Thursday, December 13, 2012

Tis the Season to Eat Healthy

Festive food alternatives for the holidays

I’ve often kidded with friends that the easiest way for me to watch my weight is to fatten my belly – to get it “out there” in front of me so I can more easily watch it. (Insert appropriately timed Santa’s belly gesture.)

While that line may be good for a chuckle (try it – it works), we all know how frustrating it is to lose all our hard-earned weight loss progress in the name of happy holiday feasting.

After all, what’s a few THOUSAND calories among friends…

Health experts estimate that the average adult gains about a pound of excess body fat every year. 

Just a pound. Doesn’t sound so bad, does it?

But do some quick math, and you realize that a pound a year means that those fit 18-year-olds are toting around an excess of 32 pounds of lard by the time they hit 50!

While that “slow creep” is what gets us, the National Council on Strength and Fitness (NCFS) has stats that lead me to believe that nearly all that annual weight gain happens during “the treacherous six weeks between Thanksgiving and the New Year,” as the NCSF describes it. NCSF cites a 2006 study indicating that we gain weight in proportion to our levels of obesity; that lean to normal weight individuals will gain about a pound during these six weeks and that those who are overweight to obese gain from 3-5 pounds, to as much as seven pounds of weight gain in the same six weeks.

We are what we overeat

The holidays bring on a mega-assault against our weight control efforts:
  • Getting’ junky with it – Many of us abandon our normal healthy diets to enjoy six weeks of holiday snacks and other “carbacious” delights. That kind of holiday joy can stick with you for the rest of the year, in the form of excess body fat.
  • That dreaded hyperphagia! You may suffer from acute voluntary hyperphagia – most of us do during the holidays. Acute voluntary hyperphagia is doctor language for “overeating.” No matter how healthy we eat, too much of a good thing is a heavy thing, weight-wise.
  • Stress! The NCSF reports that the heightened stress and emotion of the holidays may be even more to blame than just the presence of food. Our daily stress is more than in most other countries, but holiday obligations increase the psychological strain, between extra family and other social functions, as well as financial stress from the costs of the holidays.
  • Lack of sleepHoliday celebrations, and prep for same, often results in nights of less sleep. It has long been known that inadequate sleep (less than eight hours) negatively affects circulating insulin and ghrelin, a hormone that increases appetite, leading to an increase in hunger response.
This all adds up to one common holiday recipe – the recipe for weight gain disaster.

But ‘tis the season, right?

Right, of course it is. No one wants to be the bah-humbug party pooper because they’re trying to avoid over-eating or junk food eating.

The good news is, you don’t need to be the food Scrooge this Christmas. Just follow a few smart holiday eating strategies and you can minimize or eliminate the common holiday button popping and belt adjusting.

Your circle of influence begins with you

You are in charge of you. There are ways to control your intake without pure dietary abstinence by substituting either the choice you make of treats or the quantity. 

For example, one of my favorite holiday dishes is sweet potatoes. If I’m going to go a little crazy, it’s better to do so on a solid complex carbohydrate like sweet potatoes rather than simple carbohydrate treats, such as candy corn (To get a better handle on what foods with carbohydrates are healthy, check out WebMd's article about the Glycemic Index). Another easy trick is to eat something healthy before you go to the party, filling yourself up on good stuff.

Maybe your circle of influence goes beyond your own intake. If you’re a guest of a holiday gathering and you are bringing food to share, choose wisely. Consider, for example, the health difference between a relatively healthy appetizer such as deviled eggs vs. deep-fried and breaded poppers; or a healthy carrot-and-celery-with-dip plate compared to potato chips and dip. By taking along healthier but celebrative alternatives to the gathering, you can be assured that you’ll have a low-calorie or low-carbohydrate option to snack on. 

And talk about influence – consider how much of it you wield if you’re the host or hostess.  While all carbohydrates have calories, not all carbohydrates are created equal. Check your carbohydrate calories to make sure you’re mostly getting complex carbs. You can cook up some wonderful alternatives to high-carbohydrate dishes, like a tasty mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes (recipe at That’s an easy way to swap simple carbs for complex carbohydrates. LiveStrong also offers other creative ways to go for complex carbohydrates in your holiday dishes, like Turnip French Fries. While regular fries are far too high in carbs to be part of a low-carb diet, substituting turnips will lower both the calories and the carbs. By comparison there are 23.6 g carbohydrates and 105 calories in potato fries, vs. turnip fries (oven-baked with olive oil), which have only 36 calories and just 8.4 g carbohydrates in a comparative sized serving. Read more on this and other healthy cauliflower recipes at

Gluten-free peanut butter pie, anyone?

A Gluten-Free Holiday Treat
Anyone Can Enjoy

Yes, even your holiday desserts can be healthier.  Here’s a recipe from a friend of mine Lisa McClellan. She designed it for runners, but it makes a tasty and healthy holiday dessert for just about anyone (i.e., being a runner is optional). Her Picky Bars Mini Gluten Free Peanut Butter Pie is a no bake, gluten free desert that’s easy to make and so tasty that none of your dinner guests will be the wiser: that it’s actually good for you.

Low-carb and low-calorie cocktail drinks

From a get-healthy perspective, it’s certainly better to avoid alcohol altogether. But if you are going to imbibe this season, there are simple things you can do to lower your calorie or carb intake. 
  • Drink “neat” or “on the rocks” – if you truly enjoy the taste of the alcohol, skip the carb- and calorie-rich sweet additives and just sip the alcoholic beverage straight up. 
  • Use a sugar-free substitute – ask for a rum and diet coke, instead of a rum and coke. Or if your cocktail calls for you to sugar the rim, use a healthy sweetener alternative like Xylitol, which still has some of that “crunch” you get with real sugar, but with far fewer calories and carbs.  And here’s one of my favorite low-carb mojito recipes that uses real limes and a sugar substitute.
  • Use smaller glasses – an easy way to cut out the bad stuff is to serve it up in smaller glasses.
You can get more low-calorie cocktail recipes and info at WebMD

Happy holidays, and may you enjoy them in moderation and with healthy substitutions.

Ric Moxley
Contributing Writer

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