Surviving the Holidays: Eating for Fitness

By Michael Krueger, NSCA-CPT

With the holiday season quickly bearing down on us and our waistline, I thought it would be a good idea to dedicate a column to my thoughts on food and eating. As a culture, we have decided to refer to this basic need and activity as diet and nutrition. Whatever you call it, we have issues with it. 

Many Americans are overweight and heading toward obesity. I prefer the classic definition of obesity: “having excessive body fat.” That is pretty straightforward. I like it because a person can be fat at 200 pounds or even fatter at 150 pounds. It all depends on the percentage of your weight that is fat. But I digress; this is a discussion for another time. Today I am going to talk about simple ways to eat better so you won’t gain weight but still enjoy yourself between Thanksgiving week and January 2.
 
Urban myths
We have all heard that the average person gains two, four, six, or even 10 pounds during the holidays. This makes for good talk on the morning news shows, but it isn’t true. The average person doesn’t gain any appreciable additional weight specifically during the holidays. That doesn’t mean that many people don’t gain, but those people were probably gaining for the past 11 months as well; the holidays just make a convenient focal point.
 
Soon the stories will come out telling you how many thousands of calories you will consume in the average Thanksgiving Day meal. Once again, this is little more than hyperbole. If the stories simply listed the calories in a serving of each dish typically served, this could help you make some better choices. It would be more useful but not very good television.
 
The reality
November and December are no scarier to your nutritional health that the rest of the year. Granted, it can be a time of stress, and for some people that means additional emotional eating. It is a time of cookies, pastries, candy, cakes, and any number of temping treats. There are also lots of parties with snack foods and alcohol and … hmm, maybe it is a scarier time than normal.
 
What can you do to get through it without feeling like you have gone over to the Dark Side?
There are numerous books and articles out there telling you how to avoid gaining those excess pounds. Some have good advice and some are gimmicky, but most are just not doable, in part because they preach abstinence, and we know that isn’t going to happen. I think that most of them are way too complicated, and others treat you like you are not too bright. The most common advice is to drink more water so you will feel fuller. Well, that is good advice in general and under most circumstances, but it is not the most effective strategy when faced with a platter of cookies. When was the last time you heard someone say, “No thanks, I’ll pass on the cookies, I’ve had some water”? We don’t eat Christmas cookies because we are hungry; we eat them because we want to and because they taste good.
 
A Solution or two

So, what is a health-conscious person to do? The short answer is “eat the cookie.” Just don’t eat all of them. That is the secret, if you want to call it that: portion control. The second cookie won’t taste as good as the first one did, and the third or fourth you won’t even remember eating. Eating without thought is the biggest issue that presents itself at holiday parties. You are talking, laughing, and drinking, all while you are eating. You are doing what is known as “distracted eating.” 

Mindful consumption of food will solve most of the problems you will encounter during the holiday season as well as the rest of the year. Eating while reading, working, or watching television falls under the same general heading. Distracted eating is not particularly satisfying because you aren’t paying attention to what you are putting in your mouth. You don’t notice the flavor, the texture, how much you’ve eaten, or the subtle interactions between the flavors of the various components of the meal. A good wine or beer is wasted on a distracted eater.

This isn’t to say that you can’t eat and have a conversation at the same time. We are very social creatures, and sharing food is a big part of our culture. But, and it is a big but, eating little barbecue weenies, pieces of cheese, and sausage along with some Buffalo wings at a cocktail party is not the same as sharing a meal with someone. Balancing a paper plate on your knee while stuffing nasty snack foods in your mouth and washing them down with alcohol is not the equivalent of mindful eating.

Taking control
We all have favorite holiday foods, and this time of year is when those special seasonal foods are available, so what do you do? Once again, the short answer to this dilemma is to eat the ones you love and leave the rest. Using the previous cocktail party as an example, I would wager that little barbecue weenies do not top your list of favorite holiday foods; but, you eat them anyway. Cheese and crackers you can eat anytime, so why gorge on them now? Appetizers before a meal are stealth calories that no one needs. Just because the food is there doesn’t mean we have to eat it; save the calories for the main course. Once again, this is where mindful eating comes into play. It is possible to enjoy yourself without recklessly abandoning common sense. You need to make some thoughtful choices.
 
Earlier I mentioned how many calories the average person might eat at Thanksgiving dinner. The amount of calories you will consume is entirely determined by how much of those foods you put in your mouth. It really is just that simple.
 
Look at the spread placed before you on Thanksgiving Day. In a country such as ours, the choices and the volume are incredible. There are most likely some very tasty and calorie-dense foods available; don’t worry about that, you have it covered. Look at the empty plate before you and mentally divide it into thirds. Now, take the first third and fill it with vegetables, the second third with complex carbohydrates (this includes potatoes and brown rice), and the final third with lean protein. If there are multiple choices available within each category that you desire, you need to make room on your plate in the appropriate third for each. This means taking small portions of each your first time around, because there is no going back: This meal is a “one and done” situation.
 
Eat slowly, and savor the flavors and textures. Talk with others at the table. This will help you to slow down. After all, your mother always told you not to talk with your mouth full. Drink a beverage along with your meal. It does help to make you feel fuller, but only if you eat slowly enough to give your brain a chance to notice. Once your plate is empty, you are finished. You don’t need seconds or thirds. You have eaten enough, and anything more would be strictly speaking “recreational eating.”
 
“I hope you saved room for desert” is a common refrain at the end of the meals during the holidays. Well, you did, didn’t you? I certainly hope so. An opportunity like this doesn’t (or shouldn’t) come along every day. Once again, you will need to prioritize. Do you need an entire piece of apple pie? Would a smaller portion suffice, or could you share it with someone you love? Perhaps you want Aunt June’s spectacular pecan pie as well. Help yourself to a small piece; a big one won’t taste any better or be any more satisfying.
 
If you followed the above scenario, the total calories you have consumed by this point aren’t going to be particularly excessive. In all likelihood, maybe you consumed somewhat more than you needed but not enough to matter.
 
Lastly, when the meal is done, don’t head for the couch. Recruit as many people as you can, get outside, and go for a walk. It doesn’t have to be a brisk walk, either; an hour-long stroll through the neighborhood will do just fine. When you return from the walk, maybe the kids would like to play a little soccer or some touch football. You will be amazed at how good you now feel and how much energy you have because you didn’t overeat and got out and moved. 

Relax and enjoy yourself

This is the time of year for friends and family to get together to enjoy the season. Don’t deprive yourself of this experience; just continue to be mindful while you do it, and you will emerge into the New Year without a single extra pound to show for an entire season of celebration.

Michael Krueger is an NSCA-certified personal trainer. He got his start in fitness training while serving in the United States Coast Guard. He works with firefighters and others in and around Madison, Wisconsin. He is available to fire departments, civic organizations, and athletic teams for training, consulting, and speaking engagements. He has published numerous articles on fitness, health, and the mind-body connection and was a featured speaker at the IAFC’s FRI 2009 Health Day in Dallas, Texas. E-mail him at MKPTLLC@gmail.com. 

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