It’s that time of year again when everywhere we turn we’re offered creamy eggnog, savory charcuterie and sweet, melt-in-your mouth apple pie with whipped cream.
Sounds amazing to some, but to others the onslaught of holiday cocktail parties, extended family visits and office holiday buffets creates anxieties about weight gain that far override any seasonal merriment.
How to bring back the joy?
Local nutrition and fitness experts offer this advice: Enjoy the seasonal offerings mindfully, stay active and hydrate – but don’t count calories! Here is an occasion-specific breakdown:
The cocktail party
Unlike a sit-down or buffet dinner, the holiday cocktail party often features only bite-size treats along with an abundance of alcoholic drinks – from straight-up reds to creamy nogs and toddies. In other words, don’t arrive on an empty stomach, says Anne Mauney, a D.C. registered dietitian.
“People have a tendency to ‘save up’ for the holiday cocktail party, but it’s better to eat normally during the day and not go to the party starving,” Mauney says, adding that it’s hard to “slow down and eat mindfully when you are starving.”
Mauney suggests prepping for the cocktail party with a big salad that includes a generous helping of protein (for example, chicken or fish) during the day because the appetizers, sweets and alcoholic drinks are full of processed carbs and fats.
Mindful eating includes noticing the smells, flavors, textures and colors of the food as well as eating more slowly.
Along with more enjoyment of the food, mindful eating has been associated with a better ability to self-regulate, says D.C. registered dietitian Rebecca Scritchfield.
“If we slow down we tend not to overeat,” Scritchfield says.
“I say enjoy your drink or drinks, but as we all know, alcohol lowers your inhibitions and affects your judgment.”
Judgment about a lot of things — including what you are putting in your mouth.
“A good strategy is to alternate alcohol and nonalcoholic drinks like sparkling water,” she says.
The holiday buffet
Unlike a cocktail party, the holiday buffet is a fine time to show up hungry, Scritchfield says.
But before digging in, take a look at the entire spread and choose what you really want — not based on calorie counts but on the foods that give you the most satisfaction on that mindful-eating spectrum (texture, flavor, color, smell). So yes, that might mean bacon-wrapped shrimp or pigs in a blanket.
“Rather than asking, ‘What’s the healthiest for me?’ ask, ‘What looks the best to me?’ ” Scritchfield says. “A lot of the food is seasonal and only comes around once a year – so enjoy it.”
Enjoy it, yes, but eat it slowly to give your body a chance to communicate when it’s full, Mauney says. “And don’t feel like you have to finish your plate,” she says. “Food should bring us pleasure, not guilt and anxiety.”
But instead of counting calories, they suggest finding some balance in the meal: protein, whole grains, fresh fruit and veggies to go along with the mostly fat and processed-carb-laden holiday food.
“And – like with any party – enjoy all of it, not just the food. Enjoy the centerpiece, the company, the conversation,” Scritchfield says.
The family visit
When it comes to extended visits, food can lead not only to ill bellies, but also ill feelings, Scritchfield says.
“I have clients who feel the social pressures to eat when they visit their parents,” she says. “But you have to set polite boundaries: ‘Thank you. It looks good, but I am really not hungry. Maybe later?’ You have to say no without creating food fights.”
Mauney says one way to approach the predicament may be to get involved in the cooking process. “Offer to help out in the kitchen and make a dish you can contribute to the spread and something you can enjoy,” Mauney says.
If it’s breakfast and the host is preparing sausage and pancakes, then maybe you can cut up a fresh fruit salad or side dish, she suggests.
And for dinner or lunch, maybe you roast vegetables or make a salad so that you can load up on the veggies. A healthful dressing can easily be made with lemon, olive oil, Dijon mustard and vinegar.
“That way you can make half your plate veggies,” she says.
And everybody — hopefully — is happy.
Winter — including the holidays — is a time when many people put on one or two pounds. The reasons are pretty obvious: We eat higher-calorie foods and move less.
But don’t try to counteract this with crazy diets and cleanses, says Scritchfield, adding that most people lose the one to two pounds in the six to eight weeks that follow the holidays. “At least 95 percent of those who diet gain the weight back. Diets don’t work,” Scritchfield says.
The message should be overall health and fitness — practicing healthful lifestyle strategies such as regular exercise, preparing your own food and drinking more water, she says.
“Take the struggle out of it. We tend to do better when we stop fighting and overthinking the food.”
And don’t forget to move
With the added caloric intake over the holidays, you may want to try to include some added caloric output — also known as physical exercise, says Gabe Free, a personal trainer at Atlas Fitness in the District.
“Try to add more everyday activity, like walking, taking the stairs, parking farther away and maybe joining a gym,” Free says.
But what will really make a difference, he says, is to add strength training or cardio in the form of circuit training (especially if the weather is too dreadful for a run). If you’re already familiar with weightlifting or have access to a trainer, Free suggests working toward heavy weights and lower rep counts (five to six). The heavy lifting will build muscle — also referred to as lean body mass — which increases metabolism.
“At the end of the day it’s calories in and calories out when it comes to weight management,” Free says. “But there are other benefits, too, and just adding a little more daily activity has positive effects on blood sugar regulation and overall health.”
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Boston is a fitness trainer and freelance writer. She can be found at www.gabriellaboston.com.