How to Avoid the Holiday Food Traps

When your social schedule begins to expand during the holidays, so does your waistline. "Most people attend tons of festive events—and nearly all of them center around fattening food," says Michelle May, M.D., author of Eat What You Love, Love What You Eat. Add seasonal stress and zero time to cook or hit the gym, and you have a recipe for holiday weight gain. Well, not this year. Here's a plan for dodging diet pitfalls—everything from thousand-calorie eggnog lattes at the mall food court to button-popping family dinners.

At the Office Holiday Party...

The danger: An open bar and endless platters of spring rolls and pigs in a blanket

The detour:

If you're planted next to the food table, you'll shovel chips and dip into your mouth all night long. "So stay far, far away," says Danine Fruge, M.D., director of Women's Health and Family Medicine at the Pritikin Longevity Center & Spa in Miami. "You won't eat mindlessly if you have to cross the room to get to the food."

Passed hors d'oeuvres, which hover at every turn, are small, but they add up—fast. To avoid eating 2,000 calories worth of canapes, limit yourself to three that you love. Been waiting all year for bacon-wrapped scallops? Go for it. But pass on the crab cakes and other fried fare.

With alcohol, the goal is to keep both your calories and your buzz under control. Some options:

A single shot of vodka, gin, or rum mixed with club or diet soda and a squeeze of lime.
It will set you back only about 100 calories, says Christine Gerbstadt, M.D., R.D.

Champagne or pink Prosecco.
"Not only are they low on the calorie chart—around 80 to 120 per glass—but they're also more likely to be sipped rather than guzzled," says Kristin Reisinger, R.D.

Light beer or wine.
Most have fewer than 150 calories per serving. If you're the type to make several trips to the bar (no judgments!), Fruge suggests asking the bartender to fill your glass only halfway each time.

At the Food Court While Shopping...

The danger: "Having to make decisions diminishes people's willpower," says Kathleen Vohs, Ph. D ., an associate professor of marketing at the University of Minnesota Carlson School of Management. So all the choices you face at the mall (point-and-shoot camera or digital camcorder for your man? Espresso machine or French press for Mom?) will make you that much more vulnerable to temptation at the food court.

The detour:

Malls are filled with kiosks hawking softball-size cinnamon buns and soft pretzels on steroids. Keeping portion-controlled goodies in your bag will make other snacks easier to resist. Stick 30 pistachios or 24 almonds in a ziplock bag with two dried plums, or tote a Fiber One Oats & Chocolate bar. The carb/protein combo in these foods will keep you full.

An economic theory called the scarcity principle explains why we're such suckers for holiday treats. "Decades of research show that items we perceive as being in limited supply seem more desirable to us than nonscarce items," says Vohs. Holiday-themed coffee drinks and sweets are often more caloric than regular ones, so it's safer to stick to the basics.

Pop in a piece of gum to keep your mouth occupied and out of trouble. Gum can satisfy a sweet craving, and studies show that the chewing sensation sends appetite suppressant messages to your brain, says Reisinger.

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