12/04/2012 01:04 pm ET Updated Feb 03, 2013

Are the Holidays the Right Time to Call a Diet Truce?

"Don't expect me to stay on the weight loss program. I always gain weight during the holidays, and this year is no exception."

This volunteer in a year-long weight loss program was adamant about taking a break from dieting from Thanksgiving through New Year 's Day. When I asked how she could justify gaining back weight she had tried so hard to lose, she shrugged and said that holiday parties and family dinners were more important than watching what she ate and taking time to exercise.

She did gain weight, about seven pounds, and annoyed the research team trying to develop effective weight loss strategies. One is not allowed to put into a research publication that a subject failed to reach her weight loss goal because she insisted on eating Eggs Benedict on Christmas morning and her sister's pecan pie on New Year's Eve. But now, years after the study concluded, I think she her attitude may have been partially correct.

Dieting during the holiday season is difficult. It is hard to shake your head and decline every time you are offered something indulgent to eat or drink during the six or so weeks between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. It is a challenge to:

• Go to a Hanukkah party and announce to the person holding the plate of sizzling potato pancakes that you don't eat carbs;

• Limit yourself to celery sticks and seltzer water at your church's Christmas potluck dinner;

• Not even sip your uncle's homemade glogg or take a bite of your aunt's special ricotta cheesecake during a family holiday gathering;

• Force yourself to get up at the crack of dawn after a late night because you must go to your 6:30 a.m. spin class;

• Put the gingerbread man your preschooler made for you in a drawer so you won't be tempted to bite off the foot; or

• Reject the Christmas ham or Hanukkah brisket because you only eat raw foods.

Life usually interferes with dieting, but during the holidays the diet may interfere with your life. There is a middle ground between rigidly adhering to the diet program and abandoning all efforts to maintain previous weight loss. Rebrand it as a diet truce, a time when you will not be losing weight but trying to prevent more than a negligible weight gain, and it is not that hard to do.

There are only two rules to follow: Pay attention to what you are eating and what you are drinking. No one is going to force-feed you sugar cookies or withhold liquids until you are willing to drink a quart of eggnog. You do need, however, to be acutely aware of what you are eating and drinking. Every time you take an appetizer at a party, accept a drink, or reach for a handful of nuts or chocolates, take a few milliseconds to look at what your caloric intake. Temporary amnesia about what you are consuming does not make the calories disappear.

Eat what you really want to eat, drink what you want to drink, but don't stuff yourself, because in two weeks you will be going back on your diet. Food and drink do not become more tasty or desirable as more and more is consumed. The contrary is the case. Second or third helpings rarely taste as good as the first bite. Alcohol has more negative than positive effects as one or two drinks lead to more. Moreover, you are not going into hibernation, only going on a diet.

Workouts can be adjusted to allow for more time with celebrations, relatives, travel and entertainment, but they should not be abandoned. Short bouts of exercise releases tension and stress, improves sleep and even cognitive function (so you can remember the names of your relatives). And, of course, exercise uses of some of the extra calories you are consuming. Make appointments with yourself to exercise so you will be beeped or alarmed when it is time to go for a walk or do some stretches.

This is a dieting truce, not an all-out war against your previous weight loss. Be mindful of what you consume and persistent in doing some physical activity and your weight should emerge undamaged after the diet holiday is over.

Taking a holiday from dieting during the holidays has benefits that go beyond eating once-a-year delicacies and indulging in extra sleep rather than going to the gym. It tests your ability to maintain your weight loss in the midst of real life. And a diet truce also offers you the opportunity to enjoy an authentic higher quality of life, albeit in a smaller size.

For more by Judith J. Wurtman, Ph.D., click here.

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