THE SPECIALIST: Dr. Chenguang Tao
An instructor of medicine at Mount Sinai, Chenguang Tao is a primary-care doctor who treats patients for everything from aches and pains to chronic problems like heart disease and asthma. He says weight gain is common around the holidays.
WHO’S AT RISK
There’s no avoiding it: Diet-busting temptation is as much a part of the holiday season as carols and the crowds at Rockefeller Center.
“A certain amount of indulgence is practically unavoidable over the holidays, but carrying a few strategies through the party circuit can help you keep things in check,” says Tao. “What researchers have been finding is that making changes that seem minor — walking for just 15 minutes twice a day, or even using a smaller plate — can make a big difference.”
No one gets a free pass to eat as much as he or she wants. “All of us need to be mindful about how much we eat, and during the holidays, it’s even harder not to overeat, especially because it’s so social,” says Tao. “The reason doctors are always making a big deal about obesity is that it’s linked to certain diseases — including heart disease and diabetes — but also because extreme BMIs increase mortality from all causes.”
Everyone’s holiday diet plan depends on their individual health history. “Even healthy 30-year-olds need to stay on top of their diet and exercise as a preventive measure,” says Tao. “Once you’ve been diagnosed with a specific disease, the dietary restrictions become much more strict — a low-salt diet is essential for people with heart disease, while diabetics need to be especially vigilant about their adjusting their insulin dosages over the holidays.”
SIGNS AND SYMPTOMS
It’s easy to overeat before your body senses it’s full. “There is a natural lag time of 20 to 30 minutes between when your stomach is full and when your brain recognizes it,” says Tao. “Especially if you eat fast, you can do a lot of damage in that 20 to 30 minutes. That’s one reason eating slowly can do a lot of good.”
Some doctors even suggest wearing your tightest-fitting clothes when you go out for a holiday meal, so that you’ll start feeling uncomfortable by the time your stomach is full.
As we round the corner from Thanksgivukah into the full blast of Christmas and New Year’s, Tao has come up with 12 tips for holiday eating.
Keep up with exercise. A good plan is to allow for some indulgence over the holidays and stick to a baseline exercise regimen, like two brisk walks a day, at 15 minutes apiece.
Don’t skip meals before going to a big party or gathering. “You’ll be less likely to binge eat or overeat if you don’t go with an empty stomach,” says Tao.
Use a smaller plate to help with portion control. A recent study found that people tend to eat 70% to 90% of what’s on their plate, regardless of the size of the plate. So opt for a small one.
Eat the healthier stuff first. You might have tried this as a kid — saving your favorite foods for last — but it’s also a way to buy some time so your brain can catch up with your stomach and realize that it’s full or almost full. “Eat the greens, veggies and lean protein first,” says Tao.
Try to avoid alcohol . Alcohol has a lot of calories — a shot of liquor has as many as a beer — and drinking also makes you less inhibited and less likely to stick to your diet.
Don’t sit close to the tempting food. It’s pure common sense. “If you have food in arm’s reach, you’re more likely to snack on it,” says Tao.
Swap higher-calories drinks for lower-calorie ones. Drinking diet soda, a seltzer, or water with lemon are all good ways to lower calorie intake. Tao also recommends cutting your wine calories by drinking a wine spritzer — half a serving of seltzer with half a glass of wine.
Cooks: Halve the salt content. “If you’re making a turkey, use a low-sodium broth, or make it from scratch,” says Tao. “Making ingredients yourself is more work, but it’s good to do because premade foods have much more additives, preservatives and salt.”
Add more veggies into the mix. Stuffing can still taste delicious if you add carrots or another root vegetable to decrease the calorie-laden ingredients.
Don’t dwell on failure. “A certain amount of indulgence is unavoidable for everyone,” says Tao. “Instead of berating yourself, use that energy productively and go for a walk.” Even adding five extra minutes of walking a day will pay off in the long run.
Pick a few cheats. Instead of justifying an eating binge in anticipation of a New Year’s resolution cleanse, Tao recommends sticking to a consistently healthy diet, with a few cheats for the holiday foods that are your special favorites.
Keep it in perspective. “As long as you keep exercising and don’t get sedentary, a few winter pounds aren’t something to beat yourself up over,” says Tao.
There’s no magic pill that prevents weight gain. “There’s still no true alternative to a balanced meal and exercise,” says Tao. While there are some over-the-counter medications that can lower fat absorption, he says, they have really unpleasant side effects, like upset stomach and diarrhea. “Other prescription weight-loss meds approved by the FDA also have side effects like headaches, dizziness and nausea, along with concerns of high blood pressure and irregular heart rhythm.”
QUESTIONS FOR YOUR DOCTOR
All of us can benefit from asking, “What preventive steps can I take to protect my health?” If you’ve let exercise fall by the wayside, ask, “How should I get started exercising again?” “Starting out too hard can be counterproductive, so you want to start out slow and be consistent,” says Tao.
WHAT YOU CAN DO
Get informed. The American Heart Association (heart.org) has heart-healthy tips on everything from holiday stress to diet and exercise.
Keep moving. Even moderate exercise improves your chances of keeping off excess winter weight. Tao recommends setting a goal of taking a brisk 15-minute walk twice a day.
Consider a set diet. Take a look at the DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and ADA Create Your Plate plans. Designed for people with high blood pressure and diabetes, respectively, they provide guidance for anyone trying to eat healthier.