I have a long and storied history of overeating during the holidays, so much so that I know exactly where the Tums are in every home of practically every single member of my entire extended family. But a few years ago, I started to build my own personal list of tips and techniques that I use to survive a time of year when, for me, overeating is all too easy.
Today's list of tips will give you plenty of ways to resist holiday snacks and food, whether you're staying with family or in-laws, hosting the holidays at your own home, or even if you're at a holiday dinner out at a restaurant.
This list comes in two parts: Part I contains tips you can apply to prevent subversive overeating--the kind of overeating that occurs gradually, with you hardly even noticing, over the course of an entire day. Part II contains tips designed to help you once you sit down to a specific meal where you think you might be at risk of overeating.
Part I: Managing Food Intake Over the Course of the Day
1) Start The Day With Exercise
One of the best ways to set the right tone when you know you're going to be surrounded by food all day is to get in some exercise the very first thing in the morning. Any sort of physical activity will do: treat yourself to a brisk walk with family, go for a run, or play some tennis with your nephew.
Why at the beginning of the day? Three reasons: First, when you exercise first thing in the morning, not only do you start the day having burned a few hundred extra calories, but the exercise also helps suppress your appetite. Second, once you get started with the day's eating, you'll have less and less inclination to exercise as the day goes on. Third, the extra exercise will put you in a healthy frame of mind and help you resist the high-calorie food you'll be surrounded by all day long.
2) Make Your First Meal Mostly Fiber
Breakfast is often an informal meal at most homes, which means you'll be able to choose more carefully what you eat for this meal without offending your hosts. So take a pass on rich, energy-dense foods like eggs, sausage or pancakes, and have a small bowl of high-fiber/low-sucrose cereal and two or three pieces of fruit instead. Rather than starting the day off 1,000 calories in the hole, you'll fill yourself up with healthful antioxidants. And if you followed tip #1, you'll likely find that this is exactly the kind of food your body craves after healthy morning exercise.
3) Allow Yourself Some Treats....
Nobody likes a Grinch. I don't want to force you, especially during the holiday season, to gnaw on rice cakes all day and abstain from all cookies or goodies. So go ahead and indulge yourself a little, and enjoy a cookie or two, in moderation, every so often over the course of the day. However, when you do indulge, be sure to...
4) ...Alternate with Fruits and Veggies
Ah, there's always a catch, isn't there? After you've enjoyed your occasional cookie or other fiendishly energy-dense snack, make your next snack a piece of fruit or some raw vegetables. Alternate the good with the bad and you'll be able to have some holiday fun and still save yourself hundreds of calories over the course of a day. Try the alternating snack method this holiday season and see if it works for you.
5) Skip Lunch
Another idea to save yourself a few hundred calories is to skip lunch entirely. Normally, I wouldn't recommend skipping meals, but these are the holidays--you're surrounded by food all day long, and you're likely to end the day with an enormous dinner. You certainly aren't going to starve. If there's any meal you won't miss on days like today, it's lunch.
6) Brush Your Teeth
Would you like a powerful, foolproof and easy strategy that will prevent you from eating anything for a minimum of one hour? Just give your teeth a good brushing. There's no better temporary protection from snacking. Who wants to eat anything when you have a minty-clean mouth?
On any big eating holiday, you can use this technique a couple of times over the course of the day and you'll be shocked at how much less food you will consume.
7) Keep Track
Another powerful and foolproof strategy (although admittedly one that's not quite as easy to implement as brushing your teeth), is to keep track of the food you eat in written form. And when I say keep track, I mean literally writing down absolutely everything you eat over the course of the day.
This doesn't mean you have to show up to Christmas dinner with a pen and notepad like detective Harry Bosch. There are ways to do this with various degrees of discretion. For example, you can quietly retire to your room every hour or so to record the things you've eaten over that time.
But the basic concept at work here is this: what gets measured gets controlled. Just the simple act of writing down (and therefore observing) what you've eaten over the course of a day will cause you to eat less. This strategy is probably the most labor-intensive on today's list, but it is also the most powerful and effective.
Part II: Once You're Seated for Dinner:
8) The Two Glasses of Water Method
Everyone knows the old trick to drink a large glass of water before a meal. Water takes up extra room in your stomach and it contains no calories (actually, cold water contains negative calories, if you want to get all technical-like).
Think of this tip as the water method on steroids. By drinking two glasses of water instead of just one, you will have significantly less room in your stomach for food. You will likely eat much more sparingly. Interestingly, I find that I enjoy my food even more when I apply this tip, despite the fact that I end up eating quite a bit less.
9) Eat Half Portions
I always go back for seconds. There's something about that second plate of food that adds extra satisfaction to a big holiday meal. But let me tell you about one year when I did something really stupid: thinking I had discovered a way to eat more efficiently, I piled a double portion of food onto my plate, thinking I'd save myself a trip back for seconds.
Well, guess what? I outwitted myself and I still had seconds. And I had to lie totally still the rest of the evening to avoid doing a Mr. Creosote.
