THURSDAY, Dec. 22, 2011 (HealthDay News) -- Lots of folks don't think about what they eat over the holiday season until January, when they stare sadly at the number on the scale and then trudge off to hit the gym, join Weight Watchers or pick up the latest fad diet book.
It doesn't have to be that way.
Health experts say you can still enjoy the holidays -- and the special food offerings that come with them -- without overeating and gaining weight.
"It's OK to indulge, but it doesn't mean you have to gain weight," said Karen Ansel, a New York-based registered dietitian and a spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association (ADA). "It's not the time to try and lose weight. You are trying to keep the status quo. But there are different degrees of indulgence."
Jessica Crandall, a registered dietitian from Denver who's also an ADA spokeswoman, added that gaining weight during the holidays and then working hard to lose it again is not good for a person's body. So-called "yo-yo" dieting can wreck a person's metabolism and cause them to lose muscle mass.
"You're going to essentially slow down your metabolism, which will make it harder for you to lose weight in the long run," Crandall explained. "And keep in mind, it's a lot harder to burn 3,500 calories, which is the amount of calories in a pound, than it is to eat 3,500 calories."
For starters, people interested in maintaining their weight during the holidays should keep eating on a regular schedule, the two dietitians said. Research has shown that people who skip meals -- particularly breakfast -- end up eating more throughout the day.
"Try and stick to consistent meal times so you can avoid being overly hungry," Crandall said. "When you're overly hungry, you can make some bad decisions regarding what you eat. Don't starve yourself during the day waiting for that party at night -- because you'll binge eat or overeat."
Ansel suggests that you think now about the foods you really enjoy and plan to focus on those while eating less of more common fare.
"Think about what are the favorite things you want, and separate things you can only get around the holidays from things you can get anytime," she said. "You love Christmas cookies? Go ahead and have some, but don't have a brownie because you can have that anytime."
Be careful, too, about alcohol intake, for a couple of reasons. Alcoholic drinks, particularly the fancy ones handed out at holiday time, tend to come loaded with calories. "It's usually what you're adding to a drink that contains the calories," Crandall said.
Also, if you're drunk, you might forget to watch what you're eating. "It totally lowers your inhibitions," Ansel said, "and you'll start eating things you never would have eaten" if you were sober.
Other holiday eating tips, suggested by Crandall and Ansel, include:
- Eat lots of vegetables, and eat them first before moving on to the other items on your plate.
- Recognize that many holiday extras, like cheese or cranberry sauce, come loaded with calories. "If those aren't your favorite foods, don't put them on your plate," Crandall said.
- If your favorite food has a lot of calories, be sure to minimize your portion. "Two bites cure the craving," Crandall said. "After that, you're just really feeding your old habits. It's not really giving you any nutrition, and you're not curing that craving anymore."
- Keep your portions small. Remember that a portion of meat should be the size of a cellphone or a deck of cards, Crandall said. A serving of carbohydrates like mashed potatoes or bread should be about the size of your fist.
- After a big holiday meal, don't sink into a recliner or couch. Go for a walk outdoors or participate in some other activity that helps burn off some of the calories you've just eaten.
One final tip: Be ready to turn down offers of food, particularly from loved ones who tend to guilt you into eating more.
"You shouldn't eat to be polite," Ansel said. "There are many other ways to show your love and gratitude than eating food you're not hungry for."
The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on preventing weight gain.