The holidays are supposed to be the most wonderful time of the year, but for many weight-conscious women, they’re anything but merry. That’s because they spend the five weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s navigating a dietary minefield, dodging festive yet fattening foods, like sugar cookies, pecan pie, and buttery mashed potatoes.
”But depriving yourself will only leave you feeling frustrated,” says Sharon Richter, R.D., a dietitian in New York City. “Eventually you’ll give in, and that one taste of stuffing will lead to a second or third helping.”
In fact, a recent study in the journal Appetite found that women who followed strict diets were more vulnerable to temptation—and weight gain—than those who indulged on occasion. So this year, we’re suggesting a novel new mind-set that will benefit your waistline and sanity: Eat the foods you love.
The trick, of course, is to indulge in moderation. Follow these simple rules for shoring up your willpower and curbing your appetite and you’ll be able to relax and truly enjoy yourself at those seasonal soirées—and develop habits you can use all year long. In addition to fending off winter weight gain, you just may get a jump-start on your 2010 slim-down resolution
Spoil Your Supper
Skipping lunch and your afternoon snack to save up calories for a night of feasting may seem like a smart move, but it almost always backfires.
“When you show up to a party ravenous, you’re more likely to make unhealthy choices and wolf down your food,” says Debbie Bermudez, R.D., senior clinical dietitian at Ochsner Medical Center in New Orleans. To fill up—and still leave room for dinner—Bermudez recommends eating a light lunch packed with protein and fiber, like half a turkey sandwich with a cup of broth-based soup or a green salad topped with beans or tofu.
Then, about an hour before the event, take the edge off your hunger with a 100- to 150-calorie snack, like string cheese and a few crackers, half of an energy bar (like Larabar or Kind Fruit and Nut), or even one of those small oatmeal-raisin cookies from the office treat table.
Another option: Stash a Granny Smith in your bag to crunch on your way there. In a new study from Penn State, women who ate an apple before a pasta dinner consumed 15 percent less—about 187 fewer calories—than those who sipped on juice. “Because high-fiber apples pass slowly through your digestive system, you stay satisfied far longer,” says lead study author Julie Obbagy, Ph.D., R.D.
Chew While You Chop
Helping prepare Christmas dinner or whipping up a dessert for the potluck can be a recipe for weight gain. “Those little bites and tastes you take while cooking can add up to hundreds of calories,” says Amy Jamieson-Petonic, R.D., the director of wellness coaching at the Cleveland Clinic and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association. A slice of cheddar cheese, for instance, serves up 100 calories, while a handful of chocolate chips tacks on another 70 calories.
To avoid nibbling, pop a piece of gum to occupy your mouth when you’re in the kitchen so you can save those calories for the treats you’ll really enjoy. Researchers at Louisiana State University discovered that people who chewed gum throughout the afternoon were less likely to snack mindlessly than those who didn’t.
When grabbing a pack, reach for spearmint or peppermint rather than a sweet or fruity flavor. “The scent of mint may stimulate the area of the brain that registers fullness, helping you eat less,” explains Bryan Raudenbush, Ph.D., an associate professor of psychology at Wheeling Jesuit University. In a recent study, he found that people who whiffed peppermint oil before meals consumed about 250 fewer calories a day. Out of gum? Grab a candy cane off the tree or light a mint-scented candle.
Be a Picky Eater
With some advance planning, even the most decadent buffet can become a diet do. The first step: surveying your options. According to a recent study from the University of Pennsylvania, people tend to underestimate how much they consume when they’re given a variety of foods. Before you belly up to the table, peruse the entire spread so you know exactly what you have to choose from. Then go back and, instead of tasting everything, help yourself to just the three or four things that catch your eye.
“The best tactic is to opt for special dishes that you love and can get only during the holidays, like your mom’s honey-glazed ham or Aunt Susie’s macaroni and cheese, and savor every single bite,” says Bermudez. And because it takes at least 20 minutes for a feeling of fullness to set in, swap memories with your sister or slowly sip a glass of water before going back to the table for a second helping or dessert.
Take Dainty Bites
You know better than to shovel in your food, but even the average mouthful may be your dietary downfall. According to a new study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition, people who took bites about the size of a tablespoon ate 25 percent more at a meal than those who took teaspoon-size ones. “Smaller mouthfuls—of any kind of food—slow down the pace of a meal and extend the amount of time you spend tasting the food,” says Richter, “so you feel satisfied with less.”
Avoid taking a full fork or spoonful; your food should cover less than half the utensil. (At home, eat your meals with a salad fork or teaspoon.)
