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6 Ways to Enjoy Eating During the Holidays

'Tis the season—Three experts offer strategies to help you maintain a healthy outlook and still eat without facing serious weight gain, raising your cholesterol, or stressing your diabetes, in the year ahead.

With Wayne W. Campbell, PhD, Janet Wright, MD

Holiday cookies at work, celebrating over drinks, rich party food, and don’t forget the triple-layer cake that is a must-have secret family recipe.

How will you ever make it through holidays that extend well into March (accounting for New Year’s brunch, Valentine chocolates, and St. Paddy’s day corned beef and beer) without packing on extra pounds and threatening to derail all of your good intentions?

It’s all about putting some strategies into place to stay steady as you go.

Experts offer strategies to help you enjoy food challenges during the holidays.Let the newest research guide you in facing the holidays with some tips to enjoy holidays while avoiding weight gain. Photo: 123rf

Just don’t throw all caution to the wind: calories count, even during the holidays. By planning ahead, and employing a few proven tricks that EndocrineWeb has pulled together based the successes reported by several nutrition experts, you can approach the holiday events, parties, and celebrations with greater ease and joy, and a healthy outlook.

1. Return to Healthy Eating After a Holiday Binge

 “Always go back to a healthy diet; this way you will reduce your risk for diabetes and cardiovascular disease, and achieve better health over the long-term,” Wayne W. Campbell, PhD, professor of nutrition science in the Center on Aging and the Life Course at Purdue University in Lafayette, Indiana, tells EndocrineWeb. This assurance comes straight from results of Dr. Campbell’s recent research, looking at the effects of short-term healthy eating cycles on cardiovascular disease.1

Investigators from the Center on Aging and the Life Course led two randomized, cross-over controlled feeding studies to see if brief stints of unhealthy eating lead to worse health in the future.1 Some 80 individuals who were evaluated for unhealthy eating habits were assigned to follow either a DASH diet or a Mediterranean-style diet for five to six weeks. Then they were instructed to resume to their usual eating pattern for a month and then they returned to the previously assigned heart-healthy diet for an additional six weeks or so.

Eating less carefully for a short time was easily eating overcome by returning to a heart-healthy plan, says Dr. Campbell. The markers for cardiovascular health such as systolic blood pressure and total blood cholesterol improved in the study participants during the initial healthful eating patterns, and returned to their starting levels during the month of usual eating but improved again when participants returned to either a DASH or Mediterranean eating pattern.1

The takeaway, “Striving to adopt heart-healthy dietary patterns most of the time assures you can indulge and still enjoy good health with or without weight loss,”  according to Dr. Campbell. That should ease the mind of anyone who feels like quitting as soon as the scale delivers bad news.  

2. Cooks Meals at Home More Often

How do you plan your meals? After all, few of us are seasoned chefs, and even the most well-intentioned among us have limited time and budget for food. Get low-key creative and go back to the basics. Think breakfast for dinner: omelets, frittatas, avocado toast, oatmeal with nuts and berries.

Feel like branching out? You can put almost any fish in the oven for fifteen minutes and you’re halfway done. Frozen vegetables are actually better during the offseason even than fresh, but even canned are better than no vegetables at all.

Instead of looking for the next new diet solution, we should actually be looking back, to more traditional ways of eating. “Going back to people’s original cultural diets is usually heart-healthy compared to adopting a Western-type, typical Americanized diet. When people immigrate to the United States, we see that often their health declines with each generation,” according to Dr. Campbell.

If you are someone who prefers having a more detailed diet, both Dr. Campbell and Dr. Wright recommend the DASH or Mediterranean-style diet over any other highly promoted diet. “They have been proven over time to work in a variety of people and they are adaptable,” says Dr. Wright. Think small steps, as Dr. Campbell stresses, create an eating plan that you will stick with for the foreseeable future.

Instead of looking for the next new diet solution, we should actually be looking back, to more traditional ways of eating. “Going back to people’s original cultural diets is usually heart-healthy compared to adopting a Western-type, typical Americanized diet. When people immigrate to the United States, we see that often their health declines with each generation,” according to Dr. Campbell,

If you are someone who prefers having a more detailed diet, both Dr. Campbell and Dr. Wright recommend the DASH or Mediterranean-style diet over any other highly promoted diet. “They have been proven over time to work in a variety of people and they are adaptable,” says Dr. Wright.

The takeaway: establish a dietary pattern you can stick to for the foreseeable future.

3.  Small Changes Add Up to Big Results

Million Hearts, a five-year initiative established by the US Department of Health and Human Services, in cooperation with the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention promotes just that: small steps to a healthier life.2

The Million Hearts Small Steps Initiative looks at the small changes that can lead to big results because these small shifts are sustainable and sustainability equals long-lasting, healthy habits.2,3 Janet Wright, MD, a cardiologist and executive director of Million Hearts recommends that everyone, “commit to cooking dinner at least once a week.” 

While preparing one dinner at home during the week may not seem like much, and that is exactly the point, Dr. Wright tells EndocrineWeb. Most of the salt in our diets comes from the highly processed, fast food favorites we consume on a daily and weekly basis.

