Keys to a healthy holiday

Published: Thursday, December 1, 2005 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Wednesday, November 30, 2005 at 4:13 p.m.

Delores James is famous for her banana bread, which she gives to friends and co-workers as a holiday gift. But James, a health and nutrition expert at the Unive r s i t y o f F l o r i d a ’ s Department of Health Science Education, has adapted her holiday tradition: Mindful of the abundance of food that surrounds us at this time of year, James now gives mini-loaves rather than the standard size.

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“They’re cute, and I can treat three people from each batch instead of just one,” she says.

Portion control, James says, is key to holding back weight gain at the holidays.

“In the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s, society gives us permission to overindulge in ways we wouldn’t the rest of the year. You’re almost expected to overeat at the holidays. People are always pushing that second piece of pie on you,” she says.

Short of carrying a measuring cup to the buffet line, how can we determine a portion size that allows us to savor our favorite foods without undoing the hard work we’ve done all year? Visual cues can help.

“A serving of meat should fit in the palm of your hand — a small chicken breast, thigh or drumstick — not the three-piece dinner. For mashed potatoes or rice, a half-cup serving is about the size of an ice-cream scoop,” Jones says. “People are shocked when I show them D Keys to a holiday

what a healthy portion size looks like. It’s always much smaller than we think.”

Part of the blame for “portion distortion” falls with restaurant entrees and prepared-food servings, which can far exceed the standard portion size. A study published in the American Journal of Public Health in 2002 found that premade cookies could be as much as seven times the standard portion size, which is about the size of a casino chip. Pasta servings were as much as five times the standard portion size, while muffins were triple the accepted size.

Another way to judge a healthy meal at holiday gatherings is to look at the composition of your plate.

“Seventy-five percent of your plate should be covered with vegetables and the rest should consist of low-fat meat and whole grains,” James says.

Whole grains being scarce at most company parties, James suggests some coping strategies for the typical party fare. First, she says, shed the “free food” mentality that spurs us to chow down while someone else is picking up the tab. Free food is no bargain if you’re still carrying the extra weight this time next year. Second, anticipate what will be offered, and have a plan.

“The food at most parties is the same – chicken wings, a cheese tray, those little quiches from Sam’s. If you go into that situation without a plan, you’re doomed. If you want the chicken wings, I’m not saying you can’t have any. But factor that into your decision about what else you’re going to eat.

“You’ll see people go by with food stacked up in a pyramid on those little plates. It could be as simple as limiting yourself to one layer — just what covers the plate.”

Once you’ve made your choices, practice what James calls “mindful eating” — savor the foods you’ve chosen rather than standing next to the bowl of chips and munching while you talk.

Another source of calories many people overlook is beverages, which can account for 20 percent of our caloric intake.

James recommends familiarizing yourself with what an 8-ounce serving actually looks like. With most drinking glasses holding 12 or 16 ounces, “people just pour until they fill it up, without realizing how many calories they’re getting.”

While some holiday overeating stems from an overabundance of good cheer, stress can also contribute to unhealthy choices.

“When we go home for the holidays, we’re carrying some emotional baggage. We might feel obligated to go home even if we don’t like it. We’re trying to get work done on the road, juggling a laptop and a PDA. Then as soon as you get in the door, you hear, ‘Why did you cut your hair like that? You gained weight! Why aren’t you married yet?’ Family can really push our buttons.”

And there is the chocolate cake, beckoning. That’s the time to remind yourself how good it feels to maintain a healthy weight, James says, by focusing on the benefits of eating well rather than dwelling on deprivation.

“Remind yourself of the positives — tell yourself, ‘When I’m at a healthy weight, my clothes fit, I feel healthier, I have more energy, I love what I see in the mirror.’ Reprogram your mind, and you’ll get to the point where the food is there, but you can say no.”

James also recommends keeping your activity level up — she travels with elastic resistancetraining bands for on-the-go exercise.

And what if, despite your best efforts, you eat everything in sight at a holiday party? Don’t waste time berating yourself, James says. Just start again tomorrow.

“The recrimination the next day does us in,” she says. “Don’t get into a fatalistic, all-or-nothing attitude. Tomorrow is another day.”


Parties and get-togethers aren’t the only time we don’t eat our best during the busy holiday season. If it’s half-past dinnertime and you’re reaching for the cookie dough, read on. Whip up some soup: UF nutrition expert Delores James recommends soups as a great way to sneak vegetables into a warm, comforting meal. “I love split-pea soup, a vegetable minestrone or even chili, if it’s made with ground turkey or soy,” she says. “People are so rushed during the holiday season, they don’t even have time for a hot meal. Soup doesn’t take long to make with a can of broth, and you’ll have leftovers for lunch the next day.” Stock up on a few healthy frozen entrees for nights when home-cooking isn’t an option. “There are a lot of healthy one-dish meals in the frozen-food section that can easily be combined with salads,” James says. Keep cans of beans on hand. “Beans and rice is a quick and easy meal and can be served with a salad, frozen broccoli, or some other favorite vegetable.”

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