Healthy Holidays

December 11, 2011

GW health care professionals offer advice on how to avoid packing on the pounds this holiday season.

With the holidays come Christmas cookies, eggnog, stuffing and mashed potatoes topped with gravy.

But just how many calories are in each of your Christmas favorites?

The answer: a lot.

In fact, the average number of calories in a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner can reach 4,500, according to the Calorie Control Council. A slice of pumpkin pie runs around 350 calories. A serving of mashed potatoes with butter has about 300 and a heaping scoop of stuffing has about 500 calories and 40 grams of fat. Many Americans gain anywhere from one to three pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

“We all have a tendency to overeat around the holidays,” said Amy LaFalce, registered dietician at both the Lerner Health and Wellness Center and the George Washington University Hospital. “Between the holiday parties, the sweets around the office and Christmas dinner, a lot revolves around food.”

In addition to the high caloric food served around the holidays, people tend to go back for seconds or thirds while cutting out their routine physical activity.

“We’re consuming an excessive amount of calories and not burning much off,” said Meera Sreenivasan, a physician at the George Washington Medical Faculty Associates Weight Management Clinic.

With gifts to buy and parties to attend, coupled with shorter days and colder weather, people may neglect physical activity during the holidays, said Mary Ellen Wolf, a patient educator at the MFA.

“Exercise tends to be put on the backburner at a time when you actually need it more than ever,” she said.

According to Ms. Wolf, one would need to run a marathon (26.2 miles) in order to burn off a standard Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. 

Here are some tips from GW experts on how to beat the holiday weight gain:

1. Drink two glasses of water before each meal and plenty throughout the day.

2. Give yourself a refresher course on portion sizes. Take out measuring cups and see how much you’re actually consuming. A serving size of turkey should be no bigger than the palm of your hand. “If you’re not mindful of what you’re consuming, the calories will add up pretty quickly,” said Ms. Wolf.

3. At a big holiday meal, choose three to four items to take moderate portions of instead of sampling a little of everything, which can add up quickly. “The more options we have, the more we overeat,” said Ms. LaFalce. Spend 20 minutes eating your first portion. This gives your body time to feel full, and you’ll be less likely to reach for seconds.

4. Avoid sugary holiday beverages like eggnog, hot chocolate and sweet coffee drinks. “They can provide a substantial calorie load,” Dr. Sreenivasan said.

5. Don’t skip breakfast or lunch to save your calories for a holiday party or Christmas dinner. “Skipping breakfast is the worst thing you can do,” said Marijane Hynes, a physician at the MFA’s Weight Management Clinic. Instead have a moderate-sized breakfast and lunch so you’re not starving when you arrive at the party or sit down at the table.

6. Tackle the holiday party: Don’t arrive really hungry. Bring a healthy dish so you’ll be guaranteed to have something nutritious to eat. Use a small plate and fill it up with vegetables. Don’t congregate in the kitchen or around the food table. “The easier you make it to reach for those foods, the more likely you will reach,” said Ms. LaFalce.

7. Make work and/or home a junk-free zone.

8. Eat and enjoy the foods you love but keep it in moderation. “Just keep the portion size in control,” said Ms. LaFalce.

9. Stay active. Even if you can’t make it to the gym, make sure and get some physical activity each day. Take a walk with your family. Take the stairs. If you’re waiting in the airport, take laps around the terminal. “People don’t take advantage of the time they have to move,” said Dr. Hynes.

10. Plan holiday-related activities that don’t revolve around food like service projects, family game nights or going to a Christmas concert. “Remember that the holidays can still be enjoyed even if the focus isn’t on food,” said Dr. Sreenivasan.