Holiday weight control

October through December — what with Halloween candy, office treats and festive parties — is a time when many an American waistline expands. We spoke with two Stanford dietitians, Rosalyne Tu, MS, RD (Stanford’s BeWell program) and Raymond Palko MS, RD (Stanford Hospital and Clinics), for their advice on weight management over the holiday season.

What does successful weight management look like over the holiday season?

Rosalyne Tu: Successful weight management starts with doing the best you can to maintain your regular behaviors during a more difficult and often more stressful time of the year. It is not the one holiday dinner or celebration that causes weight gain; rather, it’s the cumulative effect of the days before and after that dinner. During the holidays, we end up losing some healthy routines — like regular exercise, and instead we adopt less healthy ones — like eating sweets more often. 

Raymond Palko: With weight loss, it is best to avoid extremes. When New Year’s resolutions come up, many people tend to aim for severe weight loss. However, it is important to be kind to ourselves. We do not need to drop 20 pounds to be successful and improve health. Losing 1-2 pounds per week is a healthy rate for weight loss. We can reduce the risk of developing chronic conditions with just modest weight loss.

What are some common pitfalls during the holidays that can contribute to weight gain?

RP: Often, the concept of “moderation” can undermine our good intentions. Moderate eating does not mean consuming two pieces of pumpkin pie instead of three. Rather, it means having a small slice of pie, one or two times over the course of a week.

RT: Sometimes we are too “good” about budgeting our calories and we skip meals or under-eat during the day to save up calories for large holiday meals. This strategy can backfire on us because our appetite hormones get very strong and we end up in less control of our appetites, causing us to overeat later. Our bodies were designed to treat starvation as our worst enemy; therefore, when we are hungry, we naturally crave highly caloric foods (high sugar and fat). For some people, giving in to these foods brings on feelings of guilt when the biological response was natural.

RP: Increased alcohol consumption is another road bump. At parties, alcohol can flow freely, and it is very calorically dense without any nutritional benefits.

RT: Liquid calories are often empty calories. Alcohol, specifically, can promote overeating because of its ability to break down willpower while causing blood sugars to drop — both of which could encourage overeating. 

RP: Bottomless serving vessels can also pose a problem. A big bowl allows people to keep eating without regard for caloric intake. A good strategy is to get a smaller dish and portion out a reduced, defined amount.

RT: Holiday functions often revolve around eating, drinking, and sitting. The lack of activity and mindless eating can contribute to weight gain.

What sort of healthy strategies do you recommend during the holiday season?

RP: Be sure to maintain or even increase physical activity. The bottom line is that weight gain is about calories in versus calories out. Take the time to fit in extra activity since there will be extra food intake. When shopping at the mall, do a few laps before going into a store. Skip the Marguerite and walk to the office. Walk before or after a meal. Give activity-themed gifts to family and friends.

RT: Focusing on your food environment is a good strategy; we can be less dependent on our willpower if our environments are more conducive to health. Bring a healthy dish with you to the party to share; at least one healthy item will be part of your meal. Also, try not to sit or stand near the less healthy foods. Instead, sit by a healthier choice or away from the food altogether. 

RP: You cannot go wrong with incorporating more fruits and vegetables. Use the plate method: make half the plate non-starchy vegetables, a quarter of the plate protein, and a quarter of the plate a starch. 

RT: Sometimes we can feel pressure to eat foods others bring. Be vocal about your boundaries with food. Practice saying “no” to people who pressure you. A good strategy is to say “I’m full” or “I’ve had enough” rather than “I’m trying to watch my weight” or “I shouldn’t.” Once people learn that you are serious about these statements, they may pressure you less in the future.

Can we incorporate special holiday treats and still maintain our weight?

RP: We can definitely enjoy our favorite holiday foods. It is important to pick one favorite indulgence instead of all of them. For instance, pick just the mashed potatoes instead of the mashed potatoes and the stuffing and the creamed corn and the bread. A good strategy is to survey the options ahead of time and make a selection before grabbing a plate.

RT: Food is meant to be enjoyed! Give yourself permission to enjoy your favorite treat and practice eating mindfully. Eat your treat like it is a fine dining experience: slow down, savor every morsel, and minimize the distractions like the television and computer. Eating mindfully helps your body decide how much it is truly hungry for.

… any other thoughts on having a healthy holiday?

RP: If you want specific dietary recommendations, ask your doctor for a referral to see a registered dietitian. 

RT: Be realistic about what will work over the holidays. At the beginning of each week, look at your days and see when it will be easiest to fit in exercise and when you will be able to make more wholesome food choices. 

RP: And if you do indulge in alcohol this holiday season, be sure to designate a sober driver. In order to be healthy, we need to stay safe!

Interview conducted by Amanda Perez and edited by Lane McKenna Ryan

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