How to navigate pitfalls this holiday season

For many people, weight gain during the holidays is a foregone conclusion. Resolutions to do better this time are largely destined for failure, no matter how seriously they are taken. In the end, the countless temptations offered at office parties and family gatherings prove as irresistible as always, obliterating all good intentions.

On average, most adults should expect to add about five pounds of body weight between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, experts say, although recent studies found that number to be lower. But researchers also concluded that the weight increase usually does not get reversed completely afterwards. So, the damage done over the holidays tends to persist, at least in part.

While Thanksgiving and Christmas – two occasions for excessive food intake – are mostly observed in the West, overindulgence during festivities is common around the world. Different countries celebrate different holidays, but weight gain spikes around all of them, wherever you are, according to surveys on the subject.

Those who are already overweight or obese tend to be especially vulnerable to even more unhealthy weight gain during this time. Food addictions and eating disorders are much harder to fight in an environment that encourages consumption at every turn.

The cause is not only the availability of large amounts of food, much of it high in fat and sugar, but also the fact that cold and wet weather keeps people inside and devoid of exercise. Eat more, move less – it’s a double-whammy with predictable outcome.

But does that mean we should just accept the inevitable and try some repair work later on? Of course not!

It all depends how you start out the holiday season, according to Dr. Julia Renee Zumpano a registered dietitian with the Cleveland Clinic Foundation. Since you will (and should) attend parties and dining occasions, and won’t be able to pass up on all temptations that come your way, it is important that you have realistic expectations and operate within those as best as you can, she advises.

“I recommend to my patients that they just try to keep their current weight [throughout the holiday season], as opposed to focusing on losing weight,” she says.

Of course, there is no shortage of tips and guidelines for how to avoid holidays-related weight gain, but most of them come down to the same set of rules. Here are some suggestions:

1. Watch your portion sizes

No matter what tempts you, limiting portion sizes is key. Buffets may make it harder to judge how much food you are piling on than plated meals, but you also have more control over quantity and quality of the edibles you choose. Just keep it light.

2. Eat before you eat
The worst you can do is to arrive hungry at an office- or dinner party. It will be next to impossible to resist all the smells and tastes around you on an empty stomach. Even if you just have some fruit, a few nuts, an energy bar or some other healthy snack beforehand, it will be easier to stay within your limits at the event.

3. Drinks count, too
It gets easily forgotten that drinks have calories as well, especially the alcoholic varieties. They may not make you feel full right away, but you can quickly lose track of your intake as you feel more relaxed and act against better judgment.

4. Focus on other things than food
While food is at the center of almost all holiday celebrations, there are other things to do than stuffing oneself. Social events are there to meet people and enjoy each other’s company. Join in on conversations and activities that don’t involve eating. If you like dancing, let it rip.

5. Lose what you gained as soon as possible
No matter whether you managed to avoid the worst or blew it all, make sure you counterbalance your escapades with some serious physical exercise. Go for a run or an early visit at the gym or pool that will let you get back in shape without delay.

Other than that, happy holidays!

TIMI GUSTAFSON, a registered dietitian and health counselor, is the author of “The Healthy Diner — How to Eat Right and Still Have Fun.