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Enjoy the Turkey and All the Trimmings, Just Be Smart About It

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The holidays are almost here and, for many Americans, that means big meals are ahead.

Food and drinks will be abundant the next six weeks, from the Thanksgiving feast to holiday parties and other gatherings. I hope you spend many wonderful hours with family and friends -- catching up, sharing stories and savoring your favorite dishes and beverages. I also hope you do that last part with some moderation.

I know it's not easy. That's why I have invited Dr. Rachel Johnson -- one of the nation's leading experts on this subject -- to offer smart, practical advice that I hope you will not only follow but also pass along to your loved ones.

Dr. Johnson is the Chair of the American Heart Association's Nutrition Committee and a national spokeswoman for our organization. She also was chosen by President Obama to serve on the President's Council of Fitness, Sports and Nutrition Science Board.

Clearly, she's quite knowledgeable. Yet what makes her special is how she delivers information in a way that resonates. Before I turn this platform over to her, I wish you a happy, healthy start to your holiday season.

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There's an amazing statistic I love to share that helps frame this entire conversation.Americans pack on half of their annual weight gain in the span between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day.

OK, OK. The average American gains only two pounds per year. So that means all the turkey stuffing, delectable desserts and festive beverages leads to a single additional pound.

But that is only an average. And it's a bit startling to think you can do as much damage in about five weeks as you do the other 47 combined. Plus, if it becomes your holiday tradition, then it becomes even more important -- and more difficult! -- to stick to that other end-of-year tradition, the New Year's resolution about sticking to a fitness plan.

A great way to avoid this is what you're already doing by reading this: You are thinking about it in advance. Just like you set a guest list for a party, or a wish list for holiday presents, you also should set a game plan for your holiday eating and drinking.

Rather than telling you what to do, let me share what I will be doing.

At parties, I scope out the buffet table before I start filling my plate.* I pick a few special things that look the most delicious and plan to enjoy them -- and only them. I also try to fill my plate once. This goes for entrees and for desserts.

* Because my circle of friends includes fellow physicians and dietitians, and because many of us follow this same approach, the scene around the buffet table can mimic Black Friday shopping. Folks cut in line and walk all over each other for a peek at what they get can get before filling their plates. It's quite comical.

I'm also going to want to enjoy a glass of wine. I usually add some seltzer to cut the calories and slow the alcohol. Before having a second glass of wine, I try to have a full glass of water. This is especially important because too much alcohol too soon will dissipate my restraint, potentially leading to another trip to the buffet line.

If I am hosting, or making a dish for someone else, I'm always looking to cut calories without cutting flavor. I'll make a pumpkin pie with evaporated skim milk instead of cream, and use healthy oils like canola instead of butter. When it's done, I'll cut the pie into eight pieces instead of six. I also find that the low-sodium version of dishes taste just as good.

Perhaps the real secret of my Thanksgiving-to-New-Year's success is building in a little more time to exercise. Since I know I'm going to be consuming more calories, I might as well plan to burn more -- either by working out a few minutes longer or adding an extra session during a week. It's a great trade-off and can be a way to spend more time with family and friends. In fact, my neighborhood has an annual Christmas Day walk. We all meet at 11 a.m. on Dec. 25, and everybody goes for a stroll: families with their kids, pets, out-of-town guests and more. I know many families hold an annual football or soccer game or all take a walk together after their big meal. If your family doesn't already do something like that, it only takes doing it once to start a new tradition.

That's my "do" list. There are also things I don't do.

Some people suggest, "Don't go to a party hungry." But I'm not a great believer in eating before I go to a party. I'd rather save my calories for the party foods. I just won't load up on them.

Should the scale show that I've eaten too much, I refuse to beat myself up over it. I simply use it as a reminder that I've got to step up a workout and, next time, be more mindful of how big of a slice of pumpkin pie I have. That's it, though. I refuse to slip into counterproductive thoughts such as, "Ugh! It's hopeless!"

Another thought I reject is the notion, "It's OK -- it's the holidays." I believe that attitude is near the root of the reason for our nation's annual holiday pound.

While these suggestions are especially aimed at the holidays, they can be followed year-round. Here are a few other year-round tips that may want to work into your routine:

  • Use smaller plates.
  • Use a tall, thin glass instead of a short, fat one.
  • Make the healthy choice the easy choice. Cut up fruits and veggies, and keep them very accessible.
  • The flip side of that is true, too: Make yourself work for an unhealthy choice. You can avoid what my colleague Brian Wansink calls "Mindless Eating" by keeping things out of reach. That means not keeping out a candy dish -- and, especially, no candy in clear bowls.
  • Always be conscious of what you're eating, and how much. According to the National Weight Control Registry, 75 percent of people who keep off lost weight succeed because they weigh themselves at least once a week. My mantra is, if the scale starts creeping up, you've got to do something about it before two pounds becomes five, because then five can become 10 and then you've really got a major job ahead of you. Another popular option is keeping a food journal. It's a great way to really grasp how much you are eating.

My core message is that you can still enjoy delicious food -- you just don't have to enjoy it to the point where you're sitting around moaning after the meal. Even if you only remember a few of these tips, you'll be better off for it.

What I hope you remember most is that amazing statistic. I believe that will keep you motivated to avoid becoming part of it. If you can avoid adding a pound this holiday season, and others can too, think of the potential. If just 1,500 people read this column and heed that advice, the weight gain we'd avoid would be about the equivalent of an entire NFL team's offensive line!

Happy holidays.

Rachel Johnson, PhD, MPH, RD, FAHA is the Robert L. Bickford Jr. Green and Gold Professor of Nutrition and Professor of Medicine at the University of Vermont

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