Avoiding the downside of holiday feasting

With the food-centric holiday season fully underway, the only topic more salient than how to make our favorite seasonal foods is how to avoid our favorite seasonal foods.

Although the horror stories of an exclusively elastic-waistband wardrobe come January might be outliers, the winter months are infamous for good reason. In fact, the National Institute of Health estimates an average weight gain of one pound owed to holiday indulgences.

But like all diets, nothing is set in stone. With help from Patricia Barber, USC’s resident registered dietitian, here are a few ideas that can help curb the tide of a heavy holiday.

Keep Your Routine:

Eating around the holidays, particularly Thanksgiving, promotes a twisted idea of “strategizing” for meals. Suggestions of skipping meals and fasting as a means of expanding your consumption capacity are substantially misguided.

In fact, when trying to maintain a healthy weight, going without food — particularly breakfast — is one of the most disadvantageous approaches.

Waking up in the morning, your body has exhausted its reserves of glycogen, which store the blood sugar needed to function. Even a quick nutritional reload — an apple or some cereal — gets the body working with enough fuel to make it through the day.

In fact, countless studies have shown that people who skip breakfast are more likely to be physically inactive throughout the day.

Some scientists have even proposed an evolutionary basis for breakfast. In the old hunter-gatherer days, if prehistoric man woke up without something to eat, his metabolism would hold tight to every precious calorie, in case the next meal was days off.

This way there would be something in the fat reserves to provide energy while roaming the plains.

Fortunately, modern man rarely has any uncertainty about his next meal, but the same evolutionary triggers still lay dormant. Going without breakfast tells your body the food supply is inconsistent; as a result, metabolism slows down and the body hoards every calorie for the presumably inevitable famine.

Even a small meal to start the day signals to your body that food is here to stay and kicks your metabolism into gear.


After a few weeks of holiday eating, your eyes will begin to glaze over with the prospect of another baked good spread loaded with cookies, bars and treats with above and beyond the daily amounts of sugar, butter and processed white flour.

One small inroad in the waistband war is to cheat your way through cooking; few recipes are set in stone, and some good substitutions can go miles toward your health.

The most familiar step in baking is to tote out the bag of white flour and dump it into your mixing bowl. Stripped of any nutrients or protein, white flour appears strikingly similar to sugar in your body. It spends little time being metabolized and quickly leaves you feeling hungry.

Try substituting any variety of wheat flours for some or all of the flour in a recipe. Particularly, the protein in whole wheat will leave a lasting sensation of fullness, keeping you away from the seconds. Some options include:

1. Whole wheat flour: Regular whole-wheat flour is fairly dense and can be hard to incorporate into a recipe without leaving a dry, brick-like product. Try replacing a third of the required flour and increase from there depending on results.

2. Whole wheat pastry flour: Pastry flour is aerated and noticeably lighter than its non-pastry cousin, meaning it can blend seamlessly into recipes. With a low gluten content, only substitute half of the recipe’s amount in breads, but for items such as cookies, scones, or brownies, pastry flour can be a one-to-one alternative.

3. White whole wheat flour: Milled from the white wheat plant (versus the traditional red wheat), white whole wheat flour behaves like white flour but packs the nutritional punch of wheat. It can be substituted one-to-one in recipes.

Fat content is another area ripe with opportunities to cheat. Start small — in almost all baking and culinary situations, low fat or soymilk can tag in for whole seamlessly (be careful only with custards, which depend heavily on the amount of fat, not the amount of dairy).

A real caloric home run can come from replacing the oil in recipes. The main function of oil is to keep the dish moist; replacing with a wet alternative does this as well. For lighter cakey or sugary desserts, used unsweetened applesauce as a one-to-one substitute (or half oil, half applesauce for a denser result).

When working with chocolate, go one-to-one with prunes run through the blender or any prune puree baby food. Since these substitutes are water, not fat-based, they are best soon after cooking.

Embrace the Sentiment:

Food around the holidays — more so than any other time of year — has that warm, fuzzy aura of nostalgia clouding our judgment. The impulse is to overdose on pumpkin, cranberries and peppermint.

There is nothing wrong with embracing these desires; food is strongly tied to our emotional memory, and what we eat contributes to our sense of a “successful,” joyous holiday season.

Moreover, denial of a food craving simply intensifies it — wanting a slice of pecan pie today morphs into gorging on an entire pie next week. So, if there are cornerstone foods for you this winter, eat them, savor them and move on. In fact, guilt about eating can often be as damaging mentally as fatty, salty foods are physically.

The one caveat, however, is to make sure to compensate your festive eating with similar reductions; the ubiquitous bag of Tostitos or 2-liter Sprite at a potluck is the same in December as it is in July; take a pass on these as you load up on latkes.

So don’t let the holiday season be a catalyst for looser jeans or a sudden obsession with fasting. It’s the holidays — be smart with what you eat but have fun.