From cookies and eggnog to multicourse meals, December is a calorie minefield. And for many people, the thought of holiday weight gain – often overstated – can cause angst.
Don't worry. I'm not going to tell you to eat a snack before the party (good advice, though), choose raw vegetables and hummus as an hors d'oeuvre or pass on the pecan pie.
Instead, here are strategies to help you enjoy a food-centred season without starting the new year with a list of diet-related resolutions. Implementing these tactics may require breaking a few well-entrenched holiday habits. But your eating approach to the holiday season can determine whether you harmlessly indulge or end up overdoing it.
And remember: Research suggests that healthy-weight individuals gain only one pound over the holiday season. That's minimal – unless you gain a pound year after year.
Don't: Follow strict food rules
Denying yourself the holiday foods you enjoy – or eating them and then feeling guilty – can lead to self-destructive overindulgence (i.e. the what-the-hell effect), not to mention stress.
Do: Give yourself permission to enjoy what you really love
Be it turkey stuffing, shortbread, latkes or kugel, eating foods you truly enjoy helps you feel satisfied and, as a result, allows you to pass on the rest. Plus, research suggests that you need to eat only a small portion of your favourite food to feel satisfied. What scientists call sensory-specific satiety declines with increasing consumption. Eat a small portion of what you find delicious and savour it.
Don't: Cave in to food pushers
Feeling guilty about refusing a second helping or a slice of homemade pie from a well-meaning host can bend your willpower and encourage you to overeat.
Do: Practise saying no
Be assertive. A lengthy explanation isn't needed. A simple, "No, thank you. It was delicious, but I've had enough," will suffice. Your friends and family members will back off.
Don't: Graze through the party
It's easy to do if you don't have a party plan or you arrive hungry and stand by the buffet table. It's even easier to forget the calorie damage. Distance is key to avoiding a calorie overload. Don't stand next to the food table where treats that you really don't want, or even like, will tempt you to eat.
Do: Make a plan for each event.
To prevent grazing, decide in advance which, and how many, hors d'oeuvres you will eat, how many courses you'll order and so on. (Eating a protein-rich snack before you go will help tame your appetite and bolster your willpower. But I promised not to repeat that advice. Oops.)
Don't: Let holiday cocktails slip under the radar
I'm not advising you to abstain from holiday cheer. But a couple of holiday cocktails can deliver more calories than you realize. Two five-ounce servings of mulled wine, for instance, add 300 calories to your diet. Plus, drinking your calories doesn't fill you up the same way that eating them does. What's more, imbibing can diminish your willpower to eat responsibly.
Do: Limit yourself to one drink an hour
It takes about 60 minutes for your liver to metabolize one standard alcoholic beverage (five ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or 1.5 ounces of 40-per-cent distilled spirits). Drinking more frequently will result in a higher blood-alcohol concentration. You should also set a limit in advance of how much you are going to drink. To keep track, don't let servers keep refilling a half-empty glass. Drink water between cocktails to slow your pace.
Don't: Forget about office treats
It's the time of year when a steady stream of sweets flow through the office. A cookie here and a chocolate truffle (or two) there can tack an extra 400 calories onto your daily intake.
Do: Keep a food diary for the month of December
Writing down everything you eat will help prevent mindless eating and empower you to skip the extras that aren't worth the calories.
Don't: Think there's no time to exercise
It's busy. Office parties, family dinners and holiday shopping can eat away at the time you usually set aside for exercise.
Do: Sneak in some fitness
No time for a 45- or 60-minute workout? Even a 15-minute run or power walk will burn calories, suppress your appetite and strengthen your resolve to make wise food choices. That might not sound like much, but it will make a difference.
Leslie Beck, a registered dietitian, is based at the Medisys clinic in Toronto.