holiday buffet
Diet & Nutrition
Weight Loss

10 Tips to Help You Eat, Drink, and Be Merry Without Holiday Weight Gain

Editor’s note: The holidays are traditionally celebrated with all kinds of fattening foods, and making healthy choices this time of year can be especially tough. Here, fitness, nutrition, and weight loss expert Warren Honeycutt provides a few tips to help you avoid overindulging this holiday season.

One of the undisputed highlights of the holiday season is the food. (Oh, the food!) From savory main courses to sugar-laden desserts—and even special adult beverages—we’re surrounded by treats that we look forward to all year long. But before you rush headlong into the holly-jolly minefield stretching from Thanksgiving dinner all the way through the cocktail parties, potlucks, and restaurant outings that lead into 2016, ask yourself this: Do I want to look sleek and sexy on New Year’s Eve…or do I want to show up on Facebook looking like a stuffed turkey in a (not so) little black dress?

Of course you don’t want to start your New Year’s weight-loss resolution behind the eight ball. The good news is you don’t have to spend the next few months’ festivities moping by the veggie tray. Having your fruitcake and eating it too is just a matter of balance and sustainability.

We tend to use celebrations as a free pass to (over)eat poorly—and this time of year, the calendar is full of excuses to indulge! Fortunately, there’s an alternative to being a gastronomical Grinch: eating healthfully in a way that doesn’t feel like deprivation and that you can sustain over the entire season.

But if you don’t do some planning and strategizing in advance, you’ll never avoid holiday weight gain. Your default party persona will kick in, and your good intentions will be toast.

Here are 10 of my tips to help you say, “Bah, humbug!” to holiday weight gain:

Fill up before you go out. Yes, it’s something of a cliché, but it’s a cliché for a reason: It works. When faced with a buffet table loaded down with tempting choices, it’s all too easy to mindlessly graze until, before you know it, you’ve gorged yourself full of empty calories. Preparing a healthy meal or snack for yourself before you leave will curb your appetite and keep you from filling up on unhealthy party food.

The worst time to be hungry is at a gathering loaded with junk food. If you’ve had something nutritious to eat beforehand, you won’t give that fattening snack table a second (okay, maybe third) glance.

Don’t go straight for the food. Yes, that buffet table looks amazing, but it’s not the only thing worth your attention at this party. Make the rounds and say hello to your friends before grabbing a plate. Find the host and thank him for inviting you. Sit down with your nieces and nephews and ask them what they hope Santa will bring this year.

When you’re in the middle of an enjoyable interaction with someone else, you might forget all about eating for 15 minutes, or half an hour, or more. Nourishing your relationships with the people you love can be even more satisfying than nourishing your body.

Limit yourself to one plate—but make it one GREAT plate. Making healthy choices is not just about what you eat, but also how much you eat. I challenge you to research recommended portion sizes for your favorite foods. You’ll probably be shocked! Learning how to limit your portions (especially at a holiday party where unhealthy foods are so plentiful) is essential to maintaining a healthy weight. A good first step is resolving to eat only one plate of food—but make that one plate count.

Scope out the entire buffet line before going through it and put only the dishes you really want to eat on your plate. If you’re still hungry later on, you can always make yourself something at home. When you feel lean and refreshed the next morning, rather than bloated and groggy, you’ll be glad you stopped before dipping seconds or thirds.”

Take your time and savor the flavor. It’s a natural inclination to eat quickly when you’re hungry—and that impulse is heightened when you’re in a party atmosphere with other fun activities you’d like to participate in. But Honeycutt reminds that it takes around 15 to 20 minutes for the brain to realize that the stomach is full—so enjoy your meal slowly.

Taking the time to savor your food lets you realize when you’ve had enough, and it also enhances the entire experience. You’ll be surprised at how much more you enjoy eating your favorite seasonal treats when you take it slowly.

