Surviving the holidays

How to survive the holiday season in good form. (Blair Thornley / For The Times)

The holidays burst upon us every year with a veneer of joyousness, yet that bubbling of good cheer masks a series of rather dire seasonal warnings: Don't eat too many rich, fatty foods; don't drink to excess; don't forsake your exercise routine; and, for goodness sake, get some sleep.

Does it surprise anyone that even the sensible among us choose to ignore that advice? That we stuff ourselves with sweets, down too much spiked egg nog, skip every personal training appointment, stay out until all hours -- and then fall into bed without brushing our teeth?

Food, drink, festivities -- there's so much of it around. Elaine Rodino, a psychologist in private practice, knows it's sometimes difficult to resist. "You go to one event where people have cakes and candies and things and you say no, but by the third or fourth one, it's hard to keep saying no."

Why do we bail on our normal routines this time of year, despite knowing that we'll probably pack on the pounds and have to contend with a killer hangover? Rodino believes the holidays bring out the kid in us, and that kid wants it all. "We're probably at our most regressed this time of year," she says, "so we have less impulse control. We want the candies and cookies like children do."

"The holidays are such a multisensory time of year," says Gamila Smith, a Los Angeles-based costume designer and stylist. "The flavors, the smells -- you walk into a bakery and smell the butter and the frosting, and you lose it."

Smith has given up trying to be good this time of year. She loves to treat herself to pumpkin scones, homemade brown butter cookies topped with sea salt, and chocolate-dipped shortbread. "The holidays have so many things you can only get this time of year, you have to go for it. So I indulge and deal with the consequences later."

But there's a way to fall off the wagon and still survive the holidays. By following a few pointers, we can right the wrongs of the previous day and get back to business as usual.

Last one to the buffet's a rotten candy cane

You spent last evening huddled over a plate of prime rib, Yorkshire pudding, creamed spinach and glazed carrots, barely looking up to acknowledge other human beings in the room. The next morning, stomach distended and feet barely able to fit in your shoes due to the salt bloat, you vow not to touch a morsel of food until the sun sets.

Not the best strategy, says Joan Salge Blake, a registered dietitian, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Assn. and a professor of nutrition at Boston University. Many people think the best antidote to overeating is not eating anything at all, but that only makes hunger pangs grow until you're clawing your way through break-room doughnut crumbs by the end of the day. Think in terms of averages and balance, Blake says. Average out a week's worth of food, not just a day. If you're bad three days out of the week, be good the other four. The day after over-filling your gut, go for lighter foods such as fruits and vegetables.

"These are full of fiber and will fill you up before they fill you out," she says, "so by the end of the day you're not going to have an unplanned, impulsive snack." Add some lean protein (fish, skinless chicken, tofu), and a smattering of healthy fats (olive oil, avocado), and you'll tamp down cravings for more bad stuff.

Drinking alcohol to excess can result in the classic hangover, which has symptoms including headache, nausea and dry mouth. Forgo the funky home remedies and take Blake's advice: "The only thing that cures a hangover is time," she says. Because alcohol can be dehydrating, drink plenty of fluids the next day and don't repeat last night's bender.

Hitting Starbucks for a four-shot whatever the next morning might make you feel perky for a bit, but it's a quick fix that won't erase that sick feeling. Also, Blake warns people to be aware of what else may be in that pick-me-up, such as tons of fat and sugar that will add insult to the injury you did the night before.

A brush with danger

You come home late from a party and fall into bed, completely ignoring the toothbrush waiting for you in the bathroom. Skipping a few nights of brushing and flossing probably won't make your teeth fall out, but there can be some short-term consequences, says Dr. Sigmund Abelson, associate dean of clinical affairs at the USC School of Dentistry. Those sticky, sweet foods that are so plentiful this time of year -- think candy and cookies -- are the worst offenders.

"Those stick into the deep crevices of the teeth," he explains, "and the bacteria in the saliva interacts with the sugar. The bacteria attacks the sugar and metabolizes it to acid, which erodes the teeth and forms pits and causes decay."

Scared now? Good. Upon awakening, head straight for the bathroom for some oral triage: Thoroughly brush the chewing surfaces of the teeth, Abelson says, then floss. "It also wouldn't hurt to use a mouth rinse," he says, "since it does help kill bacteria. This helps mitigate damage from the night before." Adding in another brushing around noon will help as well.

Abelson also suggests chewing sugar-free gum with xylitol, which has been shown in studies to help prevent tooth decay.

Losing face