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L.A. diet gurus share 8 secrets for avoiding weight gain during the holidays

The top five cookies in our L.A. Times Holiday Cookie Bake-Off (clockwise from bottom): Holiday kids; linzer cookies; rose, cardamom and pistachio snowballs; Mexican chocolate Christmas cookies; salted caramel snickerdoodles.
Christmas cookies are everywhere this time of year.
(Noelle Carter / Los Angeles Times )

As we head into the final stretch of the holiday season, the pressure to overindulge ramps up along with the seemingly nonstop parade of cookies, candy and comfort food. While a little indulgence is fine, experts say, it’s important to proceed mindfully, tweaking your diet to account for those chocolate tarts or extra cocktails at holiday parties.

“It’s just a matter of knowing how to make certain things fit,” said Alix Turoff, a registered dietitian based in New York. “Where do you have to pull back, so you are still on track with your goals?”

It’s not, they say, that the average American gains so much — a 2016 calculation published in the New England Journal of Medicine puts the average holiday weight gain through New Year’s at 0.7%. However, most Americans don’t lose all of that extra pound or two, so it accumulates each year.

We asked three registered dietitians for their top tips and tricks for navigating the gingerbread minefield of seasonal splurges. Here’s what they tell their clients:

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1. Splurge only on what you love the most: “My No. 1 philosophy is to pay attention to what you can’t live without,” said Cynthia Sass, a Los Angeles-based registered dietitian. Sass has her clients rank their splurges from zero to five, with five being one of their favorite things, such as their aunt’s pecan pie. “If it doesn’t rank at least a four, you won’t regret forgoing it.”

2. “Water first, veggies most”: These four words are the slogan of Los Angeles-based registered dietitian Ilana Muhlstein, creator of Beachbody’s 2B Mindset nutrition program. As simple as it sounds, when you’re out at a party, drink a glass of water before you start on the caloric drinks and serve yourself a plate of veggies, to fill up a bit before you go after the cheese or tarts.

3. Eat something before you hit those parties: Likewise, because a lot of the hors d’oeuvres passed at parties aren’t exactly healthy, have a small salad, preferably with protein, or a small bowl of vegetable soup, or even some Greek yogurt topped with berries and high-fiber cereal to fill you up before you go, Turoff said. If you’re on the run, nibble some protein-rich roasted chickpeas or edamame. And once you’re there, keep your back to the buffet and your hands full, so you can’t easily grab nibbles off those trays.

4. Choose lower-calorie drinks: If you’re not having alcohol, sparkling water with a splash of juice is a good low-calorie sip. If you’re having cocktails, ask the waiter or bartender to cut the simple sugar. Or just water down your drinks: “Order one drink with alcohol and another glass of club soda and water it down as you drink it,” Turoff said.

5. Find healthier substitutes for family dishes and holiday baking: Replace that green bean casserole with sautéed green beans with slivered almonds, Muhlstein said, or make caramelized carrots rather than sweet potatoes. Nix the mashed potatoes for mashed cauliflower. And if you’re headed to a relative’s house, tell them you’re bringing roasted vegetables or a kale salad topped with shaved Brussels sprouts, butternut squash and pomegranate seeds.

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If you are craving a home-baked treat, Sass said, drizzle pears or apples with maple syrup and spices and pop them in the oven. Or make a mock crumble, cooking whatever fruit you have in a saucepan and topping it with a crumble mixture of rolled oats, almond butter and cinnamon. In a pinch, our dietitians say, a little cocoa with almond milk also helps to satisfy a sweet craving without a lot of calories.

6. Treat yourself away from home: If you really want that cinnamon doughnut or piece of yule log, do it out at a restaurant or bakery, or at a friend or family member’s house. “You’re much less likely to overeat and binge when not in your own home,” Muhlstein said. And as you’re savoring it, the only thing you should be saying in your head is, “I am fully enjoying this,” she adds. Otherwise, drop the fork.

7. Exercise to set the tone: Squeezing in a couple of workouts, even when time gets tight, said Turoff, who also is a certified personal trainer, helps keep you in the right frame of mind to stay on track with your other healthy habits, including your diet.

8. Check in with the scale and yourself regularly: Just as exercise keeps you from throwing all eating caution to the wind, hitting the scale once or twice a week, Muhlstein said, provides some indication of how you’re doing with your eating habits. Often, she said, her clients are surprised and encouraged that they can indulge a little and not gain weight. The trick is finding the right balance.

Pay attention to how you’re feeling as you’re eating, and stop when you feel satisfied but not stuffed, a point that’s good for your digestion, energy and mood.

“You want to enjoy spending that time with family and friends,” not sleepy and in a food coma, Sass said.


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