Give the veggie tray a fair shake. As I mentioned, you don’t have to limit yourself to carrot sticks and cucumbers, but if you do spot fruits or veggies among the cookies, meatballs, and cheese cubes, put a few of these healthier options on your plate. They’ll fill up space that (be honest) would otherwise be piled up with high-calorie fare.

It’s okay to partake in some of the more decadent offerings available—it is a party, after all—but do your best to find a healthy balance. Good health is about doing the right thing most of the time.”

Take it easy on the toasts. Whether it’s alcohol or sugary soft drinks—or worse, alcohol and sugary soft drinks—what you drink at a holiday celebration can sabotage a healthy diet just as quickly as what you eat. Everyone knows that sodas are packed with sugar and can wreak havoc on teeth and waistlines alike, but sometimes we tend to conveniently forget that alcohol can also be a major culprit in weight gain.

Alcohol contains lots of empty calories, slows down the metabolism, and can weaken inhibition, which can then lead to overeating (and possibly some other embarrassing behaviors), Since you’re at a party, you may not want to go the teetotaler route—and that’s fine!—but does every drink have to be spiked eggnog? I suggest replacing at least every other drink with water. This strategy will keep you hydrated and save you the many unwanted side effects of alcohol.

Use the buddy system. As with many things in life, making healthy choices is easier when you don’t have to go it alone. Ask a friend or spouse to help you stay on track if your willpower starts to waver.

If you can convince someone else to party healthy with you, you won’t feel like you’re the only one missing out—and the two of you can remind one another of why you want to make smart choices. Remember, it’s not about deprivation—it’s about making healthy decisions you can maintain for life.”

Sneak healthier recipes into your celebrations. If you’ll be hosting a holiday celebration or attending a potluck, prepare a dish that uses healthier but still satisfying ingredients. For instance, instead of using bread stuffing (which might have as many as 358 calories per cup), prepare an equally tasty pan of homemade cornbread stuffing with mushrooms, sage, and parsley—at only 95 calories per cup. The Internet is full of more healthy substitutions, and my own Get Lean program offers dozens of appetizing, healthy recipes by registered dietitians..

“Also, be aware that home-cooked dishes are often healthier than pre-prepared store-bought options—so plan ahead and create holiday staples from scratchIn your own kitchen, it’s easy to make healthy alterations to your favorite recipes, like using olive oil instead of butter. And definitely take advantage of all the fresh fruits and vegetables you can find. For instance, citrus fruits, sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, and several kinds of squash are all in season this time of year.”

Save your weight loss goals for the new year. Sure, you might have “only” 10 or 15 more pounds to lose before you reach your goal weight, but let’s be honest: This time of year isn’t exactly known for its salads. Since low-calorie options might be even less plentiful than usual—and high-calorie treats will definitely be tempting you at every turn—be realistic and resolve to simply maintain your current weight.

The fact is, the holidays are probably the hardest time of year to lose weight. If you can make it to New Year’s without adding any new pounds, consider that a win. You can resume chasing that goal weight on January 1st. And bonus—a weight maintenance strategy (as opposed to weight loss) will give you room to selectively sample your favorite seasonal dishes.

If, despite your best intentions, you still lose control, cut yourself some slack. If you do happen to overeat at a celebration with a particularly tempting spread, remember that it’s not the end of the world. One mistake won’t ruin a healthy lifestyle unless you allow it to. (Just don’t overdo it at every gathering this holiday season.)

Everyone slips up from time to time. Whatever the circumstances are, it’s important to understand that tomorrow really is another day. You can’t change the past, but you have full control over the future—so when you’ve slipped up, direct your mental energy to planning your next meal or workout instead of dwelling on your mistakes. Be as kind to yourself as you would be to your best friend. Encourage the most important person in your life…YOU!”

Pick one or two of these strategies to focus on—or enter the holiday season armed with all of them. Once you realize that sticking to healthy behaviors isn’t the massive lifestyle change you imagine it to be, getting lean will become second nature. With a few simple changes, you can have a happier, healthier holiday season—and overall lifestyle. That’s really something to celebrate!