Nobody wants to count calories, run marathons, or skip her favorite desserts while celebrating the holidays. But a little moderation can go a long way. So here are my 10 favorite tips for managing your weight and health this holiday season.
1. Manage stress creatively
We all know that stress can trigger increased eating and cravings for foods that are high in sugar and fat, so why not choose some innovative stress busters? Get some sun to stimulate the production of feel-good serotonin. Sniff some citrus fragrances to elevate your levels of the hormone norepinephrine, which can boost your mood. Laugh like crazy to reduce stress hormones. Savor a spicy meal to release endorphins, a natural chemical that triggers feelings of well being. Savoring some sun, citrus, and spices while having a hearty laugh sounds like just the prescription, wouldn’t you agree?
2. Focus on people, not food
Most of us attend holiday celebrations so we can catch up with neighbors, family, and friends; meet some new people; have a few laughs, and enjoy some time away from our everyday responsibilities. So choose to focus on the people around you rather than the food. If you need a jumpstart for conversation, here are a few ideas: Inquire about peoples’ holiday plans. Give a sincere compliment. Join a conversation and just listen for a while before chiming in. Have an “elevator speech” that allows you to introduce yourself succinctly. Most importantly, participate in the event rather than sticking like glue to the food tables.
3. Get adequate sleep
It may not seem intuitively obvious, but getting enough sleep is an important weapon for fighting off weight gain. Research has shown that when people don’t get enough sleep for five days, they consume more carbohydrates and may gain as much as two pounds in that timeframe. "When people are sleepy, they make poor food choices and are more likely to eat more than they need," says Kenneth Wright, director of sleep and chronobiology laboratory at the University of Colorado in Boulder. Additional studies reveal that inadequate sleep increases the hunger hormone called ghrelin, decreases the satiety hormone, leptin, and causes people to consume about 300 calories a day more than when they are well-rested. So take time to sleep at least seven hours a night and you’ll be lighter on your feet when you dance the night away!
4. Space out your drinks, not yourself
Space out your alcoholic drinks by alternating them with sparkling water, club soda, or just plain water with a splash of fruit juice or a wedge of citrus. Not only will your head remain clearer, but you’ll take in far fewer calories, be better able to resist some of the more tempting foods that tend to call your name when you’re imbibing, and remain hydrated. And keep in mind that eggnog, coffee drinks with whipped cream, hot toddies, and spiced rum each can have as many calories as a cheeseburger!
5. Exercise your right to keep moving
It’s challenging to squeeze in a workout while juggling holiday festivities, busy travel plans, and general overcommitment. But rather than throwing exercise by the wayside, doing something is better than doing nothing. A study done at Stanford University showed that breaking up 30 minutes of exercise time into three shorter ten-minute segments still produced significant health benefits. So resist having an all or nothing attitude toward exercise, and instead, take advantage of any opportunity for movement. Walk briskly as much as possible while shopping. Park as far as possible away from entrances (but only if it’s safe!). Take the stairs. Walk down a hall instead of sending an e-mail. Set your iPhone for every 30 minutes to remind yourself to stand up and move. These seemingly small initiatives can all add up to help battle holiday weight gain, decrease your stress, and maintain some structure throughout the holiday craziness.
6. Just say “No”
It’s not always easy to say “no” to Aunt Mary or your boss when she encourages you to try her homemade streudel or favorite flourless chocolate cake. So prepare a few pleasant, but firm responses, such as “I wish I had room, but after eating all of your wonderful (fill in the blank), I simply am too full,” or “I’m looking forward to having a piece, but I’m going to wait a few minutes,” or “I would love to try a piece, but rather than have some now, may I take home a piece for later?” If you choose the latter response, make sure you either have someone to give the item to, freeze it, or throw it away. Stay away from responses such as “I really shouldn’t” or “I’m trying to watch my calories.”
7. Have a three-bite dessert rule
If you feel that no celebration is complete without dessert, then go ahead and have some. But follow the three-bite rule, especially if you are sampling more than one dessert. There’s even some science to back up this approach. Scientists have found that eating smaller portions of delicious foods leaves us more satisfied with the taste, and that each bite of food is actually less pleasant than the one before. Since there appears to be a law of diminishing returns for flavor, why not stop after three bites and optimize the experience, as well as the outcome?
8. Eat what you love, leave what you like
According to research out of Cornell University, the first three items in a buffet line are likely to make up 65% of your plate just because you see them first. This leaves little room for things you may really want and makes a second helping more likely. To cut down on overeating, tour the entire buffet before you fill your plate, identify the foods you love to eat, and resist the rest.
9. Choose a smaller plate
Research from Cornell University shows that switching from an 11-inch dinner plate to a 10-inch plate causes people to serve themselves less food. So choose the smallest plate available that can reasonably accommodate your food. And then wait for 20 minutes or so before going back for more. This amount of time gives your body the opportunity to register the sensation of fullness. If you serve yourself second helpings before that time, you will likely overeat, taking in calories you don’t want or need.
10. Contribute a healthy dish
Offer to bring an item to a holiday celebration whenever possible. This will allow you to make something healthful that you will feel comfortable eating. Some suggestions: vegetable dip made with Greek yogurt accompanied by colorful vegetables; hummus or guacamole with whole-grain crackers or vegetables, or a cheese and fruit platter. And let someone else make the desserts!