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How’s That Working For You?–Holiday Diet Advice

On my first day at nutrition school our lecturer was a petite woman resembling Natalie Portman: a teeny, tiny brunette with a regal air about her. As she expounded on macrobiotic diets and food combining and fat metabolism, I couldn’t help but think, “All these nutritionists here who are, like, a size two and never had a weight problem in their lives—how am I ever going to feel like I belong to that club?” 

Well, subsequently, I discovered that this sylph-like woman had actually lost 50 pounds during her first year as a student at that same school, a result of following the very eating plan she now advocated (and the one I’m pursuing, the NAG diet).  Oops.  My bad, as they say.  Still, that didn’t change my mind about the majority of professional dieticians and their unsuitability to dispense advice to those of us who are willpower-challenged.   

Consequently, what I decided to do in today’s post is have some fun (almost as much fun as Holidailies!) and assess a few of the numerous websites purporting to deliver the last word on avoiding weight gain during the holiday season, when most of us pack on an extra 7-12 pounds.   

Please note: this is a purely personal opinion.  These sites were chosen at random, and I have no idea how well the ideas they present actually work in reality.  I’m only responding to whether or not they’d work for me.  

First up is this article at Suite 101. The five tips for preventing weight gain over the holidays include: 

  1. Curb alcohol consumption.
  2. Stop eating when full.
  3. Deal with hunger.
  4. Use a smaller plate.
  5. Curb emotional eating.

I wondered, Has this writer ever actually known an overweight person?  We’re not fat for nothing.  Uh, hello, news flash:  if I could just “stop eating when full,” I wouldn’t be fat. (I used to have a friend who said that, during the holidays at her house, you hadn’t eaten enough if you left the table without feeling nauseated. That’s a family that understands overeating.) Ditto if I had already mastered emotional eating—there’d be no problem if I could simply “curb” it.   

I did like the writer’s suggestion to “use a smaller plate,” however.  In his 2006 best-seller Mindless Eating:  Why We Eat More Than We Think, Brian Wansink explains this phenomenon of people eating more when they use larger plates. (His study also implies that it would behoove all us fatties to eat only monochromatic meals for best diet results, but that’s taking it a bit too far).   

Unfortunately, when the article writer then went on to explain, “This works with smaller bowls for soups, and plates for dinners, appetizers and even deserts,” well, he lost me.  I just can’t imagine how much water I’d need to wash it down after consuming even a small desert (all that sand and everything).  

Rating: 42,000 extra calories (12 lb.) consumed with this advice.  

Another expert-supported site was the Cleveland Clinic’s “Eight Steps to Surviving Holiday Weight Gain.”  In this case, the advice seemed a little more realistic (since it is, after all, backed by their successful diet clinic). A couple of the suggestions did, however, sound patently preposterous.

For instance, they recommend that you “make a pact with co-workers that goodies will be kept solely in the break room, not at the front desk or in various offices.  And while you’re at it, may as well ask them to stop stealing your ideas and taking credit for them, gossiping during coffee breaks, or arriving late to meetings, too. 

The single piece of advice that riles the most, however, is the one that seems to surface in every “how not to gain weight over the holidays” article. Here it is: “Never Go To A Party Hungry.”  

How many dieticians, personal trainers, nutritionists, doctors, and other professionals have said something like this to you: “Oh, be sure to eat something before you go. That way, you’ll already be satisfied, so you won’t be hungry and overeat once you get there.”  I don’t know about you, but whether or not I’ve just eaten before arriving at a party is totally irrelevant when I get there.  If I see food I adore, I want to eat it. Period. Even if I already ate something before I got there. Even if it was a three course meal.  Even if I’m already full.   

So I eat before I go to the party, and then arrive to the tantalizing display of punch bowls brimming with nutmeg-dusted eggnog, trays overflowing with cute little star-shaped orange-pistachio shortbread and frosted chocolate-cherry cookies, triple-layer cakes adorned with crushed candy canes, dainty trays of Kalhua truffles, individual pots of chocolate mousse, (God help me) platters of mincemeat tarts—that’s it, game over, I’m doomed long before I even get started on the real “food” (never mind the champagne).   

I know that the theory behind this last one is, “a person can consume only so many calories before feeling full, so if that person arrives at the party already having consumed sufficient calories, overindulging will not ensue.”  Again, this writer has probably never really known, and certainly never was, a fat person. 

I really like the Cleveland Clinic’s final piece of advice, though:  “Focus on Socializing.”  After all, to paraphrase Woody Allen’s character at the end of Crimes and Misdemeanors, it’s our closest relationships, with the people we care most about, that ultimately confer meaning to “the indifferent universe.” (Okay, along with chocolate.)  But focusing on the people in our lives provides not only a feeling of belonging, a feeling of being cared for, a feeling of satisfaction—it also acts as a great distraction, so that overeating may never enter our minds (or our mouths) in the first place. 

Rating:  24,5000 extra calories (7 lb.) consumed with this advice. 

Finally, getting back to Wansink, it was one of his ideas I most appreciated, published in the November issue of Consumer Health Reports. 

Even though Wansink is also clearly not someone saddled with weight issues (on his webpage, he describes himself as a person who “regularly enjoys both French food and french fries”), he does seem to know whereof he speaks. Maybe there’s actually something to all those thousands of hours of experiments, observing the actual eating habits of scores of people in a controlled study after all.  

