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How to Keep Weight in Check During the Holidays

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Elyn Zimmerman wants you to think about what you're doing.

Not just a passing twinge on the way back from the cookie tray, mind you. She wants you to really pay attention.

I do funny things, where I'll ask people to log in when they go into the lunch room. You know, `Reason for visit,' `What was consumed,''' said Zimmerman, a nutritionist in Saratoga Springs, N.Y.I want to put my voice in their heads: `What would Elyn say if she was here?'''

It's a common cry among nutritionists and dietitians: People simply don't pay enough attention to what they are consuming each day. That dessert plate, for instance, even one of those small paper ones, can easily hold 1,000 calories, Zimmerman points out.

Thoughtless snacking is one contributor to holiday weight gain, which new research has shown to average only about a pound. On the contrary, though, many diners know exactly what they're consuming during the winter feeding frenzy, right down to its proper name. Feast components may be part of family lore and tradition: Aunt Marge's honey-roasted ham, Tom's famous mashed potatoes, Grandma's chicken pie.

The difference between regular season overindulgence and the holiday version, even among those who had previously been dieting, is slight but significant. During the holidays, folks just don't care. At least, not really.

Beginning at that first bite of Thanksgiving turkey and running through the last sandwich of holiday leftovers, the monthlong diet doldrums see formerly fastidious eaters giving in to guiltless consumption of unwieldy holiday meals. Meats, starches, butter-laden veggies and desserts can run upwards of 2,500 calories a plate.

And the gift of gorge keeps on giving.

The worst calorie culprits you are likely to find on a holiday spread are pecan pie (as many as 500 calories a slice), chocolate fudge with nuts (around 300 calories for a 2.5-ounce piece) and canned eggnog (around 400 calories for one cup, with one ounce of rum), according to the Calorie Control Council, a food industry trade association that has tracked American dieting habits for two decades.

I think subconsciously people say they're going to deal with it in January,'' said Brenda Mayette, a dietitian with Bellevue Woman's Hospital in Schenectady, N.Y.A big problem is that people tend to expand the holiday into a season.''

The enemy is not so much those holiday parties, with their smorgasbord of gastronomical goodies, either, Mayette added.

It's everything else around us this time of year. We're shopping, we go to the food court. We're doing quick and easy, and usually quick and easy tends to be higher fat and calories,'' she said.In fact, I find that lots of times we make all this food for parties and it doesn't even get eaten.''

Mayette recommends the best way to combat holiday gain is, first of all, to not stress about it. If you are actively dieting, allow yourself some slack and just strive to maintain until the new year. Also, do the math.

The first rule is to expand our conscious awareness to the whole holiday season rather than just the holiday,'' Mayette said.We're not gaining that extra weight at one holiday party.''

The average American needs 2,000 calories a day to maintain weight, and would have to consume 3,500 calories more in a day to gain a pound.

``It takes work to gain weight,'' said Nan Windmueller, a nutritionist in private practice in Albany, N.Y. Post-holiday fluid retention because of alcohol and salt consumption can make weight gain seem more pronounced, she added.

Her tips: Go with portion control rather than trying to deprive yourself of certain types of foods.

Good weight management is nothing more than bookkeeping,'' Windmueller said.If you try to deprive yourself, it gives the food a lot of power and all you can think about is eating foods on the `No' list.''

Mayette suggests diners keep in touch with their senses at holiday parties.

When you eat those desserts, how many of those bites are you actually enjoying?'' she asked.By the third or fourth bite, we're eating it 'cause it's left.''

Skipping the perennial ``party standards'' leaves more room for holiday specialties, too.

``If there are chips and dip, don't waste your calories on it. You're going to have it two months from now,'' she said. Also, stick with tablespoon-sized portions, don't show up to a party hungry, and don't plant yourself by the food table.

Windmueller suggests that if you are the one preparing a meal, try trimming as much fat as you can. Make the gravy ahead of time, rather than using fatty drippings from cooking meats. Use light butter.

When serving yourself at the dinner table, fill up half your plate with vegetables, so long as they are not creamed or loaded with butter. Split the other side between a starch (rice, mashed potatoes) and protein. Eat slowly and wait a few hours between the main course and dessert.

Then, pay attention to how your body feels,'' she said.It takes a long time for the brain to figure out the body is full. There are lots of regrets at the end of a long feast.''

Calories from alcoholic beverages can sink even the best-laid plan, Windmueller said. (A half-cup of eggnog with one ounce of rum, by the way, has nine grams of fat and 230 calories).

``It can lessen your inhibitions and stimulate your hunger,'' said Windmueller, adding that women should have no more than a serving of alcohol (5 1/2 ounces of wine, 12 ounces of beer or one ounce of hard liquor). On average, men can have two.

All that said, try to have a good time.


(The Albany Times Union web site is at

c.2003 Albany Times Union

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