Think Before You Eat
Just because your co-worker brought in her famous chocolate peppermint bark doesn’t mean you need to eat it until you feel ill. “Many women think they have to fit in all their favorite dishes now because the holidays come only once a year,” says Richter.
Before you reach for a treat, stop to ask yourself how hungry you are—and whether you really want it. “Also, remind yourself that there will be plenty of other opportunities to indulge all season,” she says. If you’re already full but can’t bear to pass up those goodies, consider having just a tiny taste or saving them for another day. (You can even extend the season by stashing that treat in the freezer for a few months.)
Stay on the Move
Gym attendance plummets in November and December, reports the International Health, Racquet, and Sports club Association. But working up a sweat is especially important during these months. “Not only does exercise burn calories,” says Bermudez, “it also boosts mood and tames stress.” And that’s an especially good thing, since a recent survey from the American Psychological Association revealed that 41 percent of women say they turn to food to soothe their frazzled nerves during the holidays. Try hitting the treadmill instead: A study from Britain’s Loughborough University found that people who ran for an hour experienced a greater dip in their hunger level than those who lifted weights for 90 minutes. Researchers say aerobic exercise boosts the production of peptide YY, a protein shown to suppress appetite.No time to get to the gym for your workout routines?
Sneak in a little exercise by taking a fast paced stroll around the neighborhood before work, popping in a dance DVD, or doing one of the three 15-minute cardio workouts featured in “Beat Winter Weight Gain,” page 114.
Still, even if you do fit in a good workout, don’t use that as a free pass to load up on snicker doodles. “One exercise session won’t immediately cancel out the hundreds of extra calories you consume,” says Richter. If you know you’re going to be tempted, she recommends tacking on an extra 10 or 15 minutes to your normal routine.
Start Skinny Sipping
With just 123 calories for a 5-ounce glass, wine is a calorie bargain compared to other alcoholic beverages, like gin and tonic (164 calories), buttered rum–spiced cider (275 calories), and eggnog (321 calories). “Plus, you’re not as likely to guzzle a glass of wine the way you might a mixed drink,” says Jamieson-Petonic. If you’re in the mood for a cocktail, feel free— but have only one alcoholic beverage before switching to a lower-calorie drink, like iced tea or sparkling water with a twist of lemon or lime.
Regardless of the drink you choose, don’t pour yourself a glass until you sit down to dinner. “Alcohol loosens your inhibitions and stimulates your appetite,” says Jamieson-Petonic. By pairing that pinot with a meal, however, you may compensate for those extra calories in your glass by eating a little less of what’s on your plate: Research from Colorado State University found that people who sipped wine with their evening meal every night for six weeks didn’t put on any weight.
Keep Your Focus
The last time you saw your cousin was back in college, so you have a lot of catching up to do. But swapping stories over a bowl of artichoke dip won’t do your figure any favors. Researchers from France’s Hôtel-Dieu hospital found that women who listened to a story during lunch ate 15 percent more than those who dined in silence.
“When you’re preoccupied, you don’t fully taste everything, so you tend to overeat,” says Richter. “Give your full attention to the conversation or sit down to concentrate on the food in front of you—you’ll appreciate both much more.”Where you sit at dinner matters too. Try snagging the chair next to your brother’s cute friend: A new study published in the journal Appetite found that women who ate in the presence of a man consumed 358 fewer calories than when they dined with a group of women. Researchers at Canada’s McGill University say women often suppress their eating in front of a person of the opposite sex. They also tend to mirror their dining partners’ habits, so avoid the seat next to that friend with the huge appetite and enviable metabolism.
Seize Some ZZZ’s
Between prepping your house for out-of-town guests and finishing your holiday shopping, sleep may be the first thing that gets cut from your endless to-do list. But skimping on shut-eye can do more than create under-eye circles: Research published in the Public Library of Science journal found that people who logged fewer than five hours of slumber had lower levels of lepton, a hormone that controls how full you feel, than those who snoozed for eight. What’s more, the sleep-deprived also had higher levels of ghrelin, another hormone that stimulates appetite. “When you’re exhausted, you feel hungrier and less satisfied after meals, which can set the stage for weight gain,” says Richter.
To make sure you get plenty of sleep, set an alarm for an hour before your usual bedtime as a reminder to start winding down. If you can’t stop ruminating about the 1,001 things you still have to accomplish before the weekends, make a list before turning in and keep it on your bedside table. Putting your worries and tasks on paper will help you clear your mind—so you can start dreaming about how you’ll look in that slinky New Year’s dress!