/my regular routine of running/elliptical?

Lenny Bernstein: Wow, that's dedication to a fitness regimen. How far do you run vs. how many steps on the box? A good way to know is to purchase a pedometer and wear it during each exercise. They are cheap and easy to use. But you'll also want to measure intensity. Check your pulse during each exercise and see if it's comparable. Finally, the proof is in the pudding: Are you maintaining a comparable weight during the winter months? How do you feel, fitness-wise, when you have to take a few flights of stairs?


Bethesda, Md.: For the petite runner: REI carries pants with different inseams. Tights are also an option, because they are fitted at the ankle they can be rolled up and reliably stay put.

Vicky Hallett: Petite runner is probably a nicer name for her. And a nice tip. Thanks, Bethesda! Also, speaking of Bethesda, Lucy (which has a shop there) also carries pants in "short" and "tall" sizes.


Washington, DC: Hi there. I seem to recall a Holiday Challenge -- basically a week-by-week plan to (at least try to) keep weight off during the holidays. Can you point me in the right direction? Thanks!

Jennifer LaRue Huget: We've changed things up a bit this year and are taking a new approach to our holiday columns. Instead of focusing on weight loss, we're helping readers discover new ways to approach healthful eating and make it part of their lives during the holidays and throughout the year. So we're talking about ways to control portion sizes, for instance, or ways to channel your enthusiasm for food into preparing a healthful meal to donate to a shelter. We hope you'll find it all helpful!

Happy holidays to all our wonderful readers!


Jennifer LaRue Huget: Have a great Thanksgiving, everyone! Thanks for joining the chat!


Vicky Hallett: Thanks for joining us folks! Have a great Thanksgiving! Look for us each Thursday over the next few weeks in Local Living for more holiday-centric advice. And don't forget to e-mail us with your resolutions.


Lenny Bernstein: Ditto on the resolutions. Get creative; tell us how and why you're going to get fit and maintain it. We'll publish the best ones.


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