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As we head into the Holiday season, many of our clients have asked us how to get through Thanksgiving (and other holidays) without doing too much damage.  Whether you are on a diet or not, if you are watching what you eat, this time of the year is tough.  Between family gatherings, holiday parties, game watching parties, and all of the other reasons that people gather together this time of year, food and drink often take center stage.  There is nothing wrong with enjoying the season with some delicious food and drink, but we all know that there needs to be a balance.  My last two Thanksgivings are illustrative.

How to Survive Thanksgiving on a Diet

Anatomy of a Bad Night

Two years ago, I at arrived at my parents house ready for a fun night.  I wasn’t on a diet per se, but I wanted to be under control and not have that “I ate way too much for Thanksgiving” feeling afterwards.  As I sat watching football after dinner, bloated, a little nauseous and feeling like the real Thanksgiving turkey, I thought about all of the mistakes I had made over the course of the evening.  First of all, I came hungry.  I had decided to save all of my calories for dinner.  That set me up to feel deprived from the moment I walked in the door, and I was on a mission to fix that deprivation (even though that wasn’t a conscious thought).  I also came with no plan.  As the first plate of appetizers was passed around, I grabbed a cracker with some of my mom’s special brie and honey mixture.  A couple of appetizers quickly became 10 (or more).  I also grabbed a drink, and because I was thirsty in addition to being hungry, I gulped it down much to quickly and had another.  By the time we got to dinner, I was slightly buzzed, still feeling deprived, and just getting started.  Two plates of my favorite Thanksgiving day foods (stuffing, cranberries, corn pudding, mashed potatoes and lots of gravy) later, I was no longer hungry, but when we got to dessert, I figured I might as well have an extra large slice of caramel apple pie with a big dollop of whipped cream  just to complete my ridiculous night of over-eating.  Hey, in for a penny, in for a pound, and I was in for several pounds at that point!  I was miserable for the rest of the night and even remember feeling full well into the next morning.  Yuk!

A Better Strategy

The next year, I was determined to do better.  Chastened by my bad experience the year before, I strategized about how to do it the right way.  First of all, I made a set plan – this is the most important thing you can do.  Without structure, events like parties and holiday meals can be very dangerous.  So before I went, I made sure that I ate a nice lunch of scrambled eggs with vegetables.  Not a big portion, but enough good protein to leave me satisfied and not hungry when I walked in the door.  When  I got there, the first thing I did was grab a bottle of water.  I made sure that I drank water throughout the evening.  I also swore off of the appetizers completely.  Appetizers, by definition, are some of the tastiest things at any party.  They are meant to be pack a lot of taste in small bites.  Unfortunately, they also typically pack a lot of fat, sugar, and processed flour into small bites as well.  I felt that if I got started with the appetizers, it would be hard to stop.  So I just didn’t get started.  I did have a drink, but I waited until I had been at the party for quite awhile and then poured myself a small bourbon over ice.  I knew that this was something I would sip very slowly, and that it would last all the way through dinner and yet still be satisfying.  When it came time for dinner, I went with protein and green vegetables in lieu of the carb heavy choices I had made the year before.  Turkey, green beans and broccoli were the main courses, and I put a tiny spoonful of mashed potatoes and about a teaspoon of gravy on my plate.  When I was done, I got up and helped with the dishes as fast as I could (much to my mother’s surprise!).  For dessert, I split a piece of pumpkin pie with my girlfriend, and then I went down to watch football about a million times happier than I had been the year before.

Tips for Not Over-Eating

So what did I learn?  There are really just a few things that make a big difference in whether you have a good night or a bad one.  Let’s face it, it’s hard to go to events like these and not come away feeling like you have over-indulged.  And whether you are on a diet or just trying to be careful, this time of year is dangerous.  As the following article points out, most of us gain 1-2 pounds during the holidays.  That may not seem like much, but here is the money quote:

“According to researchers at the National Institutes of Health, most Americans never lose the weight they gain during the winter holidays. The pounds add up year after year, making holiday weight gain an important factor in adult obesity.”

Holiday Weight Gain and How to Avoid It

Here are the things that worked for me:

1. Come with a plan – no plan equals no success.  Think about what your weak points are and how to mitigate them.  Try to keep yourself away from things that tend to trigger bad behavior.  For me appetizers were a problem.  Getting past that set me up for a much better night.

2. Don’t arrive hungry – hungry eaters are usually bad eaters.  Most of us just don’t think straight when our bodies are telling us we need to feed our faces.  Remember that simple carbs tend to make us crave more simple carbs, so try to get some good protein and green vegetables ahead of time.  That way, when you get to the party, you are already burning good clean fuel.

3. Drink water throughout the party – water does so many good things.  It helps keep us feeling full, it helps us process the bad things we eat, it keeps alcohol from hitting us as much, and it gives us something good to put in our mouths.  I recommend carrying a bottle of water with you wherever you go, but especially during a holiday party.

4. Stay away from appetizers – as I said before, appetizers are delicious because they are chock full of the very things you are trying to avoid.  Plus, they come in small packages and make it seem like we aren’t eating that much.  But the average cracker with cheese has over two hundred calories by itself!  That means if you just have five of those babies over the course of a two hour pre-dinner period, you have already taken in over 1000 calories.  Stay away from these guys!  If you have to munch on something, grab some celery sticks or a pickle.  Trust me, appetizers are not worth it!

5. Go for lean protein and green vegetables over starches and sugars – protein and green vegetables are dense and packed with the things your body really needs.  Fill up on these things and stay away from potatoes, stuffing, cranberries, mac and cheese, etc.  All of these simple carb-based foods may taste great, but they don’t fill you up (studies say they actually make you crave more) and they pack weight on.  Stay away from them!

6. Watch the alcohol – alcohol is full of calories, makes you crave carbs (alcohol is a sugar), lowers your inhibitions (sure I’ll have an extra piece of pie!), and don’t forget, you have to drive home and the police will be out in force.  If you want to have a drink, fine, but sip slowly, intersperse lots of water (see tip number 3) and limit your consumption!

7. Get away from temptation – if you are trying to avoid appetizers, don’t sit next to the tray full of them in the living room.  Sure, aunt Sally in the corner may not be the most stimulating conversationalist, but she’s also about 5’3″ and weighs 110 pounds.  There’s a reason for that, don’t you think?  If you are feeling tempted, physically remove yourself from the danger zone – you will be happy you did when the night is over.

8. Split your dessert with someone you love – I love pumpkin pie and I’ll bet you do too.  I could eat a huge piece all by myself with a half a can of whipped cream to boot!  But if you grab someone who you know is also watching what they eat and split a small piece with them, you won’t inhale it (peer pressure will keep you from hogging it), and you’ll be more likely to go easy on the whipped cream.  Try it and see!

These are just a few simple things you can do to make this holiday season’s events more sensible from an eating standpoint.  For more suggestions, check out this link:

And let us know in the comments what has worked for you.  Happy Thanksgiving, and we hope you have a great (and sensible) Holiday Season!