Washington - It's that time of year again when everywhere we turn we're offered creamy eggnog, savoury charcuterie and sweet, melt-in-your-mouth apple pie with whipped cream.
Sounds amazing to some, but to others the onslaught of cocktail parties, extended family visits and office buffets creates anxieties about weight gain that far override any seasonal merriment.
How to bring back the joy?
Nutrition and fitness experts offer this advice: Enjoy the seasonal offerings mindfully, stay active and hydrate - but don't count calories! Here is an occasion-specific breakdown:
1. The cocktail party
Unlike a sit-down or buffet dinner, the festive seasoncocktail party often features only bite-size treats along with an abundance of alcoholic drinks - from straight-up reds to creamy nogs and toddies. In other words, don't arrive on an empty stomach, says Anne Mauney, a Washington registered dietitian.
People have a tendency to 'save up' for the cocktail party, but it's better to eat normally during the day and not go to the party starving,” Mauney says, adding that it's hard to “slow down and eat mindfully when you are starving.”
Mauney suggests prepping for the cocktail party during the day with a big salad that includes a generous helping of protein (for example, chicken or fish) because the appetisers, sweets and alcoholic drinks will be full of processed carbs and fats.
Mindful eating includes noticing the smells, flavours, textures and colours of the food as well as eating more slowly.
Along with more enjoyment of the food, mindful eating has been associated with a better ability to self-regulate, says D.C. registered dietitian Rebecca Scritchfield.
“If we slow down, we tend not to overeat,” Scritchfield says.
“I say enjoy your drink or drinks, but as we all know, alcohol lowers your inhibitions and affects your judgment.”
Judgment about a lot of things - including what you are putting in your mouth.
“A good strategy is to alternate alcohol and nonalcoholic drinks like sparkling water,” she says.
2. The buffet
Unlike a cocktail party, the festive season buffet is a fine time to show up hungry, Scritchfield says.
But before digging in, take a look at the entire spread and choose what you really want - not based on calorie counts but on the foods that give you the most satisfaction on that mindful-eating spectrum (texture, flavour, colour, smell). So yes, that might mean bacon-wrapped shrimp or pigs in a blanket.
“Rather than asking, 'What's the healthiest for me?' ask, 'What looks the best to me?' “ Scritchfield says. “A lot of the food is seasonal and only comes around once a year, so enjoy it.”
Enjoy it, yes, but eat it slowly to give your body a chance to communicate when it's full, Mauney says. “And don't feel like you have to finish your plate,” she says. “Food should bring us pleasure, not guilt and anxiety.”
Instead of counting calories, they suggest finding some balance in the meal: protein, whole grains, fresh fruit and veggies to go along with the mostly fat- and processed-carb-laden seasonal food.
“And - like with any party - enjoy all of it, not just the food. Enjoy the centrepiece, the company, the conversation,” Scritchfield says.
3. The family visit
When it comes to extended visits, food can lead not only to ill bellies, but also to ill feelings, Scritchfield says.
“I have clients who feel the social pressures to eat when they visit their parents,” she says. “But you have to set polite boundaries: 'Thank you. It looks good, but I am really not hungry. Maybe later?' You have to say no without creating food fights.”
Mauney says one way to approach the predicament may be to get involved in the cooking process. “Offer to help out in the kitchen and make a dish you can contribute to the spread and something you can enjoy,” Mauney says.
If it's breakfast and the host is preparing sausage and pancakes, you can cut up a fresh fruit salad or side dish, she suggests.
And for dinner or lunch, maybe you roast vegetables or make a salad so that you can load up on the veggies. A healthful dressing can easily be made with lemon, olive oil, Dijon mustard and vinegar.
“That way you can make half your plate veggies,” she says.
And everybody - hopefully - is happy.
4. The aftermath
The festive season is a time when many people put on one or two kilos.
But don't try to counteract this with crazy diets and cleanses, says Scritchfield, adding that most people lose the one to two kilos in the six to eight weeks that follow the holidays. “At least 95 percent of those who diet gain the weight back. Diets don't work,” Scritchfield says.
The message should be overall health and fitness: practicing healthful lifestyle strategies such as regular exercise, preparing your own food and drinking more water, she says.
“Take the struggle out of it. We tend to do better when we stop fighting and overthinking the food.”
5. And don't forget to move
With the added caloric intake over the season, you may want to try to include some added caloric output - also known as physical exercise, says Gabe Free, a personal trainer at Atlas Fitness in Washington.
“Try to add more everyday activity, like walking, taking the stairs, parking farther away and maybe joining a gym,” Free says.
But what will really make a difference, he says, is to add strength training or cardio in the form of circuit training. If you're already familiar with weightlifting or have access to a trainer, Free suggests working toward heavy weights and lower rep counts (five to six). The heavy lifting will build muscle - also referred to as lean body mass - which increases metabolism.
“At the end of the day, it's calories in and calories out when it comes to weight management,” Free says. “But there are other benefits, too, and just adding a little more daily activity has positive effects on blood sugar regulation and overall health.”
* Boston is a fitness trainer and freelance writer. She can be found at www.gabriellaboston.com.