Diets: Resist Temptation Through the Holiday Season

It starts with those buckets of Halloween candy. Then it's on to Thanksgiving (stuffing, sweet potatoes with gooey marshmallows, pumpkin pie). After that pigout, there are holiday parties with calorie-laden snacks and drinks, Christmas and finally the big bash on New Year's Eve. It's the season of temptation and for many of us, it coincides with colder weather – which means we are less likely to get outside and work off our indulgences. No wonder diet- and exercise-related resolutions are at the top of our list on January 1!

But you don't have to give in to this annual binge. We asked registered dietitian Elisa Zied, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, for advice on how to survive the holidays with your weight goals intact. Zied, author of "Feed Your Family Right!", argues that healthy eating doesn't mean total deprivation. In other words, you can have your cake and eat it, too—as long as you don't go overboard. Some tips:

1. Budget for indulgences. On Halloween, you know that candy is coming later in the day, so prepare yourself. Zied advises eating a healthy breakfast, a light lunch, a small afternoon snack and a small dinner. You might even consider making a few treats your dinner, she says. "Having candy and chocolate for dinner is not the most healthful thing to do," she says, "but this is once a year." Pick your goodies carefully. Not surprisingly, candy is full of empty calories. Then step up your physical activity for a few days and, Zied says, "no real damage will be done to your diet or your waistline." For those of us with young children, Halloween can also be a great time to set a good example. Encourage your kids to choose a few treats just as you do. Zied encourages her two sons, 10 and 6, to choose four to six small pieces of candy or two large pieces on Halloween night. After that, it's two large or four small pieces a day. Again, the important lesson is to pay attention to what you're eating so you're not just shoveling sugar into your mouth.

2. Savor every bite. That means thinking about quality, not quantity. At Halloween, stagger your candy intake so your brain has a chance to register what you're eating. "You may end up eating less," Zied says. That's particularly true at Thanksgiving dinner, the mother of all diet-killing meals. Zied advises sticking to one plate of food and keeping portions small. Eat slowly so you can really taste and appreciate those sweet potatoes. "The more slowly you eat, the more satisfied you'll feel and the more quickly you'll be satisfied," she says. Try drinking water or seltzer between bites to make the meal last longer. (A recent study showed that overweight women take less pleasure in their food.

3. Decide on preset limits. At a party, stick to only one alcoholic drink and savor it while you're having it; then follow up with plain or sparkling water. Zied suggests limiting yourself to six hors d'oeuvres or a couple of bite-size desserts. And don't eat while you are drinking alcohol so you are conscious of your food intake. When you've reached your food and drink limit, pop a mint or reapply your lipstick. "These behavioral strategies can help you reduce the risk of taking just one more bite," Zied says.

4. Lighten up. There are lots of ways to cut down on extra sugar, salt and fat even in the most traditional holiday dishes. For example, instead of candied sweet potatoes, Zied suggests trying baked sweet potatoes or sweet potato fries baked with a little oil. To make stuffing healthier, toast real bread rather than prepared bread crumbs: according to Zied, that cuts down on sodium and fat. Make mostly fruit-based desserts. If you can, Zied says, serve bite-size versions so that you and your guests enjoy the taste without overdoing the portion. "If you're handed a big piece of pie, you're likely to eat a big piece of pie," she says.
With everyone worrying about their budget these days, potluck parties are becoming more popular. If you're asked to bring a dish, offer healthier choices like a salad of grilled vegetables and chicken, or pasta with an olive-oil-based dressing. For dessert, Zied suggests fruit kebabs with low-fat chocolate sauce.

5. Strategize for parties. "Do not go hungry," Zied says. On the day of a party, eat protein- and fiber-rich food, avoid any added sugars or fat and drink a lot of water. Reduce portions at all meals. "Even cutting back by just a few bites can add up and leave a little more room for indulgences at a party," Zied says. But don't cut out key food groups. You need to get enough fiber, vitamins and minerals to stay healthy. And don't skip breakfast. "Breakfast tells your body it's not starving," Zied explains. "Skipping breakfast makes your body want to store the calories you provide it with later on instead of using all of them for energy to get through the day." Pay attention to exercise as well. According to Zied, if you step up your physical activity by even 10 or 15 minutes a day during the party season, you have a little more room to indulge.

6. Write it down. Research shows that successful dieters are conscious of their daily food intake. A food journal is a good way to watch what you're eating–but you have to be honest and record every bite (and yes, it does count if you eat it standing up). Food journals are also helpful when you're about to start a diet. Track what you eat for a few days and you may be able to find some simple ways to cut back. Low-tech and high-tech versions work equally well for this, but you might want to take advantage of online sites that include calories and food composition to make it all a little easier. A number of sites charge a monthly fee but many are free. You could start with MyPyramid.gov from the U.S. Department of Agriculture. Another good site is the DailyPlate.com. Both include tools to help track food as well as exercise.