This time of year is an interesting time to be a dietitian (at least in the northern hemisphere). If you are not being asked about magical foods to cure what ails you, you are getting asked to write articles about how to avoid weight gain during the time between roughly between October 31 and February 14 known as the "holiday season." It's an important topic to people who really want to maintain the hard work they've been doing the rest of year but still want to engage in the "usual" family and cultural traditions that are important. Actually addressing it is problematic, however, because this is not a topic that has a lot of double blind studies to back it up, and there are also some social implications too as I was reminded by when I read this quite amusing (to me) blog post entitled simply Horrible Holiday Diet Tips. In other words, we don't really have a lot of "proven" advice to give and some of the advice really falls into the "shame your fat friends and relatives" category as opposed to actually being helpful. Unfortunately, non of this stops people from asking/worrying about getting through the holidays, so I've decided to address a short collection of some common diet tips and see if there is an physical or behavioral science to back it up. Keep in mind that this advice/discussion is for people genuinely looking for healthy eating tips; some people might just want advice on how to deal with less than supportive family at holidays. If you are the latter, there is a companion piece to the above blog post over here.
1) Eat a Big Bowl of Fiber Cereal and Drink Lots of Water Before A Party to Avoid Snacking. Obviously this one comes straight from the blog post above. I can see where this advice comes from, since fiber is suppossed to slow down the emptying of the stomach, people trying to lose weight have been told to eat fiber cereal/apples/take metamucil before any meal (not just holiday ones) in the hopes that they will fill up faster (the water is also there to help the fiber "swell" and enhance fullness). Unfortunately, there haven't been any good studies that show that this is actually the case, and remember those "fiber cereals" are usually anything but low calorie. (Link) So, she's right in that you might not eat as much at the party because you are spending too much time in the bathroom. If you know you are going to be consuming alcoholic beverages later you probably do want to start hydrating before so you are less likely to be hungover later.
2) Save Your Calories For the Party by Eating Light During the Day. (Thanks again Ragan!) In this post I talked about the pro/cons of intermittent fasting. So, for those of you who fall into the category of people whom this might benefit, and are already practicing it, this tip probably sounds like your everyday life. As a practice to start on the day of the party, however, this is a really bad idea as you probably will be ready to eat everything in sight. Eating healthy takes a lot of work, don't expect to change your biological programming to eat food all in one day.
3) Make it easier on your guests by offering light and satisfying appetizers, etc. If you are like my friend Jennifer, who does amazing gluten free baking, and have brought some tasty gluten free treats for you and your celiac disease friends to share, I think that is very courteous. If you are vegan and have made it clear to your guests that you don't wish to have animal products served in your house, I think you are setting boundaries for yourself that others should respect. If you are inviting your low carb friends over to show off how many things you can wrap with bacon, great. But, I don't know of any studies that showed that you as the host could somehow slow anyone's holiday weight gain, as you can't control what they ate before or what they will eat after the party. Be courteous, but don't police them.
4) Substitute [insert trendy "good" ingredient] for [insert trendy "bad" ingredient] for a delicious low calorie treat! Well, maybe. As someone who eats gluten free and enjoys cooking, using and learning about new substitutes is part of my daily life, not just the holiday season. But not every substitute makes something lower calorie, lower carbohydrate, etc. You have to actually look at the label and/or analyze the recipe to see if what you are getting is actually any healthier. Sounds pretty basic but some people get caught up in the hurry of the holidays and don't check. But this is another area where people get caught up in the "little" things and forget that the evidence favors people enjoying a drink of regular eggnog in the context of a "most of the time" caloric/carb restriction.
5) Suggest a walk or other activity after the main holiday meal. Another well maybe. Going for a walk can obviously remove you from easy access to food which can save a few calories. Holidays with family can also be a stressful time for some people, and going outside for a walk or other activities to temporarily remove yourself from a stressful situation can just be a nice act of self care. I think where I have seen some people get in trouble though is that they really think the walk will burn enough calories to compensate for overeating (you know who you are), and after a heavy meal you probably won't be walking/running/biking that fast.
6) Use a smaller plate. I sometimes wish there was a link between plate size and all the hormones and GI system receptors that code for satiety, but it looks like people are more likely to eat until full regardless of plate size (Link). You
Take home message--There is no magic trick to keep you from gaining weight during the holidays. If you have found a plan/lifestyle change that is working well for you the rest of year (which for most people means eating a certain way 80-90% of the time), you will have to keep up that way of eating during the holidays. Do make sure that you find ways to stay in touch with those who have been supporting you so far.