What I thought would be a quantum leap in eating efficiency actually taught me a valuable (if counterintuitive) lesson: the truth is it didn't matter how much I ate on that first trip: my meal wasn't going to seem complete until I made that second trip for more.
The next time you sit down to a huge holiday meal, use this counterintuitive logic to your advantage. For your first plate of food, eat a half portion of everything. If somehow you manage to avoid making a second trip for more, congratulations! But even if you still serve yourself that seemingly inevitable second plate, you've still only eaten two half-portions of food, which is just another way of saying one regular portion. At holiday mealtime, that's still a big victory.
10) Wait to Go Back For Seconds
Most people know that our stomachs tell our brains "I'm full!" with about a 20-25 minute lag. The reason it's so easy to overeat is simply because Mr. Brain doesn't think to tell Mr. Hand to stop ramming food into Mr. Mouth until it's much too late.
But we can turn this staggeringly unhelpful evolutionary trait to our advantage by combining the half portion method (tip #9) with a 15 minute delay. At your next holiday dinner, try eating a half portion for your first plate of food, and then wait 15 minutes before you go back for more. That oh-so-brief 15 minute lag, combined with the time you spent eating your first plate of food, should get your brain on the same page as your stomach. Result? You'll probably take much smaller portions for your second plate of food. Oh, and you'll score a rare victory over human evolution too.
11) Alternate Bites of Food with Drinks Water
Remember our tip #4 above, which recommended you alternate treats with healthy fruits and veggies over the course of the day? This tip is similar, but it's designed for the dinner table. It's easy to do: alternate every bite of food (and I mean every bite) with a swallow of water. Just put your fork in one hand and your glass of water in your other hand and take turns.
This technique aids in digestion, and it causes you to eat much more slowly. Your brain will catch up to your stomach and get the "I'm full!" signal before you've eaten too much, yet you won't really experience any feelings of deprivation or hunger. You'll be amazed at how much less you will eat over the course of a full meal using this strategy.
12) Don't Clear Your Plate
One of the less-than-helpful traditions dating from the Great Depression is the maxim, usually told to us by our parents, to clean your plate. Well, guess what? The rules have changed. You don't have to obey your parents, and it's not the Depression anymore (although, now that I think about it, what if history repeats itself and it is the Depression again?).
Uh, in any event, I give you permission to leave food on your plate this holiday season. This tip works particularly well with holiday dinners out, since you can take that extra food home and save yourself from cooking another meal later in the week.
13) Cut Back on Your Alcohol Intake
"You can't seriously want to ban alcohol. It tastes great, makes woman appear more attractive, and makes a person virtually invulnerable to criticism."
Alcohol may be the cause of, and the solution to, many of life's problems, but it can present particular difficulties at your holiday dinner table. Few foods are more disturbingly efficient at delivering excess calories into your body. And because alcohol is absorbed through your stomach, it only fills you up temporarily, thus letting you continue to drink and thereby ingest still more calories. So at your next holiday dinner, drink extra water instead of extra glasses of wine, and take a pass on the before-dinner cocktail or the after-dinner liqueur. Note: Do not follow this rule when staying with annoying relatives or in-laws.
Here's a radical tip for the next time you're sitting down at a big family dinner. Instead of concentrating on your food, why not ignore your food and concentrate on the family and friends around you? Have a few bites, but then put down your knife and fork and just talk. Ask a few questions of the relatives sitting closest to you, and get them talking too.
If you ask the right questions and get a really good conversation going, 20 minutes can go by in a flash. And of course another wonderful thing happens during those 20 minutes: your brain "catches up" to your stomach and figures out that you're full! Voila, you've just avoided overeating at dinner, and you've had an enjoyable time conversing with your family. I can't think of a better way to spend the holidays.
15) Save Room For Dessert
If you've successfully implemented some or all of the tips in this post, congratulations! You deserve to indulge yourself. This last tip is a rule-breaker of sorts that takes advantage of that curious breach of the laws of physics that happens at the end of every big dinner: no matter how much you eat, no matter how full you are, there is always room for dessert.
Well, help yourself to dessert then! And enjoy it, because you deserve a pat on the back for eating a lot less over this holiday season than in prior years.
But save that second piece of pie for tomorrow's breakfast.
Readers, what did I miss? Which of these tips did you find most effective? Which were the least effective? And what other tips have you found helpful that you'd like to share?
The Dinner Party: 10 Tips to Make Cooking for Company Fun and Easy
The Pros and Cons of a High-Carb/Low-Fat Diet
When High-Fat Food Can Actually Be Healthy For You
Brown Rice: Dietary Penance
How can I support Casual Kitchen?
If you enjoy reading Casual Kitchen, tell a friend and spread the word! You can also support me by linking to me, subscribing to my RSS feed, or submitting this article, or any other article you particularly enjoyed here, to bookmarking sites like del.icio.us, digg or stumbleupon.