- The Washington Times - Monday, November 24, 2003

You have heard it before, the statistic that says the average person can expect to gain from two to four pounds between Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day.

Weight gained over the holidays is not easily lost, warns Dr. Richard L. Atkinson, director of MedStar Research Institute’s Obesity Institute, which is affiliated with Washington Hospital Center.

“People are eating much larger portion sizes than they have in the past,” he says. “The majority of Americans tend to gain weight gradually, because consuming just a few extra calories a day more than you burn off builds up. … A person may gain two or three pounds over the holidays, but retain a pound, and 20 years later has gained a total 20 pounds extra.

“Food is our [societys] medium of cultural exchange, so it’s fine to have a big Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner. Just be aware that you can take in six to eight thousand calories,” he adds.

The key to avoiding weight gain at any time of year is to eat small portions, he says.

“If people would just do extra activity over the holidays, it isn’t such a problem. Walk for 45 minutes and you will burn off two or three hundred calories. Plan to cut back ahead of time by reducing one’s daily diet by 500 calories at a sitting and then go out and walk a couple of miles. Have several meal replacements such as Optifast, or instead of a meal, have a large salad or a piece of fruit.”

The issue of weight gain has considerable importance these days when headlines proclaim the alarming rise in obesity in this country and abroad. Excess weight is one of the contributing factors, if not the key factor, in the growing incidence of heart disease and stroke related to high levels of cholesterol.

Doctors, dietitians, nutritionists and personal trainers are more than ready with suggestions to curb appetites and reduce risk, at least some of which might work for the truly conscientious. No one behavior pattern works for all, they warn. The professionals consulted were asked to go beyond the usual — and admittedly realistic — advice summed up best in the familiar phrase: all things in moderation.

Unfortunately, such words often don’t go far enough because holiday celebrations usually involve stretching one’s limits to enjoy the fruits of the earth and vine — temporarily anyway. The better method asks a person to be sensitive to psychological nuances of the occasion and to have a strategy in mind ahead of time.

“This is not the time to start dieting,” says dietitian Denise Feeley, clinical research coordinator at the MedStar Weight Management Center. “Your goal should be to maintain your weight and not lose it right now. To avoid adding extra pounds ahead of the holiday, eat a healthy meal instead of fast food before going out on errands and begin holiday meals with a salad to keep from overeating throughout,” she suggests.

“Don’t eat anything that is not special [at holiday meals]. Why waste your calories on ordinary food?” says Robin Spence, dietitian for cardiovascular services at the Heart Institute of Baltimore’s Union Memorial Hospital. “One year I was at a beautiful buffet for Thanksgiving with table decorations that were mixed nuts all over the place. They are tantalizing, but I can eat nuts anytime. … Talk more, eat less. Never talk about your diet, or all the people there who want to sabotage you will offer you cake.”

Cutting back on beverages is another way Ms. Spence reminds people to conserve: “An ounce of distilled spirits or four ounces of wine is 100 calories. Take the stupid soda water with lime, or start with sparkling water to get a little filled up ahead of the meal.”

The worst thing a person can do is not to eat all day before a big party or meal since that tends to lead to overindulgence, warns Alexandria nutritionist Alana Sugar. She recommends eating several small snacks throughout the day instead, and to avoid sweets if a person has an eye on dessert. She agrees with Ms. Spence that choosing foods carefully is the ideal.

“You are in charge of your own body. At a gorgeous buffet, only 40 percent of what is offered may be good,” she says. “Start with small portions and go back. Everything in moderation when it comes to meals.”

Nutritionist Katherine Tallmadge, a past president of the District of Columbia Metro Area Dietetic Association, urges people to set priorities in their list of invitations to meals and parties.

“A week ahead decide there is one meal or party to splurge on and be more modest at the other ones,” she says. “A lot of people are told to eat less, but the opposite is true. People should divide their calorie needs by one-third into morning, noon and night. It hasn’t been proved that eating certain foods like grapefruit helps reduce fat intake, but soup and salads help you eat fewer calories at a meal. And studies show that incorporating watery foods into meals helps people consume 12 to 25 percent less calories at a meal.”

Calorie-counting dessert lovers should note that pumpkin pie is preferable to pecan pie, she says, citing a savings of 200 calories, but cranberries are good in any form. A half-cup of canned and jellied cranberries contains 208 calories, while one cup of plain cranberries has only 47 calories, but neither contains fat, says MedStar’s Ms. Feeley.

Feeling guilty over the amount of food consumed puts a person in a state of stress, says Pattie Cinelli, a Capitol Hill personal fitness trainer and writer. “Stress is a bad place to be because the body doesn’t function properly, and you can’t digest properly.”

Her advice? Relax and don’t take the subject of weight gain too seriously when it comes to enjoying good food.

“Adjust your attitude,” she says. “Be happy and grateful you are with friends and family.”

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