Here’s what Wansink advises:                

“At a reception buffet, follow the ‘rule of two.’ You can have whatever you want, but you have to use the smallest plate and can put only two things on it at one time. Always have something to drink in your hand, because that’s one less hand to eat with.” 

I find his approach the most refreshing—and most pragmatic—of those I read today. The part that appeals to me most? No self denial, no measuring or weighing, no keeping track of what goes down the gullet, no guilt. If you want to refill that little plate 74 times, go ahead.  (But he’s betting you won’t). You can still eat everything you love, enjoy it, and, given the right set of china, avoid excess weight gain.  

Rating: 5250 extra calories consumed with this advice (1.5 lb–still better than the average, right?). 

(“Mum, you’re not planning to change the size of our bowls, are you? Because it already feels like we don’t get enough food.”)


No comments yet to How’s That Working For You?–Holiday Diet Advice

  • I loved Mindless Eating–thought it was a very interesting read. My husband and I eat dinner, every night, off of salad plates instead of main plates since I read that book. And when I wanted people to eat less than they could have at an event I threw, I gave them small plates and set out only part of the food initially, thanks to the book’s advice.

    I actually do find it helpful to eat something before a party. What I don’t find helpful is to try to eat something really low-calorie before a party. If I eat a satisfying, moderate calorie, very tasty dinner before a party, I’m much less likely to get in panicky low blood sugar mode where I want to consume everything in sight.

    I do think curbing emotional eating is key, but just telling people “curb your emotional eating” doesn’t help. As I’ve written about on my blog, I try (TRY) to always stop and ask myself, Are you really hungry, or are you tired/bored/upset/thirsty? Is food what will really help this out? And if something else comes to mind, like going to sleep, I go do it right away and don’t fight the urge. It definitely helps me sometimes.

    Emotionally, though, the holidays are hard for a lot of people, so it may be very difficult to fight off temptation at a particular party or event this time of year. So I think perhaps the most important part of emotional eating advice this time of year is to forgive yourself and move on when you give in. So many of us have perfectionist tendencies when it comes to our weight loss, and we expect ourselves to handle every challenge perfectly all the time. But of course that’s impossible. If I stick to, “Okay, that was one unhealthy meal last night, and it did not make me feel good, but today is a new day,” then I’m much better off than if I start internally berating myself, which leads me to give up. (The whole “I can’t be perfect, so I can’t do it at all” thing.)

    Apparently I need to write a post on this subject. Sorry for hijacking!


  • imagineannie

    I just eat everything and then take two walks instead of one the following day. I do try to eat only “special” things, though; no cheese puffs, cocktail wieners in a crock pot or those icky Danish cookies that come in a big tin. I would gladly walk double for some pate or a little Brie en Croute, though. 🙂


  • Hey, Sally!

    Great comment. And I think you’re right, you DO need to post on this subject, so get going on it! I’ll be reading.

    I’ve never thought of the pre-party eating strategy from the perspective of types of foods eaten (ie, low calorie vs higher calorie), so I will give that one a try if you say it works for you. And I totally agree about the need to be forgiving with ourselves–wouldn’t we be that way toward anyone else we loved?


  • Hi Annie,

    I think I’d have a hard time fitting in an extra walk, as The Girls take me out 3 times every day as it is! But maybe I could find some other exercise outlet (my house could certainly use a good cleaning!).

    I definitely agree that eating just because the food is there for the holidays (eg. cocktail weiner type stuff) is a waste of a good chew. I never feel sorry when I eat something high quality that I truly savor. It’s the low-quality splurges that I always regret (Halloween candy, anyone?).


  • While I have known fat and still know some of it, my greatest bit of luck is that I don’t really crave most desserts. (Maybe in the desert, but not otherwise. Actually I made that typo the other day so I shouldn’t be joining in the smugness on that!) Now if I didn’t love, love, love everything cheese I’d be thin. Except for the beer and wine. Anyway, my advice? Only eat before you go if you feel the need to eat something healthy. I like to have some good yogurt everyday and may have some even if I’m about to go out and eat. I know I won’t eat less but I get something I think I need. Eat a nice lite salad or some fruit. Healthy is good and at parties if they have healthy stuff I ignore it and go for the cheese puffs and baked brie and pate of the fatted liver. But I do take only a small plate of stuff at a time and I really think this cuts down consumption. I’ll go back for something I adore but otherwise get distracted by the talk.


  • Hi Linda,

    Well, first off, I do realize that the desert typo can befall even the best spellers among us. . .but it’s all those essays I’ve been marking, with so many mistakes that are obviously NOT typos–just getting to me, I guess. (And you’re SO lucky that neither one tempts you!).

    Thanks for the good advice. I do like the idea of the smaller plates and am definitely going to try it. I’m with both you and imagineannie when it comes to eating the good stuff at parties (while I also like healthy stuff, it just seems so much more festive to go for the more decadent things).


  • I like the idea of putting only two things on your plate and holding a drink in the other. Will definitely implement this during our annual “holiday potluck”–which is really an all-day open buffet-style fressfest.

    And I betcha someone is going to bring those dainty little Kahlua truffles … *sob*.


  • Charlotte,

    I have a big “do” in a week or so and am itching to try out that “2 things” rule. But couldn’t those include truffles?


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