I wrote the following story for the Charlotte Observer and The News & Observer in Raleigh. It appeared in both papers on Nov. 20,2012, it reappears here with helpful (and occasionally entertaining) links.
If it feels like there’s a conspiracy afoot to make you gain weight over the holidays, well, you may just be right. Sadly, there’s science to prove it.
Research has found that foods high in fats – including holiday favorites such as cookies, pastries and muffins — raise our levels of serotonin, the body’s so-called “feel-good” chemical. During times of stress (the holidays) that chemical can seem in short supply, hence the tendency to prescribe an extra piece or two of pecan pie. And when we get stressed, the body releases extra cortisol, a hormone shown to increase our appetite – especially for foods laden with sugar and fat.
Care to hear the latest on neuropeptide Y? We didn’t think so.
So yes, biochemically speaking, the deck is stacked against you come the stress-filled bacchanalia that approaches. Which isn’t to say there isn’t hope.
“You need an attitude change over the holidays,” says Shelly Wegman, a registered dietician with Rex Wellness Center in Raleigh. “You need to honor your hunger, you need to slow down and savor your food, you need to think about food as fuel to feed the body for the life you want to live.”
To that end, these suggestions:
- Keep a food journal. “Writing it down makes you aware of what you are eating,” Wegman says. If you religiously document your intake, it will help you realize not only how much your are eating but you’ll also be better able to make the connection, say, between all the sugary, fatty stuff you ate and why, a little while later, you felt so sluggish and sleepy.
- Think seasonal, think fresh. You don’t have to sacrifice your taste buds to survive the holidays, says Robert Brener, longtime chef and associate professor in the College of Culinary Arts at Johnson & Wales University’s Charlotte campus. “Healthier options are readily available for the holidays,” he says. “I suggest trying to remain seasonal in your vegetable choices. Winter greens are plentiful this time of year: brussels sprouts, cabbage, kale, turnip, mustard, collard and carrot greens are all packed with nutrients and can be flavored with onion, garlic or even smoked lean meats like chicken or turkey.”
- Watch what you drink. “Sugary beverages are where a lot of people get into trouble,” Wegman says. Be especially vigilant when it comes to holiday punches, often saturated with sugars, sodas and juices, and alcohol. “Watch for anything with an umbrella in it,” she cautions, and keep an eye on serving size. “The typical portion size of a glass of wine is five or six ounces; it can be twice that over the holidays.” Want a good holiday drink that makes you appear festive yet keeps you light on your feet? Try soda water with lime.
- Use healthy substitutes. Do those lemon bars you’re baking for the office party really need a cup of butter? Probably not, Brener says. “Excellent substitutions for butter and oil include sour cream, apple sauce and fat-free buttermilk. Often these items are used because they provide the moisture, enrichment, binding and texture that fats provide.”
- Eat visually First, when you’re at a holiday party, use the smallest plate you can find – our tendency is to fill it to capacity, Wegman notes. Next, she adds, fill that small plate this way: half with veggies (easy on the dips), a quarter with lean protein (salmon, tofu, chicken breast), a quarter with a whole grain starch (whole grain crackers) and fruit. And don’t be afraid to top off with a (that’s one) holiday treat. “Good nutrition is about moderation. You can enjoy all foods, just do it in the right portions.”
- Remember breakfast. Especially during the holidays, it’s the most important meal of the day. If you start the morning with a couple of doughnuts or a big bagel, you’ll have trouble recovering for the rest of the day. Get a good balance of protein and carbohydrates, advises Wegman. High on her breakfast list: Greek-style yogurt, spinach and veggie omelet, cottage cheese and fruit, cheese toast.