It’s here. The season of holiday parties at work, at friends’ houses, with family… It’s an intense time of year. And every year I talk to clients who are so worried about all the caloric holiday foods that they find it hard to enjoy the great things about the holiday season – things like time with friends and family, community and sharing.
I want you to be able to enjoy every single thing about the parties you’ll be attending between now and New Year’s, and that includes the food. But if you want to enjoy it in moderation, and get through the holidays without getting off track, you don’t need worry. You need a plan.
The key to staying on track with your eating through the holidays is to plan ahead. You don’t want to wait to decide what you’ll eat until you are at your office holiday party after a long day at work, staring down a plate of puff pastry appetizers and a giant tray of frosted cookies.
Your path to those puff pastries and cookies started in the morning, when you got out of bed. By the time you’re at the party, much of the damage to your ability to be rational about the tempting foods on offer has already been done. So get a jump on the problem.
Here are five simple strategies for staying in control:
1) Start the day with a plentiful breakfast. That doesn't mean just carbs, but some protein too, something like oatmeal with Greek yogurt and berries, scrambled eggs and fruit, or leftovers from the night before. You need to have your blood glucose levels stabilized before you go to the parties, so that you aren’t in a blood sugar deficit that makes it impossible to resist food. Many people skip breakfast because they think they can then have those calories at the party, but you’ll be so hungry you’ll eat far more of the fatty party foods than you would have otherwise.
2) Eat during the day. This is a related point, but it bears repeating – don’t try to save all your calories for the party. It’s far worse to eat 10 of those baked butter and cheese pastries (you know the ones) than a hearty bowl of soup for lunch. Better yet, eat the soup right before you go to the party to kill your appetite. You can still taste the pastries at the party, but in moderation, keeping the socialization at the center of the experience. The food is secondary.
3) Hydrate thoroughly. Party food is high in salt, which you will retain if you don’t drink enough water. If you retain water you feel puffy and uncomfortable, which in turn makes you not want to drink water. But oddly enough you have to drink water in order to release the water in your body.
4) Exercise sensibly. It’s good to get some movement, and you want as much as possible to maintain good fitness habits during the holidays. But be honest with yourself about it. Killing yourself at the gym for 30 minutes is not going to make up for an entire platter of gingerbread men the night before. So work out within reason, and remember that exercise doesn't act as a license to eat anything you want. It’s just a good habit.
5) Don’t graze. Once you’re at the party take a small plate of food and step away from the buffet to talk to friends. Get involved in the conversation – by all means enjoy the food, but do so at a distance from the table. You’re there to see people, and the more distance you put between yourself and the food table, the more the focus is likely to remain on your friends. And if the party is a potluck, always bring something healthy so you know there’s at least one option there that makes good sense – a delicious vegetable soup, for instance.
You’ll read a lot at this time of year about how to avoid overeating at the holidays. There are many ideas that can work. Here’s another one: Look at your calendar of parties and figure out which ones you want to indulge at – whether because a lot of friends will be there or because you know the food will be especially good. Then give yourself permission to indulge at those parties. As a trade off, at other parties decline fattier food.
But the one thing that all the successful strategies have in common is that they give you a plan, and that plan is made up of healthy food alternatives, consistent eating during the day and a policy of being honest with yourself.
Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian in private practice, MV Nutrition, award winning nutrition and weight loss center in San Francisco. He is the founder and creator of Eating Free, an international weight management and wellness program and author of three books, Eating Free: The Carb Friendly Way to Lose Inches, Peruvian Power Foods: 18 Superfoods, 101 Recipes, and Anti-Aging Secrets from the Amazon to the Andes and his newest book, Whole Body Reboot: The Peruvian Superfoods Diet to Detoxify, Energize, and Supercharge Fat Loss.