Mr. Norris, sometimes I think the easiest way to stay fit through the holidays would be to leave the U.S. What do you do to overcome the yuletide yummy wars? – Dan S., in Maine
Researchers who questioned 2,000 Britons on their holiday travel and diet discovered that the following were the top seven destinations for weight gain over a two-week period. Those:
7 – Visiting Spain, Portugal and Africa gained an average of 6 pounds.
6 – Staying home for the holidays (in Britain) gained an average of 6.8 pounds.
5 – Visiting Greece, with its tavernas and authentic Greek cuisine, gained an average of 6.9 pounds.
4 – Visiting Italy, with its wine, cheese and pastas, gained an average of 7 pounds.
3 – Visiting France, with its wine, cheese and breads, gained an average 7.3 pounds.
2 – Visiting the Caribbean, with its all-inclusive resorts, gained an average 7.4 pounds.
1 – Visiting America – with its enormous portions, all-you-can-eat buffets and serial snacking – gained an average of 8 pounds.
I’m sure this study surprises few in the U.S. From Thanksgiving through the New Year, America becomes a minefield of munchies.
Whether you’re visiting our great country or a citizen of it, here are my Top 7 tips for navigating around our culture of calories at any holiday food festivity, especially those oft-invited Christmas parties:
When you enter a party and are offered a drink, start with water, not an alcohol drink, since it can be an appetite stimulant. Drinking a bottle of water before you eat will not only replenish your body with the H20 it needs, but also fills your stomach, makes you less hungry and will even help you lose weight, according to scientists from Virginia Tech reporting in the journal Obesity.
If you can win the temptation round at the hors d’oeuvre table, you’re well on your way to consumption victory. So fight there to fill your small plate with healthy appetizers, like vegetables – carrots, edamame, cherry tomatoes, cauliflower, broccoli or celery with a little organic peanut butter. If there are chip-and-dip alternatives, grab a handful of whole-wheat pita rounds or other low-oil chips. Spread some hummus, salsa or black bean dips on your plate instead of queso, ranch or refried beans.
When the main meal line opens up, never be among the first through the line. And if you have main-meal plate-size options, always grab the smallest (even consider carrying over your hors d’oeuvre plate to the buffet line). Size matters! The smaller the space on the plate, the less the temptation to fill it with Christmas cuisines high in saturated fats and refined sugars.
Despite the size of your main meal plate, fill as much space with a leafy salad (a lettuce mix or spinach is always best). That way, you’re less tempted to pack more four-cheese lasagna on your plate! Limit the croutons, bacon bits and fatty dressings like ranch and blue cheese, and opt for a slight sprinkle of vinaigrette. And, of course, nab as many fresh veggies and beans (black, red or pinto) as you can, in and out of salads.
As far as other main foods, you know what to do: Avoid fried, choose foods with the fewest and freshest ingredients, opt for the leanest of meats, and if fish is an option, grab it every time. (Remember, fish is a great source of heart-healthy omega-3 fatty acids, particular in salmon. Eating fish twice weekly, especially if substituted for other meats, can reduce blood clotting and inflammation of the arteries.)
Though it takes a little multitasking at a party, try to consciously chew your food twice as long as you normally would. As many European countries do, focus on enjoying the taste more than filling your stomach.
Masaaki Eto, a professor of clinical pharmacology and medicine at Ohu University in Koriyama, Japan, reported to delegates at the European Association for the Study of Diabetes’ 47th Annual Meeting how recent research revealed that extensive chewing fuels the release of two intestinal peptides that reduced appetite and food consumption in those who are obese.
Whether you’re watching a sporting event or gabbing with guests, the longer you can extend eating your main meal, the more time you’re going to give to other guests to waffle down the desserts (the King Kong of holiday obesity). Slaying the after-dinner sugar giant is not easy (even for me!), but you’ll have a better chance if your mind is preoccupied with other things.
If you must dessert, then look on the snack spreads for fruit salads, yogurts or dark chocolate – a single serving (piece) can satiate sugar cravings if savored and swallowed slowly. And remember, the California Academy of the Sciences reported that dark chocolate has high levels of stearic acid, which does not raise bad cholesterol, and oleic acid, which may raise good cholesterol levels.
Lastly, consider only drinking water or coffee after dinner, and pass up the eggnog, and you’ll spare yourself hundreds of additional calories. As the University of Rochester documented, a 12-ounce can of regular beer contains 140 to 200 calories, a light beer 100 or more calories, a 4-ounce glass of wine 62 to 160 calories and a single shot of liquor (1.5 ounces) anywhere from 115 to 200 calories. And one cup of eggnog has 343 calories! It takes 2,100 continual jumping jacks to burn off 8 ounces of eggnog!
As a bonus holiday health tip, remember that the more you stand over the holidays, the better off you’ll be. The journal of Medicine & Science in Sports & Exercise reported that scientists from the Pennington Biomedical Research Center – the nation’s leading obesity research center – proved that prolonged sitting increases the risks of heart disease and heart attack. On the other hand, standing aids digestion (with sugar and fat metabolism) and burns 60 more calories an hour compared to sitting.
Beyond all these things, keep in mind the health fact that I like to remind my wife, Gena, about every holiday season: According to Harvard Health Publications, watching football burns an additional 70 calories an hour!
For a more holistic medical approach, my wife, Gena, and I recommend Sierra Integrative Medical Center in Reno, Nev. The people there are pioneers in integrative medicine. They blend the best of conventional medicine with the best alternative therapies.