Ask the expert: Don't pack on the pounds during the holiday season

Mindy Athas is an outpatient dietitian-nutritionist at the Tevis Center for Wellness at Carroll Hospital in Westminster.
Mindy Athas is an outpatient dietitian-nutritionist at the Tevis Center for Wellness at Carroll Hospital in Westminster. (Handout)

With the holiday season upon us, so is the temptation to overeat — and gain weight. Parties and get-togethers mean lots of savory foods and sweet desserts that may be hard to pass up. But Mindy Athas, an outpatient dietitian-nutritionist at the Tevis Center for Wellness at Carroll Hospital in Westminster, said you can still indulge some without packing on the pounds.

Why are holidays a prime time for weight gain and how much can people gain around that time?


Holiday weight gain from Halloween to early January is real. Blame the increased availability of calorie-dense goodies at work and home. The average holiday weight gain is one to two pounds. Individuals who are considered medically overweight or obese can typically gain up to five pounds. Over time, small gains add up, increasing the risk to develop chronic illness and diseases like diabetes. In addition to holiday food temptations, we tend to gain more weight in the winter because the cold weather makes us want to move less and eat more comfort, high-calorie foods.

Is it okay to skip meals all day if you are expecting to attend an evening party with lots of good food? Why or why not?


Hoarding calories prior to an evening event can backfire. If you are really hungry when you get to a party, you can end up eating a lot more than you normally would to stop those hunger pangs. It is better for your health and waistline to consume several small meals or snacks over the day. Providing consistent energy prevents overeating later due to hunger. Have a small snack about an hour before the party. Choose something protein- and fiber-rich like an apple with peanut butter.

What are the lowest-calorie cocktails? Is wine better than a mixed drink or beer?

Alcohol sipped with food can prevent rapid digestion and intoxication. Booze can lower your inhibitions and lead to overindulging in foods, especially sugary and fatty celebration fare. Four ounces of champagne, a 12-ounce lite beer and a 1.5-ounce shot of hard liquor have around 100 calories. A five-ounce glass of wine or 12-ounce regular beer can run between 125-175 calories. Mixed and flavored drinks with added sugar are much higher. Use caution with sweetened, frozen, blended and coffee drinks, limit portions, or have them in place of dessert.

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What are some tips for not overeating while at a holiday party?

Don’t be first in the buffet line. Survey the scene, mingle and have a seltzer with lemon or fruit-infused water. Prioritize the foods and drinks you want most. Use a dessert-sized plate, which tricks your brain into eating less. Choose fiber- and protein-rich foods first. Steamed shrimp, chicken skewers, deviled eggs, fruit salad, hummus, bean dip, pickles and crudité increase the feeling of fullness. Instead of chips, crackers and breaded items, save your carbohydrates for homemade mashed potatoes, gravy and rolls, but limit the number of servings and the portions.

What are the lower-calorie desserts and what should people avoid?

Pumpkin, apple, cherry and fruit-centered sweets; nut-based treats; cheeses; and dried or fresh fruit should be first picks. Dark chocolate offers antioxidants, as do coffee and tea, which also help you feel full. Limit fried desserts and those made only with sugar. Savoring one slice of a favorite dessert, not a sampling of all desserts, keeps you from feeling deprived while preventing you from overdoing it.

Will increasing exercise during the holidays help offset weight gain from holiday food?

Physical activity is often skipped during busy times. Regular exercise is the best way to stay healthy and lower your risk for illness. Increasing blood flow to the gut and brain improves thinking and digestion, and helps manage holiday stress. Add a 15-minute walk in the morning. Take the stairs or walk another 15 minutes in the afternoon or evening. Try to get 30 minutes of exercise five days a week. Making time for exercise means giving up something else, so plan it in. Exercise may not induce weight loss, but is crucial to weight maintenance, muscle tone, improving mood and sleep: things that overeating can impede.

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How can someone deal with the peer pressure to eat around the holidays when they are trying to eat healthier?

Homemade goodies, work potlucks, happy hours, parties and brunches all conspire against our waistlines! Create a holiday action plan with daily reminders. Post sticky notes, send email or set phone reminders to yourself. Plan ahead with plant- and protein-based snacks, timed breaks away from food and daily exercise. Enlist a walk buddy, do five-minute meditations, deep breathing or count to 15 before eating that treat. Tell the friend with homemade brittle a polite “no, thank you.” Or take a small piece for later. Don’t feel obligated to eat certain foods or large portions. Hold a cup or plate for show during a party. Focus on socializing and fun.

Do you have any other tips to avoid gaining weight around the holidays?


Have a plan. Don’t waste calories on stuff you don’t love. Wear tighter-fitting clothing to prevent overeating. If you are cooking, make healthy plant-based items to fill up on first. If you are a guest, bring a dish made with fruit, vegetables, nuts or protein. Give away leftovers or freeze them. Pack sweets as gifts. Move: Build activity into every day. Practice coping skills and train your brain to relax. Focus on the atmosphere, family, friends and traditions.

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