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Holiday Feasting Without the Guilt

Take a balanced approach this holiday season, and you'll step away from festive meals satisfied, not stuffed.
By Amy Ahlberg
WebMD Feature

At the holidays, it can be tempting to let your healthy eating plan fall by the wayside. But in reaction, are you planning to stick even more strictly to your diet, glumly passing up every traditional treat? Or will you abandon your usual healthy ways altogether and head into the new year with a nagging sense of guilt -- and possibly some extra pounds, too?

As is often the case, the best plan is the middle way: Savor your favorite seasonal sweets and savories in moderation, and make a few adjustments along the way to allow for the indulgences. Read on for some strategies and suggestions that will make it easy.   

First Up: Thanksgiving

The holiday season's heaviest meal is often Thanksgiving. But by merely making a change here and there while whipping up those traditional dishes, even this meal can pass muster, health-wise. Of course, Thanksgiving isn't the easiest time to count calories, but some preparation methods are definitely lower in fat than others.

"Many people don't realize it, but the Thanksgiving table is actually filled with healthy foods. The problem is often how we prepare them," says Karen Ansel, RD, American Dietetic Association spokeswoman. "Foods like sweet potatoes, mashed potatoes, green beans, and turkey can all be incredibly healthy -- as long as you don't load them up with butter, cream, or gravy."

If you're in charge of cooking the meal, go easy on those kinds of fat-laden additions to otherwise healthy foods. What if you're eating at someone else's house and have no idea what went into those Thanksgiving favorites? "Your best bet is to help yourself to a serving that's half the size of what you'd normally take," Ansel says. Portion control is key, so make sure you don't eat too much. 

Think Beyond Food

Don't just look at what's on your plate. Schedule exercise sessions, as well.

The holidays are notoriously busy. Planning  is key, so that physical activity doesn't take a back seat. "Staying physically active reinforces your commitment to healthy living so you won't feel as tempted to overindulge," Ansel says.

Also, find ways to celebrate the holidays that don't revolve around food. Go on an expedition to gather greenery, branches, leaves, or pinecones to make a wreath or centerpiece. Start a new holiday ritual for the day after a feast: Visit a botanical garden, zoo, museum, or other cultural institution. There are lots of ways to enhance your holiday celebration without making it all about the food.

For another way to offset the abundant offerings at Thanksgiving or other holiday feasts without being deprivation-oriented, avoid the more humdrum, everyday hors d'oeuvres and appetizers.

"Focus on the foods you can only get at Thanksgiving, rather than things you can get all year round," Ansel says. "There's no sense blowing your entire calorie budget on food like cheese and crackers or chips and dip that you can have any time." This way, you can still enjoy your favorite holiday-themed foods while keeping calories under control.

Another tip: "Fill up on protein and vegetables first," says Michael Nusbaum, MD, medical director at the Obesity Treatment Centers of New Jersey. When the chocolate box or candy dish gets passed around, "get into the spirit of things, but know when to stop. Enjoy just one piece," he says.

Rest assured that one exceptional meal will not ruin all your efforts. "It takes 3,500 calories to gain a pound, so even if you ate every single food you wanted, it's unlikely you'd gain even that much," Ansel says.

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