I went off to my favorite discount clothing and housewares store the other day to buy some glasses for a party we are throwing. As I emerged from the escalator, stacks of elaborately-boxed food items, ready for gift giving or at-home nibbling, surrounded me. Chocolate-covered pretzels, nuts and coffee beans, and mock chocolate-covered dog biscuits (for the pet on your list) were piled on one table. An entire aisle was filled with bags of high-fat snack foods designed to titillate your guests as well as clog your arteries. As I hurried toward the glassware section, I almost felt as if I should wear blinders so my eyes would not stray toward these tempting and all-too-fattening holiday treats.
The next day, as I checked in at my gym, I saw a message written on a large board: "Are you going to gain five pounds this holiday season?"
Well, yes, I thought, if the gym members, like most everyone else, chew their way through the ubiquitous holiday snack offerings. Chocolates, nuts, candies, cheese, sour cream dips, cakes and cookies are but a few of the foods set out in bowls, on platters and trays everywhere you go.
Hannukah potato latkes (pancakes), dripping with oil, or jelly doughnuts fried in hot oil, followed by coin-shaped chocolate candy add another opportunity for holiday weight gain. Mercifully, people rarely eat the oil-laden delicacies all eight days of the holiday.
The holiday of Kwanzaa is another opportunity for overeating, although the foods typically included on the feast day, "Karamu," include healthy ingredients such as sweet potatoes, okra, rice and chicken. Sweet potato fritters and sesame seed biscuits may make an appearance, but these high-fat foods compete with collard greens and black-eyed peas.
Nevertheless, all three December holiday traditions are often successful in generating a five-pound weight gain (at least) and perhaps even more, especially when calories from alcohol are also increased. This is not cause for alarm if gaining five pounds puts the eater slightly over his or her perfect weight. But alas, for most of us gaining five pounds, like an unanticipated credit card charge, simply makes the problem even more difficult to solve.
"If I can't lose weight during the summer, I am in bad shape literally all fall and winter," a houseguest told me last August. "My weight starts to creep up by October, probably because I work, and too little light makes me too tired to exercise. So by December, I am already 15 pounds heavier than I should be. I dread the holidays because I always gain even more weight. As a result, my back and knees feel the effects all winter."
The solution to preventing or minimizing weight gain isn't all that difficult. It simply takes focus, i.e., focus on what you have just eaten, are chewing on now and planning to eat in the next few minutes. And the best way to do this is to talk to yourself (silently, of course...).
"Do I really need to eat this third handful of cashew nuts or a fourth gingerbread cookie? How many chocolate Santas did I just eat? The dip is good, but must I put so much on the potato chip that it starts to break? Yes, my first bite of that potato pancake was heavenly, but the third one tastes cold and greasy. Maybe I should stop eating it. Can I put anymore food from the buffet on my plate? It looks pretty loaded. I guess I don't have to eat it all. How many appetizers have I eaten so far? Was it three or four? More? Better make it no more. Is this my second drink? The eggnog looks good but all those calories! I should get diet soda instead. I really want Aunt Jessie's coconut cake but I feel stuffed. If she lets me take a piece home, I can save it for when I am really hungry."
Like putting charges on your credit card, you can decide that you are able to "afford" the calories at the party, feast or open house, or you can choose to stop eating because you have already consumed more than your caloric limit. But don't fool yourself that if you decide not to notice how much you are eating and drinking, your scale won't notice either.
Do you know those advertisements for furniture that promise "no interest or payment required for 18 months"? Eventually, of course, you have to pay, and if you can't you may lose your purchase. Well, eventually, you will have to "pay" for your overeating. Just as limiting your credit card charges during the holidays takes away much anxiety and worry over bill-paying in January, why not limit your unhealthy eating during the coming weeks? Those five pounds do not have to be inevitable, and what a wonderful gift you will be giving yourself to enter the New Year without the extra weight of the past.
Follow Judith J. Wurtman, PhD on Twitter: www.twitter.com/stopmed_wt_gain