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Holiday Eating Without the Guilt

Body+Soul, 2007

Failure to indulge is a serious violation of Holiday Law. But as anyone who's powered through a bowl of guacamole and a pitcher of champagne punch at a party knows, too much of a good thing can suddenly feel bad. These seven steps will help you keep the season's reveling in check.

1. Schedule Strategically
When we go to parties that fall outside our normal mealtimes, we don't hold back, even if we've just had lunch or dinner. Try to avoid an occasional extra indulgence becoming a regular habit by proper scheduling. If you're headed to a cocktail party after work, don't plan to have a big family dinner later that night. And when throwing your own holiday parties, consider scheduling them at mealtimes, not before or after.

2. Work the Room
One strategy for avoiding mindless munching at holiday parties is to focus on the people, not the food. To that end, back away from the buffet table. Fill a small plate with a few appetizers, then migrate and mingle. If you need extra help, keep something in your hands -- even an empty glass. We tend to be more comfortable with our hands occupied.

3. Nurse Your Drinks
The power of the proverbial beer goggles extends beyond the usual romantic targets. If you're not careful, your holiday spirits can convince you that an entire plate of canapes equals a single serving. You don't need to avoid alcohol altogether, say experts, but pace yourself. Have water or club soda before the meal, and a glass of wine at the end. If a one-drink maximum isn't realistic, alternate between alcohol and water. As for cocktails, keep in mind that the sweet ones go down much easier -- and faster. And eggnog? Count it as dessert.

4. Savor, Don't Stuff
The opposite of mindless gorging isn't not eating, but savoring -- and you can do that only with satisfying food. If you experience psychological nourishment, you'll feel sated more readily. And don't stop with the food. Savor all the elements of a holiday meal -- music, lighting, scents, people. Not only will you reduce your consumption, you'll increase your genuine holiday cheer, pie-related or otherwise. If slowing down to savor doesn't come naturally, start paying attention to how much you chew. Counting 15 chews per bite is enough to make you conscious of what you're eating, and not so much that it becomes annoying.

5. Tune In
The typical family holiday spread -- your basic bacchanalia of fat and carbs -- inspires fear and longing in equal measure. But there's still time to prevent the downward spiral if you take a moment to tune in before chowing down. After eating half your food, rate your hunger on a scale of one to five -- one being hungry, five being full. If you're at four or five, stop; one to three, continue eating. If you keep eating, rerate your hunger when another quarter of the food is gone. This creates an awareness of how you're feeling -- you may even find that at the first check-in, you're done.

6. Remember the Basics
Maintaining key healthy habits will help you enjoy your holiday treats. For starters, make sure you're well hydrated (at least six glasses a day), since we sometimes get a hunger signal when we really need water. And don't forgo fruits and vegetables, which play a particularly important role this time of year. With their high fiber content, copious amounts of crudites before the meal will help your body send "uncle!" signals once you've moved on to, say, the mashed potatoes.

7. Get Back on Track
If you overdo it at one meal, get back on track at the next meal -- or at least the next day. The problem with stuffing yourself again and again is that your stomach isn't perfectly elastic. You'll tend to eat larger meals even after the holidays. How do you rebound after an eating spree? Eat small, frequent meals that won't leave you bloated. Taking a postmeal walk will also help. There are some 25 feet of digestive tract between your rib cage and pelvic bone -- every step and swing of our arms moves things along. And whatever you do, don't punish yourself. Guilt leads to restriction that can't be maintained, and thus to a vicious cycle. Food is cultural, social, religious, spiritual, familial. With practice, we can embrace all the reasons we eat -- without embracing every bowl of guac we encounter.

Dr. Jack Yanovski, head of the Unit on Growth and Obesity at the National Institutes of Health; Wendy Bazilian, R.D., nutrition specialist at the Golden Door spa and fitness resort in Escondido, California; Joy Bauer, dietitian and author of "Food Cures"; Dr. Don Katz, assistant professor of psychology and neuroscience at Brandeis University

Text by Abbie Kozolchyk

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