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How Not to Overeat at Holiday Parties

By L.K. Regan

It's the holiday season and the parties are on. In these next few days you may face down office parties, friends' celebrations—all manner of delicious, and nutritionally dangerous, social events. But there are ways of celebrating in style that won't pack on the holiday pounds. For advice we turned to our regular nutritionist Manuel Villacorta. Manuel (MS, RD, CSSD, one of the leading nutritionists in the San Francisco Bay Area and creator of the RealJock Healthy Weight-Loss Programs). Not only does he have advice—he's offering free access to his website and a new iPhone app.

In the holiday season, Manuel says, most people attend four or five parties or events. And the nutrition challenges aren't limited to the parties—"Every break room," he says, "at every office is filled with cookies, or leftovers from parties, or gift cookies that people bring into work." In fact, it's as though the treats spontaneously reproduce. "As I was walking into my office this morning," he told us, "the guard at the entrance had six boxes of chocolate open on her counter, and there were people walking by at 7:30 am, grabbing a treat as they passed. It was 7:30 in the morning!" The fact is, during the holidays, dangerous foods are everywhere you go. Here are Manuel's tips for maintaining control in the face of such a food onslaught:

Go Trigger-Free
At a time when food cues will be everywhere you go, it's particularly important to keep your house free of food triggers. "Most likely you will eating calorie-dense foods outside your house," Manuel says. "And if you do that outside and come home and still have the stuff at home, you will eat more. And that's where the weight gain happens. Clean up your house and make it trigger safe. That is just damage control." Don't bring anything home, or if you already did, kick it to the curb.

Plan Your Eats
Manuel suggests that you face the problem head on, and just acknowledge that you are going to eat at some of the celebrations. The key is not to eat a lot at all of them. "Take time to plan what events you are going to, when you are going to eat what, and when you will give yourself freedom to eat. That's fine. The problem is that, without a plan, you will likely eat at all of the events—and then you will gain weight." So, who throws the best parties? Who do you know that hires a caterer? Plan to eat there, and not waste your eating on the boxed cookies at your office party. Also, Manuel says, "Think about what kind of experience you want at each party—do you want drinks or not when hanging out with those people?" Remember, drinks have calories. "And also think about what's likely to be on offer when you get there," he warns. For example, beware the infamous cookie party.

Eat First
When you go to a holiday party, Manuel says, you should assume that they are not serving dinner, and you therefore should not depend on the food there for your evening meal. "Assume it's going to be all spanakopita, bread, cheese, cookies—snacks. And if you go hungry, you make that your dinner, to the tune of 3,000 calories." Uh-oh. Instead, he says, "Eat first. Of course, you will still eat at the party. But you will eat less. It's a given that you are going to overeat calories in these situations. Best to face it, and overeat to the tune of a couple thousand calories rather than 5,000 calories." That, by the way, is the difference of a pound. Eat a nutritious meal first, and minimize the damage.

Don't Save Up
Most people starve the day of a party because they know they are going to eat later. But then you're so hungry when you get to the party that you, what? Yeah. Overeat. So, Manuel says, you need to condition your body the other way—to feel satisfied with less by damping down your hunger hormones. "Have a normal breakfast, or even a little bigger than normal," he says. "Do the same with lunch. This will manipulate the ghrelin in your body—the hormone that controls hunger." If you control your ghrelin, you will have more control about your choices in front of tempting party foods. "The point is not just to eat less," Manuel says. "It's to eat less of high-calorie party foods. This is about more than your will-power. This is hormonal, and as such can be managed. And that means that if you eat during the day, you will eat less at the party." Try it. What do you have to lose?

If you're feeling overwhelmed by the holiday food challenges, here's some great news: Manuel is offering free access to his website Eating Free through Superbowl Sunday (February 6, 2011). That means advice, support—and Manuel's new Eating Free iPhone app, accessible only to Eating Free members. Now there's a holiday gift to be excited about!