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Bring it, eggnog: How one dietitian stays on track

I dread writing this column every year. You know, the piece on "how to prevent weight gain during the holiday season." I mean, really, the December holidays come but once a year. Can't we let loose a little?

Do you really want me to spoil your fun by telling you to eat an apple instead of a piece of buttery shortbread? Or carrot sticks instead of that mouth-watering cheese-stuffed puff pastry? Didn't think so.

Most of us know that spiked eggnog, mini sausage rolls, turkey stuffing and mincemeat pie aren't diet foods. Still you'll find hundreds of pages doling out holiday eating advice on the Internet. Eat this, not that. Don't skip meals to save calories. Fill your plate with veggies first. And so on.

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I'm not saying this is bad advice. (I've given it over and over again.) But aren't you tired of nutritionists like me being a buzz kill? A Canada AM viewer recently tweeted I was a "Debbie Downer" after my segment on the nutritional horrors of Thanksgiving pie. (Pumpkin pie was a winner, by the way.) It got me thinking.

Many people want eating strategies for this time of year. As a dietitian, my clients now ask me for these tips daily. After all, a month's worth of overeating can spell trouble come Jan. 1. But not as much as you might think.

Research suggests that individuals at a healthy weight gain just a little over one pound during the holidays. People who are already overweight tend to gain an average of five pounds. The real issue: This additional pound – or few – tends to accumulate year after year. In other words, what's most important to weight control is what you do January through November, not at the company holiday party.

That said, if your social calendar is jam-packed for the next few weeks, you may want a few tactics to help you minimize the damage.

But this year, it's time for a holiday eating column about the "to dos" not the "don't dos." I won't tell you to lay off the fruitcake or how many calories are in a jalapeno popper. Instead, let me tell you how I, a registered dietitian, handle a season that celebrates chocolate, sugar cookies and high-fat hors d'oeuvres.

I let myself enjoy my favourite holiday foods but I am careful about my choices especially considering my busy schedule is already preventing me from getting in my regular personal training sessions at the gym. (Sorry Celine.)

What I will do, however, is fit in a quick cardio workout as often as I can – whether it's at the gym, on my StairMaster at home or outside at my cottage on the weekend. I know that even a 20-minute run, power walk or stair climb will burn 200 to 250 calories and reduce my appetite.

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Plus I always feel good afterward. It's hard for me to rationalize cancelling out that calorie burn by eating two tiny deep-fried hors d'oeuvres. (Unless, of course, it's something I really love.)

That brings me to my next strategy: I am picky. I don't waste my extra calories on foods that aren't that special, those I can have year-round. I will pass on the cheese and crackers, chips and salsa, and so on.

Instead, I will enjoy a small portion of the holiday treats I enjoy. For me, that means one rum and eggnog (light eggnog, if possible), my mother's melting shortbread cookies, my homemade turkey stuffing and, I must admit, I will indulge in a couple of Swedish meatballs (it's once a year!).

When it comes to cocktail hors d'oeuvres, I choose ones that pack more protein and help me feel satisfied. (They're also lower in calories and fat than most others.) My picks include chicken satay, shrimp and cocktail sauce (tastes great and only 55 calories for five large shrimp), smoked salmon and sushi.

I don't have a sweet tooth. That certainly helps this time of year. With the exception of my mom's shortbread, I can easily sidestep trays of cookies, tarts and chocolate.

I have a few tactics that help me make these smart choices when presented with an overwhelming variety of delicious-looking food – whether it's good for me or not.

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For starters, I always arrive at a cocktail party or dinner with a little something in my stomach. I make a point of having a snack one hour beforehand: yogurt, fruit, a small handful of nuts, raw vegetables and hummus, a latte or a cup of vegetable or bean soup. If I miss this snack, it's game over. I arrive hungry and eat more than I intended to.

For me, it's also important to have a plan of attack. I decide in advance to limit my intake to, say, three little hors d'oeuvres. If dinner follows the cocktail party, I'll skip the hors d'oeuvres.

If I choose to drink, I will decide in advance to have one or two glasses of wine. To keep track, I don't let servers keep refilling a half-empty glass.

When it comes to holiday eating, I am a regular person. I indulge (but don't overindulge), maintain some level of exercise (but less than usual) and resume my typical routine after the holidays.

Leslie Beck, a Toronto-based dietitian at the Medcan Clinic, is on CTV's Canada AM every Wednesday. Her website is

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