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How to Navigate That Holiday Buffet

Simple steps can help you avoid weight gain

THURSDAY, Nov. 27, 2003 (HealthDayNews) -- Thanksgiving marks the official start of the 'eat, drink, be merry' season -- and also the start of fretting about how much pudgier you'll be after all those holiday parties and family dinners.

First, here's the good news. Although conventional wisdom has it that the average American packs on about five pounds in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, a recent study of holiday weight gain found the average increase is actually about one pound.

But the report, published in March 2000 in the New England Journal of Medicine, also had some bad tidings: Some study participants did gain five pounds or more, and these people were likely to be heavier to begin with. What's more, the holiday weight gain accounted for 51 percent of all weight gain for the entire year.

And since even a pound a year can add up to too many pounds after a decade or two of toasting and feasting, the findings suggest that developing ways to avoid holiday heft may be important for preventing obesity and the diseases associated with it.

Here's how to avoid temptation.

Susan Finn, a registered dietitian and chairwoman of the American Council for Fitness and Nutrition, says weight control around the holidays doesn't require anything different than at other times of the year. But the stress of holiday commitments, plus the marathon of parties and dinner obligations, can make it challenging, she says.

So for starters, plan ahead before you head out to a dinner affair or cocktail party, Finn says.

"Think about the types of foods you are likely to be served and what role eating plays in your activities," she says. For instance, if you're invited to an open house with appetizers followed by a sit-down dinner, go light on the appetizers and save your calories for dinner. Your hostess is more likely to notice your food consumption at dinner than at cocktail hour -- and to take offense if you eat too little.

Lona Sandon, a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and an assistant professor at the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, suggests you "check out your hunger level" ahead of time. If you're too hungry, you risk overeating when you get to that family feast or office party.

"Fill up on a healthy, high-fiber breakfast, lunch and snacks," Sandon says.

Once you arrive at a party, nibble first from the veggie tray before you move on to higher-calorie treats, Sandon adds.

Beth Glace, a sports nutrition expert at Lenox Hill Hospital in New York City, suggests you practice "portion control strategies." Pick the smaller salad-size plate from the buffet line to use as your dinner plate. Then fill half your plate with vegetables or salads.

"Choose the things you want to try. As long as you are not going back for seconds, you won't do too much damage with these strategies," she says.

Also, forget that "try-all-the-desserts" idea, Glace adds. "Choose one dessert you really want." When you sample everything, she says, "you lose a sense of portion control. It's easy to overeat."

What if your hostess, or a fellow guest, pushes you to eat something you don't want? Or more than you want? Look them in the eye, Glace suggests, and quietly tell them, "Thanks, I am satisfied with this."

Instead of making every gathering a celebration of food, try to organize events that are centered around activities. You might sing at a nursing home, stock shelves at a food bank, or get a group together for a holiday walk-a-thon for a good cause, Sandon says.

Regular exercise is a great way to tame holiday weight gain, Glace adds. "Try to get exercise in even on the holiday," she says. Meet friends for a walk in the park before dinner, or round up your house guests and stroll around the block.

The holidays are also a great time to take advantage of your health club, where the population often dwindles about now, Sandon says. "No better time than the present to take advantage of fewer people in your way at the gym," she says.

If you're the hostess, faced with gathering up the leftovers and storing them, pop a piece of gum before cleaning up, Glace recommends. It's difficult to nibble when your mouth is busy.

What if you don't put any of this advice into action and greet the new year five, 10 or more pounds heavier? Switch to a reasonable damage-control mode immediately, the experts advise.

Talk to your doctor about cutting calories to a safe level, and resume -- or start -- an exercise program.

More information

For more information on holiday weight gain, visit the National Institute of Child Health & Human Development. For more tips on preventing gain, check with the University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center.

SOURCES: Beth Glace, certified dietitian nutritionist, Nicholas Institute for Sports Medicine and Athletic Trauma, Lenox Hill Hospital, New York City; Susan Finn, R.D., Ph.D., chairwoman, American Council for Fitness and Nutrition, Washington, D.C.; Lona Sandon, R.D., American Dietetic Association spokeswoman, and assistant professor, University of Texas Southwestern Medical Center, Dallas
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