By replacing just one of these sodium-laden, low-fiber, high saturated fat foods with a home cooked meal is a small move in your march towards greater change. And who knows, maybe you’ll start to cook enough for two meals, so Monday’s dinner extends to Tuesday’s lunch. Million Hearts has discovered that behavior changes are the key to averting preventable chronic diseases (ie, type 2 diabetes, heart disease, and  obesity).3

At the end of the day, several small steps can lead to lasting eating habits: reach for fruits and include vegetables more often and begin to replace processed foods, and cooking more at home.2,3

These three changes will dramatically decrease your salt and saturated fat intake while boosting your dietary fiber. “What your doing is creating a new baseline and gradually changing your habits for the better,” says Dr. Wright.

4. Time to Adds Some Steps—to Age Better

Besides the food you choose to eat, exercise is another ingredient needed for long-term heart health. Just as making some changes to your meal planning may be necessary, beginning to include even a little exercise is essential, although it may be daunting at the start. 

If you aren’t already physically active most days of the week, here’s why its time to join in. Findings from a study conducted at the University of Colorado Anschultz Medical Campus supports how important it is to gradually add some form of exercise to your daily routine. Start with a five-minute walk and add five minutes every few weeks.4

Just a 30-45 minute walk is enough to lower your risk of diabetes, reduce your blood pressure, improve your mood, enhance your memory, and set yourself for heart health. Another way to account for your activity is to use an app or health device that keeps track of your steps— you’ll want to aim for 10,000 steps if you’re counting.

In fact, the researchers found that those individuals who managed to avoid weight regain were more active within the first three hours of waking.4 Additionally this group was as active over the weekend as they were during the week. Dr. Creasy and his team believe that getting up and moving early signifies the likelihood that these individuals will get in more activity throughout the day.

Sneaking in some casual exercise is easier than you may think; here’s how you can add steps that will add up without much effort:

  • Take a walk around the block while you sip your morning coffee.
  • Choose your favorite playlist (or podcast) and dance from the shower to your dresser,  back to the closet and while you make your bed. 
  • Meet a neighbor for a quick catch up on-the-move as you take a lap around the block.
  • Plan an outing that includes a walk from the car or train to your destination.

Exercise should be something you enjoy doing, or that brings you satisfaction, not something that you dread doing. In time, what once required some planning will become second nature—you’ll head for the stairs instead of the escalator—walking will become just another daily habit.

Another reason to boost your cardio fitness: While anyone who has already had a heart attack (or other cardiac events) may benefit the most from a regular exercise program, these individuals seem to be the least likely to begin one.3  This is where cardiac rehabilitation comes in.

“People who participate in cardiac rehab are less likely to die from any cause. They feel better, and on all measures of quality of life, they rank much higher than people who do not participate in a heart-healthy workout,” says Dr. Wright. These participation rates are way too low with only 20-30% of eligible people taking part in this type of fitness program. But why?!

People don’t seem to realize they should be joining a Cardiac Rehab program, according to Dr. Wright. If you’re wondering about whether this type of program may help you, learn more about Million Hearts.. For anyone whose gets their healthcare from Kaiser, when it’s too cold or are you unable to get to a center, you are eligible for tele-rehab, a virtual cardiac rehab program.             

5.  Quit the Clean Plate Club 

Fill your plate, and enjoy the meal BUT leave one bite of each food behind. Why you might ask?!  Based on findings from a study published in Appetite,5 researchers looked at why we are so compelled to clean our plates.

These researchers focus on two components, consumption closure, which they describe as “a state characterized by perceiving a given eating occasion as finished or complete,” and justifying by healthifying, or the idea that the desire to clean your plate comes from a need to have a reason for overeating.

The authors identified several key factors to explain the reason we feel compelled to finish everything on the plate.4 For example, participants were more likely feel dissatisfied when they had to leave one cookie on their plate than when they left three or more cookies. The reason:  It's easier to walk away from more whereas we are more likely to justify eating that last cookie rather than leave one behind.

When eating out, participants felt more satisfied and were less likely to overeat when they were able to take food home from a restaurant5 What about that last slice of pie? If everyone has had a slice, freeze the leftover (last) slice for a later date.

Another post-holiday trick, store leftovers in multiple single serving containers to remove the temptation posed by our need for consumption closure; freeze them. These individual portions are perfect to pack for a readymade school or work lunch and will extend the good memories just a little longer allowing you to enjoy some favorite dishes again and again.           

6. Make Resolutions You Can Keep

The most important takeaways: enjoy each holiday and then return to your healthy eating pattern. This goes for vacations, birthdays, and other special occasions, as well. 

“The cause of most heart disease—is preventable with healthy habits and good medical follow up,” says Dr. Wright. Its the usual days that you want to focus on.

And as Dr. Campbell says, “It’s possible to quickly improve your health by adopting a healthy eating pattern like the Meditteranean diet.” So this year, rather than resolving to lose weight, simply focus on taking small steps toward eating healthier. 

Maybe that will include cooking more at home, incorporating more fruits and vegetables, and adding more steps. Then the weight loss and long-term health will follow. 

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