• Photo for The Party Predicament: How to Keep Caloric Control Over the Holidays
    Photo Credit: iStockPhoto

The Party Predicament: How to Keep Caloric Control Over the Holidays

By L. K. Regan

This week, you've got the office holiday party, a friend's holiday potluck, maybe even a festive gathering at your house—but do you have a plan for not gaining weight? You may feel that packing on a few holiday pounds is inevitable—but not so fast! San Francisco nutritionist Manuel Villacorta, MS, RD, CSSD, founder of the interactive weight-management web site Nutrition for You, has some suggestions for getting through the holidays unscathed. Read on to find out which strategies to follow, and which traps to avoid.

The first point, Villacorta says, is, "Be realistic about your weight goals over the holidays. We're not talking about losing weight at this time of year; you just want to maintain where you are." Even if you're dieting, you may need to put that on hold for a few weeks, and make it your goal simply to stay where you are. But really—you want to stay exactly where you are. "Studies show," Villacorta tells us, "that people gain five to ten pounds during the holidays—and most of that you start losing in January, because you're determined. But you keep, on average, a pound. And so what, right? It's only a pound. But over five years, that's five pounds; 10 years, it's 10 pounds—over all the ups and downs, you're always leaving behind a pound. And before you know it, you lose track of time, it's 10 pounds. So, the idea really needs to be not to gain any weight over the holidays."

Ok, so now you're inspired—a zero weight-gain plan is in place. But, how to go about it?

Holiday Eating Dos and Don'ts

  1. Forget about "saving up": The single biggest cause of holiday weight gain, Villacorta says, is the widely held belief that you can "save up" your calories for special events. "People very often think, 'Oh, I've got a party tonight, I'm going to skip lunch and save up my calories to eat later.' But that won't work—in fact, it sets you up to gain weight." Why, you ask? Because of ghrelin. Ghrelin is a hormone released by your stomach when it's empty; it produces the pangs of hunger. Only eating will make it go away—but if you let it build up, it will take more food to make the ghrelin subside and, to make matters worse, that food will be processed into fat. Not only that, but not eating slows your metabolism, and, Villacorta says, that will also cause your food to be made into fat at a higher rate. Add to that the fact that you will end up eating more total calories because you are ravenous when you get to the party, and it really is the worst of all possible worlds. So, instead of skipping meals, you need to think about controlling your ghrelin and keeping your metabolism elevated throughout the day so that you don't end up gorging yourself at the party later. That means, Villacorta says, "Eat a high-fiber breakfast within an hour of waking up, and eat something every three hours throughout the day regardless of what's happening tonight. You'll go to your event less hungry, because you've been eating, and your food will be digested and metabolized normally."
  2. Planning, planning, planning: You already know you're going to the parties, and you already know you're going to encounter yummy food there. So make sure you've got a plan for coping. "Don't think," Villacorta says, "that you'll just go to the party and decide what to do when you get there. Instead, look ahead—not just at tonight's party, but at the whole week, and decide now what you're going to do." Do you need to eat extra at every party? Maybe one party is particularly special—plan to indulge at that party, and at other events recognise that this is not the time. Also, remember that alcohol has calories that can seem invisible until they take up residence around your waist. Do you need to drink at every party, or can you settle on one where the wine is likely to be better than the others?
  3. Exercise reason: You don't need to be in a constant state of restriction. "It's the holidays, for crying out loud!" Villacorta exclaims. "Just control your portions and you can enjoy your foods. Don't go hungry and you won't have to overeat, and you'll find that a small quantity of cheese or fatty meat isn't going to make a big difference."
  4. Beware the canapes: If you're going to a cocktail party where they will be serving appetizers, eat dinner before you go; those little foods give you the illusion of eating less, but that can often trick you into eating more overall. Again, if you're not starving when you show up at the party, you'll have a better chance of being honest with yourself about just how much you're really eating, and more control over how many extra calories you are willing to take on board.
  5. Work the potluck: If you're going to a potluck, make sure that you bring a healthy option—a low-fat protein, for example, like chicken. That way, you know for sure there will be something sensible there for you to eat, and you can merely taste the fattier foods, rather than relying on them for your whole meal.
  6. Be social: If you go to parties in a non-starving state, you will be more likely to talk when you get there rather than to eat. This will make you both a better friend and a more rational eater. "It's also important that at parties you eat slowly because you're talking," Villacorta says. "That helps you to digest as you eat and send signals to the brain that you're full and you eat less—but if you go hungry, you'll eat fast anyway because you're starving." Be a good guest and a good friend: go with some food in your belly and take the time to chat with your hosts.
Remember—with a little planning, you can taste all the delicious foods of the season, have a great time with friends and family, and fit into your pants on January first.