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The holidays are a time when family and friends gather to enjoy indulgent meals. So it’s no surprise that maintaining a healthy weight can present even more challenges during the holidays than throughout the rest of the year. According to research, people tend to gain 1-2 pounds over the holiday season.

A study examined the effectiveness of a brief (four to eight week) behavioral intervention to prevent weight gain over the Christmas holiday period. The researchers randomized 272 adults into one of two groups. The intervention group was given a behavioral intervention intended to increase their restraint of food and beverage consumption. The intervention involved three components: encouraging participants to regularly weigh themselves and record their weight; providing specific weight-management strategies; and providing information on how much physical activity would be needed to burn off the calories consumed in typical holiday foods and drinks. The control group received information on healthy living.

Results showed that the intervention group lost an average of 0.3 pounds, while the control group gained 0.8 pounds. This may not seem like much, but research shows that weight gains are not fully lost in the months following the holidays. Although the yearly gain is small, it can add up to an increase of 10 pounds over 10 years.

Study participants in the intervention group were encouraged to follow these 10 tips to help prevent weight gain:

  • Keep to your meal routine. Try to eat at roughly the same times each day.

  • Walk off the weight. Aim for 10,000 steps each day.

  • Pack a healthy snack. Choose fresh fruit or low-calorie yogurt instead of chocolate or chips.

  • Look at the labels. Check food labels for fat and sugar content.

  • Caution with your portions. Don’t heap food on your plate, and think twice before having second helpings.

  • Up on your feet. Stand up for 10 minutes every hour.

  • Think about your drinks. Choose water or calorie-free drinks, and limit alcohol.

  • Focus on your food. Slow down, and don’t eat in front of the TV or on the go.

  • Don’t forget your 5-a-day. Eat at least five servings of fruits and vegetables each day.

How much activity would it take to burn off this eggnog?

Physical activity — or at least understanding how much physical activity it would take to burn off calories, and possibly considering that information when making choices about what to eat — also played a role in preventing weight gain. In the study, the researchers provided the intervention group with a chart that showed the approximate amount of activity it would take to burn the calories found in a given amount of festive foods. For example, it would take approximately 12 minutes of walking or six minutes of running to burn off the calories in five pigs in a blanket, and it would take approximately eight minutes of walking or four minutes of running to burn off the calories in 5 tablespoons of gravy.

Holiday Foods That Are Healthier Than You Think

A 2013 study published in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition found that in addition to gaining about 1-2 pounds, on average, during the holidays, people experienced increases in body fat, blood pressure, and resting heart rate. And being active didn’t protect against those changes. Even small increases in diastolic and systolic blood pressure can have a meaningful impact on health.

A study of almost 2,000 heart attack survivors suggested that eating a heavy meal could quadruple the risk of having a heart attack on the same day. A smaller study, published in the Journal of the American College of Cardiology, found that a single meal high in saturated fat could impair artery function.

Healthy Choices

1. Turkey

It’s the best option among the traditional centerpieces. There are 168 calories and 2 grams of fat in a 4-ounce serving of breast meat without skin. (The skin adds about 50 calories and 6 grams of fat.)

Spiral ham is comparable in calories and fat but has more than 1,000 mg of sodium in 4 ounces. Ham is also a processed meat and contains nitrites and nitrates, which are potentially carcinogenic. Standing rib roast, meanwhile, has about twice the calories and 16 times the fat as turkey.

Some turkeys are injected with a saline solution to make them juicier, so check labels; they can have as much as 300 mg of sodium in 4 ounces.

2. Pumpkin

Pumpkin spice has been a long-standing holiday flavor trend in foods and beverages. That would be fine except that “spice” often means added sugars, not just nutmeg and cinnamon.

But pumpkin itself is a nutrition powerhouse high in fiber, vitamins A and C (important for vision and fighting infection), and antioxidants, and it has just 30 calories per cup. Whether you’re using it in a pie or a savory dish such as risotto or pasta, choose a fresh or frozen version.

If you’re opting for canned, make sure you read the label. Look for 100 percent pure pumpkin, not pumpkin-pie filling. That has 120 calories and 27 grams of sugars in a half-cup—nearly 7 teaspoons—a vast majority of it added. And that’s even before it gets into the pie.

