Holiday Feasts Don't Have to Fatten You Up

Exercise and moderate portions can battle weight gain

Karen Pallarito

Karen Pallarito

Updated on December 14, 2004

TUESDAY, Dec. 14, 2004 (HealthDayNews) -- With the winter holidays come an abundance of goodies usually enjoyed but once a year.

Whether it's an elaborate dinner with all the trimmings or a gift box of gourmet chocolates, the temptations can weaken even the most strong-willed weight watchers.

But if you're smart about it, you can enjoy your holiday favorites without packing on the pounds.

Walter R. Thompson, a professor of nutrition and kinesiology and health at Georgia State University, says it boils down to a simple equation. "Weight loss is a matter of a balance between energy intake and energy expended." Even he, though, is prone to letting his guard down.

Thompson's daughter recently came home with a plate of chocolate chip cookies. "And I think I've probably had a dozen since yesterday," he said. Usually, he'd have just one, so he made up for the splurge: "I jogged an extra half-mile this morning when I went out for my run."

And he's planning ahead. Once he returns from a speaking engagement in Germany, his usual three-day-a-week jog will become a daily ritual, at least until he burns off the extra calories he's bound to consume during the overseas jaunt.

It's commonly assumed the average American gains 5 pounds or more between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. Not so, according to researchers at the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. Their study, published several years ago in the New England Journal of Medicine, found people actually gain much less. But over the years, holiday weight gains seem to stick with people; that may account for the substantial increase in body weight that frequently occurs in adulthood, they concluded.

The authors measured weight gain in a sample of 195 adults from September through March; 165 people returned in June and September or October for follow-up measurements. Participants gained an average of roughly 1 pound in the September to March period; 75 percent of that gain occurred over the holiday period.

On average, people gained 1.36 pounds over the year, meaning the weight put on during the winter months isn't shed during the spring and summer, the authors said. Those gains appear to be cumulative. For people who are already overweight or obese, the holiday season may pose a special risk, the authors noted, since that extra weight puts them at higher risk for diabetes, cardiovascular disease and other conditions.

Wouldn't it make sense, then, to go into the holidays with a plan for keeping that extra weight off?

"I'm actually looking forward to trying to do it healthy this year," said Joanne R. Lupton, a professor of nutrition at Texas A&M University.

Lupton, a self-described Martha Stewart-type, won't be going to elaborate lengths to entertain her loved ones this year. She's keeping it simple, offering low-fat fillers before big meals such as cut up veggies and salsa as a dip, and healthy side dishes. And she may suggest talking a walk in the neighborhood afterward.

"It's very easy to sit down and eat 4,000 calories at a [holiday] dinner," Lupton acknowledged. While turkey is a fine, low-fat main course, all the extras, such as chips and dip and calorie-laden side dishes, can set you back, she said. Most women who aren't very active can only eat 2,000 calories without gaining weight, she added.

People who are successful maintaining their weight tend to be planners, Lupton observed. So, if possible, plan accordingly, she suggested. If you're attending your spouse's holiday party, it's not a bad idea to eat something nutritious before you go so you won't be ravenous when you get there. And then be selective.

"You don't have to sample everything," Lupton insisted.

If you want to eat healthier at the buffet, go for lean meats, whole-grain breads and hard cheese over fatty protein, white bread and Brie. If you intend to drink, choose a glass of red or white wine over a high-calorie eggnog.

The dessert cart is beckoning you? "I think what you do is, you don't deny yourself that food but you don't pig out on it," Lupton said. "Don't put the whole piece in front of you and expect that you're only going to take three forks of it."

Moderation is key, Thompson agreed. But he also reminds people not to put their exercise program on hold just because it's a holiday. Incorporate it into the day, he suggested, because "it's a lot easier to put on weight than it is to take it off."

More information

The International Food Information Council has tips for healthy eating.

Read this Next
About UsOur ProductsCustom SolutionsHow it’s SoldOur ResultsDeliveryContact UsBlogPrivacy PolicyFAQ