Debra Reed and Allison Childress talk about common misconceptions that lead people to overlook smart eating in December.
It is possible to not gain weight between Thanksgiving and Christmas and not live like a hermit to do so. It just takes some planning and awareness that a once-a-year binge can have long-term consequences.
Texas Tech University nutritional sciences professor Debra Reed and instructor Allison Childress, both registered dietitians/nutritionists, talk about the inherent risks of the “it's only once a year” argument; namely, with the obesity epidemic in the United States, the risk of unhealthy weight gain and the associated health risks are a constant problem that is exacerbated during the holidays.
On average, Americans gain 1-2 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, Childress said. Research also has shown Americans have a much harder time losing those two pounds than they had putting them on.
“Some may not think that is a serious amount, but research shows us people usually do not lose the weight they have gained after the holidays are over, which could lead to them gaining 10-20 pounds in the next 10 years or so,” she said.
Myth: Christmas is only once a year. That's OK, right?
Fact: Three or four decades ago binge-eating only happened during the holidays, so sticking to the strict diet mattered less. Today, with obesity rampant and people eating like it's Christmas a few times a week, yes, once a year matters because it's never once a year.
“The holidays” also have shifted from a work Christmas party and a family Christmas party to a monthlong string of big meals, parties, edible gifts and getting together with old friends over drinks or dinner. Healthy food choices, physical activity and sleep tend to be ignored.
“The holiday period is a lot of weeks,” Reed said. “That's a long time to not keep these things in check.”
Myth: Splurging on a high-fat food is always a bad idea.
Fact: Splurge! But do it wisely and in small portions. Reed recommended partygoers first figure out what food is available and what they want to eat. When getting food, she suggested people pick one special treat and hold to that. People can fill their plates with healthy foods, leave a small space for the piece of cake, brownie or dip, enjoy that splurging and then don't go back to the food table.
Portion control is a major issue regardless of food, Childress said. Many people gain weight eating foods perceived as healthy, such as nuts, which have many health benefits but also are mostly fat and shouldn't be consumed in multiple handfuls.
“There isn't any food to absolutely avoid in order to stay healthy during the holidays,” she said. “But it is important to watch your portion intake and pay attention to what your body is telling you so you don't overeat.”
Myth: If a host puts the food away too early, people will want more of it.
Fact: People are stimulated by what's in front of them. Leave the Christmas spread out on the table all day and people will graze all day. Eat for 30 minutes and pack it up, and people will only come back when they're actually hungry.
Instead, Reed said, partygoers or family members can get their food, get away from the food and make the focus on building relationships and spending time with others. When partygoers make socializing the focus instead of food, they eat less and don't feel stuffed.
Myth: The end of November is a great time to start a diet.
Fact: This is true only for people who like to fail.
“Even people who are very, very successful weight maintainers struggle in the holidays,” Reed said. “It's not a good time to lose weight.”
The goal during the holidays, both experts said, is to not gain any weight. With all the temptation around, plus the added stress contributing to less sleep and the cold weather and busier schedules resulting in less exercise, December just isn't the healthiest month for many people.
Myth: Liquid calories don't count.
Fact: Not only do they count, they add up quickly. A couple of cocktails can have more calories than one meal, and people are less likely to take that into account. The same is true of non-alcoholic beverages. Even a few glasses of fruit punch can up calorie (and sugar) intake.
It's not necessary to skip the drinks entirely; Reed recommended having a favorite drink at a party or family gathering, drink it slowly, then switch to water.
Myth: Skipping meals will help keep calories down.
Fact: Skipping a meal is more likely to result in more calories being eaten by the end of day, Reed said. Eating a normal amount at each meal, and stopping before feeling full, is the best way to not overeat.
Myth: There is no way to avoid gaining weight in the holiday season and still have fun.
Fact: Potluck dinners are a perfect time to slide something healthy onto the table. Reed likes to take fruit salad; not only is it healthy, but the fruit is attractive and with frozen fruit, such as chopped mango, throwing together a tasty fruit salad can happen in a matter of minutes. She advised going the simple route; bring dishes that are recognizable, easy to make and easy to eat, and people will eat them, even a bowl of grapes surrounded by fancy holiday food.
People who want to cook can look for ways to make their favorite dishes healthier. For rolls, pie crusts and even cake, using some or all whole wheat flour instead of white flour helps. Reducing the amount of sugar in recipes, using low-fat dairy products or amping up the number of vegetables in recipes to replace higher-calorie foods all will make for lighter fare this season.
Focus on activities and social events. After dinner on Christmas, families can take a walk together or play a game, preferably one that involves some physical activity.
“There are a lot of easy things to do that make a little bit of difference,” Reed said.