Add joy, not pounds, with holiday spirits

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Photo of people toasting with champagne

This is the time of year to encounter all your favorite foods – including many that can push the numbers up your scale. Instead of getting upset about it, you might want to readjust your expectations.

“If you weigh the same on January 2 as you did the day before Thanksgiving, you declare victory,” says clinical psychologist Dr. Gerard J Musante. “Don’t try to lose weight over the holidays. Go into maintenance mode instead.” This advice comes from the man who pioneered a behavioral approach to weight management and founded Structure House, a residential weight loss program in Durham, NC 25 years ago.

So you’ve got the best resolution to get through the holidays without gaining weight, but your resolution dies down to a sip of wine, beer, or eggnog. It’s no secret that alcohol can affect your behavior — including your diet.

Alcohol is sneaky

Logic would tell you that if you eat 300 calories by drinking two beers, your body will compensate and you’ll eat less than if you didn’t drink the beers. Not so fast.

“Liquid calories from alcohol don’t give as much of a feeling of satiety, so people tend to eat more,” says Richard D. Mattes, MPH, PhD, RD, who researched the topic. Mattes, a professor of food and nutrition at Purdue University in West Lafayette, Indiana, notes that other beverages, such as soda, fruit juice, sports drinks, or specialty tea or coffee, have a similar effect.

Still, Mattes points to studies showing moderate drinkers weigh no more than teetotalers. In these studies, drinkers and non-drinkers consumed the same number of calories from food, but drinkers added calories from alcohol.

“If they eat more calories, how can they weigh the same or less?” asks Mattes. “It is an exciting topic and an open question how efficiently energy from alcohol is used.”

Should You Eat Before a Holiday Event?

Try to follow your normal routine, says Pat Vasconcellos, RD. “Eat in the morning and eat snacks as usual. Don’t think because you have dinner at 5pm you should skip your 3pm snack. Eating the snack will curb your appetite.”

Eating in the stomach is also important for slowing the absorption of alcohol, Vasconcellos says. Mattes agrees, but says eating before a holiday event doesn’t necessarily mean fewer calories. “When you eat a snack, the question becomes whether you continue to eat what you would have eaten if you hadn’t eaten the snack, or whether you eat less. Eating the snack well in advance will affect the next meal opportunities will be very few. If you’ve added a food opportunity to your daily routine, it could be counterproductive.”

Chances are you’ve been near this block before. You’ll know if eating before a holiday event will dampen your cravings or just make the problem worse.

Have a vacation game plan

“If you have to go to four or five parties, do you have to strain yourself at all of them?” asks Vasconcellos, who has a private weight management practice in Boston. “One party doesn’t get you over the top, but if you go to two or three parties a week, you can add 700 to 1,000 calories, depending on what you’re drinking.”

Musante advises avoiding alcohol altogether. “If you’ve had a good diet, a small amount of alcohol could have a greater effect. Like a 1,500 calorie diet, a few drinks… and all your best resolutions go away.”

His advice? “Recognize that you’ve been on vacation before. Sit down and imagine what you will encounter.”

If you are going to a buffet dinner alone, first go through the line without a plate and observe the scene. “Go somewhere and think about what you can have as a structured meal. Then take the plate and do that.”

If you’re with a supportive friend, try this approach: “Say, ‘I’ll get your plate ready and you’ll get mine ready.’ Then sit down and eat that meal and spend the rest of the evening sipping soda.”

Then there are the family gatherings where a relative says, “Come on, it’s the holidays. Why not have another cup of eggnog?” Musante says, “You have to work to get family members on your side.”

Mattes recommends two alternative approaches to controlling drinking and eating behavior. “Keep drinking what you would drink, but be mindful of what you eat and compensate for those calories by eating fewer other things. It has to be a conscious effort, since the drinks don’t provide a clear signal of satiety, which would cause you to spontaneously stop eating.” (Satiety means feeling full.)

You can also drink non-caloric beverages like water, diet sodas, coffee, or tea. “It’s not fluid per se that promotes weight gain,” says Mattes. “It’s energy-yielding fluids that promote weight gain. We have to stay hydrated but make good choices.”

Here are some tips for limiting alcohol calories during the holidays:

  • Drinking water. “Alcohol is a diuretic,” says Vasconcellos. “If you get thirsty and want something else, make water instead.”
  • Stretch your drinks. Add sparkling water or ice cubes and sip one drink throughout the night.
  • For mixed drinks, use diet soda, low-calorie fruit juice, or seltzer.
  • Choose lower-calorie drinks like dry wine instead of eggnog.
  • Have the bartender mix up a thin version of a favorite like the White Russian. Mix 1.5 ounces each of Kahlua and vodka with 2 ounces of soy milk for a total of 298 calories compared to 508 calories if made with cream. Make it with skim milk for a total of 251 calories.
  • Choose coffee. If it’s loaded with sugary flavors, be aware.
  • Be a designated driver. Don’t drink at all if you plan to drive. Your friends will thank you – and be safe. If you end up drunk, don’t drive.

Eat and drink in moderation – and enjoy the holidays

We all know that preventing weight gain is easier than losing it. “Having a fall over the holiday season erodes your confidence and your weight-loss program,” says Musante. “A lot of people tell me this was their downfall and they waited until much later in the year to recover.” “Don’t go on vacation thinking you’re going to lose weight,” says Vasconcellos. “You will fail yourself and not be able to enjoy food without feeling guilty. There are so many special foods. Choose and choose.”

Here are calorie and carb counts for some of your favorite beverages from the Joslin Diabetes Center website:

drink Amount (ounces) calories Carbohydrates (grams)
Beer 12 150 14
light beer 12 100 6
86% spirits (gin, rum, vodka, whiskey, scotch, bourbon) 1.5 105 pursue
Red table or rosé wine 4 85 1
Dry white wine 4 80 0.4
sweet wine 2 90 6.5
Light wine 4 55 1.3
wine cooler 12 190 22
sparkling wine 4 100 3.6
sherry 2 75 1.5
Sweet sherry/port 2 95 7
Dry vermouth 3 105 4.2
Sweet vermouth 3 140 13.9

The National Institute on Alcohol Abuse and Alcoholism (NIAAA) website defines a standard alcoholic beverage as one 12-ounce beer, one 5-ounce glass of wine, or 1.5 ounces of 80-proof distillate. Moderate alcohol consumption means no more than two drinks per day for men and no more than one drink per day for women and adults over 65 years of age.


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Add joy, not pounds, with holiday spirits
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