Holiday food follies

Tis the season to fill the belly! Good cheer elicits the annual "gourmand" in each of us, and who cares to resist? Whether it's the office party, dinner with friends or the family get-together, reveillon rituals churn out rich fare, offering up delicacies like foie gras, salmon and sauterne, and sweet goodies such as an inordinate amount of chocolate, galette des rois, butter cookies and eggnog.

It’s really unfair that indigestion, hangover and weight gain go hand in hand with the festivities. Is all this good food really so bad? Most nutritionists would say that there is no bad food, only bad eating habits. It’s the over-indulging that tips the scales and distresses the stomach and liver. Christmas lite? Forget it. One doesn’t need to be a saint to survive the season.

Start by understanding that calories are simply the units of energy that keep our bodies running the holiday treadmill. Generally speaking, most of us need to take in between 2,000 to 2,500 calories a day to fuel our activities and maintain body weight. But just one hefty holiday meal can easily exceed that many calories – and that’s with moderate alcohol consumption. When you consider that it only takes 3,500 extra calories to gain a pound of weight, it’s no wonder our clothes are so tight in January..

After all, it’s not just one day of decadence that puts on the pounds; the effect is cumulative. Cocktail parties are killers, as an abundance of food and drink are tantalizingly displayed, at a time of day when the appetite is stirring. Try to eat a protein or carbohydrate snack just before the party to cut down craving, and think big volume, low calorie. The stomach registers fullness before calories, so a boiled egg, a handful of grapes or popcorn or an apple will do the trick.

Ignore the Roquefort canapés, be prudent with the paté, but don’t feel obliged to set up camp near the crudités. Instead, head for the seafood. Oysters, shrimp, salmon and crab are lean, rich in nutrients and relatively low calorically. It’s the buttered bread and mayonnaise that up the fat ante. Foie gras is indeed gras, one small slice is 180 calories, but, hey, it is an excellent source of iron, zinc and vitamins A and B12.

Go slowly with the glug. Alcohol not only takes away our good eating sense, but adds empty calories. A flute of bubbly slides down 90 calories, and a 10cl glass of Porto packs 170. Remember to alternate each glass of alcohol with a glass of water. This will not only help curb tipsiness, it will also partially relieve the effects of the resultant dehydration that most of us call a hangover.

To avoid temptation at the office, stash that box of chocolates (50 cals per 10gms but lots of potassium and magnesium) out of sight. According to research at the University of Illinois, people who store candy on their desk chomp approximately three more pieces per day than those who stow goodies in a drawer, and six more than those who move their temptation to a shelf six feet away.

While out shopping resist the urge to grab a croissant on the fly. Carry along a bag of crackers and cheese, dried fruit, or grapes to snack on and always pack a water bottle (thirst frequently manifests as hunger).

At the dinner table, take the advice of a nutritionist who preaches the rule of 10s. Rate all the food in front of you on a scale of one to ten in terms of what you’ve been craving all year, and indulge only in the highest-rated foods. Remember, the first few bites are always the best anyway, so put it down if it’s not one of your top 3 or 4.

Play out a prudent partying strategy in your mind, visualize how you will eat only one or two caviar hors d’ oeuvres, a smallish helping of the aubergine dip, a couple of sweet petit fours, as you linger with a glass of wine for an extra 10 minutes. While it won’t work miracles, this imagery may make it more likely that you will come away a bit lighter than usual.

If you really want to get serious, keep a food diary. One obesity study found that those who religiously noted down everything they ate during the holidays lost an average of a couple of pounds.

If/when you do overdo, fit in some exercise, if only a postprandial 15 minute walk around the block. It will burn off a few of the excess calories and reduce holiday stress. According to Pamela M. Peeke, MD and author of Fight Fat After 40, “Stress increases levels of the hormone cortisol, which is linked to cravings for carbohydrates and fats.” No wonder we like to munch at the office, and overeat when visiting family back home. To make it worse, lack of sleep also increases levels of cortisol, according to research at Tufts University, and in women, more cortisol leads to more abdominal fat storage. So during the holiday season take the time to get even more sleep than you think you need.

Right. Well, if not sleep, then make sure to start supplementing early with vitamin Bs, and throw in some zinc to toughen up the immune system. Cut back on the caffeine and increase consumption of yogurt to condition the gut. After the deluge, drink peppermint tea to calm the digestive system, and ginger tea to help detox. If you forget the water trick above and wake up with a headache, make sure you have on hand the homeopathic remedy, nux vomica. Take 10 to 12 drops under the tongue every 20 minutes until you feel better, or until it’s time to start all over again.