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Avoiding the Most Unwanted Holiday Leftovers

By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, RD, MPH

From your very first swipe into the trick-or-treat loot to the last drop of New Year’s champagne, there are countless opportunities to put on a few over the holidays.  Less desirable than the scratchy sweater, brick-esque fruitcake and useless gadget gifts, extra pounds are the worst of the holiday leftovers. Though the New England Journal of Medicine reported in 2000 that most people don’t gain nearly as much weight as previously thought—the season end tally is more like a pound instead of five—it’s still extra jiggle you don’t need. But even worse, studies show that that solitary additional holiday pound is never lost; so if you figure on gaining just a pound of holiday weight per year of your adult life, that adds up. You’re practically guaranteed to be a plump old man one day—and everyone knows that look only works if your transportation is a sleigh. 

Though the holiday season only comes but once a year, there’s no reason to completely let go of your health goals and guarantee a diet to be one of your standard New Year’s resolutions. But there’s also no reason to pass up the tempting treats altogether and miss out on the tastes you love that only come around once in a year. A little moderation, extra time with your sneakers, and a few helpful tips are all it takes to have a happy new rear in 2010. 

Run, Run Rudolph
There’s a lot more to do during the holidays, but don’t abandon your workout routine. It’s easy to let a couple days slide… then a couple weeks… then before you know it, you’re back fresh-faced at the gym with the rest of the New Year’s resolution crowd. Use the holidays as a good excuse to make some changes to your workout. With neighbors putting up ridiculous amounts of lights, National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation style, go gawk—but make it part of your running route. And since you’re buying everyone else gifts this season, put yourself on the list. A new pair of gym shorts, sports equipment or a pair of shoes can motivate you to get moving. If you’re lucky enough to live in a snowy climate, go sledding. Just 30 minutes of channeling your inner kid on a sled can burn about 260 calories for a 155 pound person—even more if you’re heavier. And show shoeing can burn even more calories—300—which happens to be the very number of calories in a cup of eggnog.  Even shoveling the driveway for half an hour can burn off a couple of sugar cookies (200 calories).  

Beyond managing calories, exercise can also give you the mood boost you need to endure annoying family antics: serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood, can be stimulated with exercise—and increased serotonin activity has been shown to improve mood, increase energy, and decrease carbohydrate cravings. With all the mashed potatoes, cakes and pastries coming your way this season, you can use all the craving control you can get. 

Make a List and Check it Twice
List, plan… whatever works for you.  The bottom line is to be prepared because schedules and routines are inevitably jumbled during the holidays. Planning ahead means having a snack in the car or your bag in case you decide to delay dinner and go out for drinks after work; going to a bar hungry sets you up for overindulging on high calorie pub fare. Just splitting a bucket 24 of wings with a buddy can add over 600 calories and 40 grams of fat to your beer buzz. And an unplanned trip through the drive up for a burger and fries (because you’re starving and there’s no time to cook) can cost you nearly 1200 calories. Do that just three times during the holiday season, and that can account for a one-pound weight gain alone. A handful of nuts, vacuum-packed tuna with whole grain crackers, or a power bar are easy to stow and can healthily contain your hunger in a pinch. Planning easy access to healthy foods can help keep your blood sugar even throughout the whole day, which makes the homemade goodies at work and dessert trays after every party a lot less enticing.

Take the Gifts of the Season
For all of the jelly doughnuts, fried bites of hors d'oeuvres and decadent desserts, the season has some nutritionally stellar treats to foil them. Citrus is at its peak during winter, so stock up on juicy red grapefruits, easy-to-peel clementines, super sweet satsuma mandarins and sweet-tart blood oranges. Besides their ability to assuage a sweet tooth, they also pack plenty of vitamin C—just one fruit (or two small clementines) contain all the vitamin C you need for the day. That’s especially good since vitamin C is an antioxidant that can help boost immunity. Something to consider when you’re sitting on an airplane en route for holiday visiting and your seat neighbor is filling up tissues.

 And big holiday dinners also contain healthy foods and plenty vegetables if you’re strategic about your choices. Roasted turkey is an excellent selection that is frequently on the holiday buffet, and offers long-lasting satiety from protein without overdoing the fat if you stick to white meat and remove the skin. And veggies—especially steamed or roasted vegetables that boast the vibrant color of the vegetable instead of smothered in cheese or sauce—are great to plate. If you have a choice between sweet potatoes or white, go for the vibrantly orange sweet, since they are brimming with beta carotene. Winter squash, spinach and Brussels sprouts are also healthy buffet choices if they are simply prepared. If you anticipate being invited to a holiday meal where the foods are rich and full of fat, impress your host and offer to bring a simple veggie side dish. 

Choose to Be a Little Naughty
It’s totally impractical to think that you’d pass up some of the most delicious offerings of the season. And if you did, there’s a good chance you’d feel a little deprived. The key to getting through the holidays without gaining a pound—and still enjoying your favorites—is a fine balance of give and take. Pass up the ubiquitous bowls of drugstore candy in favor of one really good chocolate truffle. Instead of grubbing on the mass-produced grocery store sugar cookies, save your calories for a small slice of your mother’s legendary pecan pie. Whatever you dish up, eat mindfully; before you take a bite, take a pause to make sure the indulgence is well worth it.  

And what are the holidays without a little hooch? If festive cocktails are your seasonal favorite, keep in mind that drinks are sneaky places for calories (and fat) to hide. A single hot buttered rum, for example, can run you over 400 calories and take care of half your saturated fat allowance for the day. If you’re hankering for a rich libation, go ahead and enjoy it, but just be sure you stop at one drink then switch to seltzer with lime. Even fancy coffee drinks, like a coffeehouse peppermint mocha, can ratchet up calories and fat—a small size can pack as many calories as over three servings of potato chips. Instead, enjoy the flavor without the diet disaster; go for a lighter version made with skim milk, just one pump of syrup and skip the whip. 

The ultimate not-so-naughty advice: If you’re trying and failing to lose weight during the holidays, ditch the diet. Sometimes following a strict program can be frustrating and isolating during an already stressful time—making it more likely that you will hit a breaking point and overdo calories in a weak moment. But that’s not an invitation to eat with abandon. Instead of setting your goal at weight loss, make your goal weight maintenance and resume your downward drop after the holidays are behind you. 

Saw a Few Yule Logs
By keeping a handle on your diet, you’ll be better fueled to handle all that the holidays bring. Besides staying active and keeping your diet healthy, don’t forget to get plenty of shuteye, too. It turns out that the fabled long winter’s nap may be the secret to staying slim. Research from the University of Chicago reveals that sleep deprivation makes it harder to control appetite, since leptin (the hormone that signals when you’ve had enough to eat) levels drop, while ghrelin (the hormone that stimulates hunger) levels rise—creating a double-whammy diet buster. And, of course, when you’re sleepy you don’t feel much like being active to burn off all those extra calories.

 So to truly make this the most wonderful time of the year, take time out of the holiday rush to take care of your health—it’s the best gift you can give yourself, and the perfect way to start the new year “leftover” free.