Manuel Villacorta: The Upside of Holiday Eating - And Keeping It That Way

So many of my clients think of the holidays as a time of food dread, when they worry that the many celebrations are going to pack on the pounds.

But the one great thing about holiday eating is that this is the time when many people go off the low-carb or low-fat or all-grapefruit or whatever other kind of crazy diet. For our Latino community, it's a chance to get back to eating the actual food of our heritage. It takes us back to family and community. And in that, it's actually a model for how to eat for the entire year.

You just need a plan for managing the quantity.

In fact, the strategies you need to use to manage your eating during the holidays are the very same tools you should use throughout the year. The holidays, after all, are only a couple of days. It's all the stuff in between that you need to focus on.

So I say celebrate turning away from your no-fat or no-carbs diet, rejoice in your return to balanced nutrition, and make traditional food a constant part of your life. And when you do, follow these few tips for holiday eating that you can take forward to January and beyond.

First, forget willpower

If you try to simply deny yourself every pleasure of the season, you are going to end up bingeing, and overeating. Then you try to deny yourself as damage control, but get too hungry and overeat even more, landing in a vicious, self-defeating cycle. Yet it's important to understand that this negative-willpower cycle isn't limited to the holidays. It actually repeats throughout the year. In effect, for many people every weekend is a holiday party: they over-indulge, try to over-compensate, and wind up defeated.

Instead of willpower, planning 

Take a look at your calendar. You already know many of the events you'll be attending this season: your family gatherings, office parties, friends' celebrations. And it's great to enjoy these -- but do you need to indulge at all of them? Maybe one party has the best food every year. Great -- plan to sample all of the flavors at that party. Give yourself permission. But then put up some roadblocks to doing that at every party. Eat a healthy dinner at home before you go out. Resist the temptation to starve in anticipation of a party; again, willpower will fail. Don't go (to the party) hungry.

Don't let the parties follow you home, either

There are sweets everywhere at this time of year, but they shouldn't be in your home. Again, will power will not protect you from a snack attack and a plate of cookies. When the host offers you a plate to take with you, politely decline. If you are given cookies as a gift at the office, take them upstairs to the office above and pass them around -- why not share, in the spirit of the season? But in general, leave the leftovers at the parties, even if it's you that brought the food as a dish to pass.

Finally, rethink the dish to pass

Cook up healthy, delicious dishes to bring to parties. A spicy turkey breast chili, for instance, with lots of vegetables. That way, you know that there is at least one reasonable thing to eat at each party. And if you make something really healthy, you can even take the leftovers home -- to be your pre-party dinner the following night.

Sure -- healthy eating in the holidays is about planning around your social engagements and the presence of tempting food in your environment. But tell me -- when during the year is that not true? Good habits in November/December will serve you well in January, and for all the months to come.

Manuel Villacorta is a registered dietitian (RD) and certified specialist is sports dietetics (CSSD) with more than 16 years of experience. He is a national media spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association and the creator of the Eating Free weight management program (an international, Internet-based weight loss and weight management program).  He is an in-demand health and nutrition expert on both local and national television and radio, and in articles in print publications and online.  Villacorta is the owner of San Francisco-based private practice MV Nutrition, the recipient of two consecutive ‘‘Best Bay Area Dietitian’’ awards (2009 and 2010) from the San Francisco Chronicle and Citysearch.

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