3. Sweet Potatoes

Another brightly hued vegetable that’s high in fiber, vitamins A and C, and antioxidants, sweet potatoes don’t need much to make them taste good. Just bake them with a little olive oil. Adding marshmallows, butter, and brown sugar ups the fat and calorie load significantly. There are 149 calories, 9 grams of fat, and 14 grams of sugar in a half-cup of sweet potato casserole vs. 115 calories, 9 grams of sugar, and almost no fat in a medium sweet potato. Avoid canned varieties packed in heavy syrup.

4. Cranberries

Check the label on canned cranberry sauce and you’ll find more than 20 grams (5 teaspoons) of sugars in each quarter-cup serving. You could skip them, but these tart berries are high in fiber and rich in healthy plant compounds called polyphenols, some of which may improve your body’s ability to process glucose.

5. Hot Cocoa

Credit the flavanols, good-for-you antioxidants that may improve blood vessel function, for cocoa’s spot in the “healthy” column. A 2013 study by Harvard University found that people not diagnosed with dementia (the average age of the participants was 73) who had impaired blood flow to the brain and who drank 2 cups of flavanol-rich hot cocoa daily for 30 days saw an improvement in the brain’s blood circulation and on memory tests. Pass on the instant mixes; make your own using unsweetened cocoa, low-fat milk (which adds calcium), and a teaspoon of sugar.

6. Shrimp Cocktail

Skip the cheese and crackers, and choose shrimp as an appetizer. Five large shrimp have only 33 calories and 6 grams of protein. Shrimp do have cholesterol, but dietary cholesterol doesn’t have a significant impact on your blood lipids, though experts once thought it did. And unlike many cholesterol-rich foods, shrimp is low in saturated fat, a type of fat that’s linked to heart disease risk. Shrimp also contain antioxidants, including selenium and astaxanthin. Note that cocktail sauce may contain high amounts of sodium.

7. Potatoes

It’s the way potatoes are served at holiday meals—loaded with butter or cream or doused in gravy—that makes them a less-than-optimal dietary choice, not the spuds themselves. One medium potato has 159 calories and 36 grams of carbohydrates—less than a cup of cooked pasta. Potatoes are packed with blood-pressure-lowering potassium and fiber, and also supply magnesium, iron, and vitamin C.

If your holiday table isn’t complete without a bowl of mashed potatoes, lighten them up. Start by using Yukon gold potatoes, which have a slightly buttery flavor on their own. Use milk or Greek nonfat yogurt instead of cream, and cut back on the butter. Or try roasted potatoes sprinkled with rosemary for a change of pace.

8. Nuts

It’s the time of year when fresh nuts in the shell are displayed in many supermarkets. Consider putting out a bowlful and a nut cracker as a predinner snack.

Nuts are rich in antioxidants and healthy fats. And nuts in the shell are time-consuming to eat—cracking them slows you down and may help you eat more mindfully.

9. Chestnuts (specifically)

There’s a classic, holiday feel to chestnuts and there are nutritional benefits to these holiday treats as well.

When compared with other nuts and seeds, such as almonds, chestnuts don’t have the same levels of healthy fats or protein. But they’re still a good source of dietary fiber, magnesium, heart-healthy folate, vitamin C, and potassium, which can help control blood pressure.

Here are a few more tips to help you keep your weight in check without foregoing your holiday traditions.

Mark all of the holiday events you’ll be attending on your calendar so that you’ll remember to plan ahead. If the meal is not at your home, eat lighter the day of the event to balance the extra calories you may consume at the party. If the event is in the evening, have a healthy breakfast and satisfying lunch, with a light snack before the event to avoid overindulging later.

If you are the host and struggle with tasting while cooking, try chewing sugar-free gum while preparing the meal, or have a small snack before you start cooking. Serve plenty of raw vegetables and yogurt-based dips to start the event and fresh fruit to finish. After the meal, send leftovers home with friends and family.

The workplace can be hazardous around the holidays; holiday lunches and office parties can make it difficult for even the most health-conscious employee to make smart choices. If the team is going out for a special holiday lunch, choose lower-calorie items and go light on dinner that evening. Move holiday cookies and candies to a high-traffic area to spread the goodies around.

Start new traditions that don’t revolve around food. For example, attend a holiday concert or show, or take a drive or walk to see holiday lights. Catch up with a friend over a yoga or Zumba class instead of meeting for a peppermint mocha latte.



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