“The most wonderful time of the year” is upon us. Along with opportunities to spread joy, spend time with family, give thanks, and honor traditions, the holiday season frequently brings about situations that could lead to weight gain.

Indulgent desserts and chillier temperatures often mean higher calorie intake and less physical activity. As the end of the calendar year draws near, days become shorter and the list of available high-calorie foods longer. It’s common to gain weight over the winter months for a variety of reasons – this year you may be able to prevent this by using some simple strategies.

Enjoy your company – don’t focus on the food. Don’t pay so much attention to what you’ll eat but rather who you will see. Eat before you go to the holiday gathering; this can prevent arriving overly hungry. Don’t skip meals; budget your calories appropriately to account for the high-calorie options that will be available. You’ll be less likely to make impulsive decisions regarding your food and beverage intake if you eat a snack beforehand. Also, survey the options on the buffet line before making a plate so you know how to create a healthy plate before it fills up.

Watch calories from beverages and mindless snacking. Hot chocolate, eggnog, alcohol, juice, and some holiday-themed coffee drinks may pack a larger caloric punch than you realize. Water, hot tea, coffee, or other non-caloric beverages are good options. At your family gathering, carry a glass of water so you aren’t tempted to mindlessly graze. Limit your alcohol – it’s high calorie. Keeping a piece of gum in your mouth might help avoid constant snacking [this is also a great tip while cooking/baking to avoid too much tasting!]

Enjoy your favorite food, just less of it – portions, portions, portions. A thinner slice of pie or one less scoop of hash brown casserole goes a long way. Eat slowly and really savor each bite. The tried and true techniques of slowing down while eating can really help keep portions under control this holiday season. Putting your fork down between bites, sipping water periodically throughout the meal,  chewing food more, even using your less-dominant hand to eat with can help you become a more conscious eater. Try not to eat while distracted, such as watching TV.

Put less on your plate to begin with – you can always go back for more. If your family traditionally keeps food dishes on the table, suggest having the food/buffet in a separate room or table to avoid mindlessly grabbing another scoop of mashed potatoes or another dinner roll just because it’s in front of you. Stop periodically during the meal or throughout the night and gauge your hunger level.

Contribute a healthy food item so that you have an option you can feel good about choosing. Find low-calorie recipes online or a cookbook from your local library. Prepare polite and respectful responses for those who try to “push” foods on you. Keep your weight management goals a priority by not letting others influence your food choices or portion sizes.

Make physical activity a priority. During the winter months, temperatures drop along with motivation to be active. Those who were active throughout the summer with gardening, yard work, and walking may begin to find themselves less on their feet and more on the couch.

Since the days get darker earlier, being active indoors may be a good option.

Developing strategies to avoid the television or the computer is an important method to help you keep active. Visit your local library and rent free exercise DVDs– trying different routines helps avoid boredom. Also, exercise videos can be streamed on your computer from exercise sites  or even YouTube. A great perk to these options is that you can press the pause button whenever you need a rest.

Developing a schedule of particular days and times when you will do these activities will help keep exercise a priority. It may take some trial and error to discover whether first thing in the morning works best for you or if in the evening is a better fit. Keep a calendar in plain sight where you can record your exercising schedule. Be sure to speak with your doctor prior to starting any exercise routine so you know what is/isn’t safe for you.

On the day of a holiday or social event that will include high calorie foods, make a conscious effort to get in some activity. That way, if you indulge more than usual, you know you’ve exercised. Even better, go for a walk after the event or with your company. Catch up and burn calories at the same time!

Get involved with the MOVE weight management program at your local VA.  Learning new strategies for managing your weight can put you a step-ahead of those waiting until after the New Year to start getting healthy – use this time to get things going. If you’d prefer, you can meet with an outpatient dietitian one-on-one at your local VA.

Arranging to sit down with nutrition professional can benefit you by having guidance catered to you specifically. The dietitian you meet with can help you devise individual plans and goals for this holiday season. If you have hypertension, diabetes, renal impairments, high cholesterol or other nutrition-related conditions this is a perfect opportunity to learn more about diet-strategies to help manage those conditions.

Simply trying to maintain your current weight is an appropriate goal if you tend to gain weight during this time. The key is planning how you’re going to avoid gaining those extra pounds and direction from a registered dietitian may be just what you need.

Instead of trying all of these strategies at once it may be more beneficial to pick just one or two – commit to those two goals at your next opportunity. Once you’ve developed the skills to conquer that technique, add a new one. Soon you will see that you’re practicing portion control and mindful eating not just at the holidays but year round.  Don’t use social events as a reason to forget your goals. Apply your weight management tools in all situations.

Happy Holidays to you and your family. I encourage you to take on the challenge: make this not just the most wonderful time of the year but also the most healthful time of the year.

Becky Paskievich, RD, LD is a clinical dietitian in both inpatient and outpatient areas at the Lexington, Kentucky VA Medical Center.

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Published on Nov. 20, 2012

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