Keep it simple to plan for healthful holidays

chow_111315-99146758Last year, I promised myself that after the holidays, I would eat healthier and exercise more. It never happened. This year, I don’t want to wait, but I also don’t want to set myself up for failure or be the Grinch during holiday gatherings. Any ideas?

First, recognize that it’s difficult to change our behaviors. Face it: If it were easy, you would have done it a long time ago. For a habit to stick, experts in behavior change say it’s important to keep a few strategies in mind:

  • Keep it simple. Focus on one realistic change at a time, and make it as easy and automatic as possible. Once you get into the habit — that is, once you find yourself doing the behavior without even thinking about it — you can try tackling something else. But not before.
  • Be specific. For example, instead of setting a goal to eat more fruits and vegetables, set a goal to eat at least one fruit and three vegetables each day. That way you can track your progress.
  • Celebrate your success. Give yourself an “attaboy” every time you practice your new habit. It might sound silly, but offering yourself a small pat on the back can make a big difference in whether your new behavior will actually become a habit.
  • Go public. Tell your friends and family about your goal and ask for their support. Be sure to tell them why you are trying something new — at the very least, that will help you make sure you yourself understand the reasons you want to make a change. It also helps you make sure it’s something you really want to do, not just something you feel obligated to do.

What sorts of new habits might be most helpful during the holidays? Here are some ideas:

  • Drink a pint of water before every meal. If you’re trying to lose weight, this simple strategy could be effective. According to a recent study in the journal Obesity, adults who drank 16 ounces of regular tap water before each meal, three times a day, lost almost 10 pounds in 12 weeks, compared with an average loss of less than 2 pounds for those who drank water before meals only once a day or not at all.
  • Take a 15-minute brisk walk every day after dinner. While this small amount of extra activity would be beneficial for almost anyone, British researchers who reviewed studies involving older adults found that the biggest boost for longevity might be for people who are sedentary to start doing just a little moderate to vigorous exercise. They found that people over 60 who averaged 75 minutes of such exercise a week, or 15 minutes five days a week, were 22 percent less likely to die over 10 years than those who remained sedentary.
  • Limit alcohol consumption to recommended levels (or less). It’s easy to get carried away during holiday gatherings, but alcohol provides a lot of empty calories and consuming too much carries other health risks, as well. The recommended limit is one drink a day for women or two for men. One drink is equal to 12 ounces of beer, 5 ounces of wine, or 1.5 ounces of liquor.

Chow Line is a service of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH 43210-1043, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Dan Remley, Ohio State University Extension field specialist in Food, Nutrition and Wellness.

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Take time to focus as holidays loom

72919774I lost a lot of weight years ago, but I always struggle during the holidays. How can I make sure I maintain my weight over the next few months?

You’re right that holidays pose a challenge when it comes to weight management. There are typically so many special occasions and gatherings that involve indulgent food and drink that it’s very easy to forsake healthful habits.

Apparently, this can be more of a challenge for people who have successfully taken off weight than for people who have never struggled with weight issues.

A 2008 study in the Journal of Consulting and Clinical Psychology compared holiday experiences of people who had previously lost a lot of weight (averaging about 75 pounds) and kept off much of it, and those who had always maintained a healthful weight.

The researchers found those in the first group were more vulnerable to weight gain in November and December and less likely to be able to shed those pounds in January. Even though they made greater efforts to control their eating and stay active, their attention to weight and eating during the holidays decreased significantly more than their always-normal-weight counterparts.

The authors suggested that people who have previously been obese need to work harder than others to manage their weight, and that the demands of the holiday season may overpower the resources they normally use to focus on weight control.

What could be most helpful, they suggested, is to find ways to focus on and monitor eating, weight and physical activity during such a challenging period.

How do you do that? Trying these strategies might help:

  • Practice “mindful eating,” in which you deliberately find ways to become aware of what you eat and why you eat it. There are a wide range of approaches you can use, from reducing (or even eliminating) distractions while you eat to eating with your non-dominant hand. for information. At a holiday gathering, see if you can choose not to eat when talking with others, and then take just a small portion of a favorite food and savor each bite.
  • Revisit strategies that have worked for you in the past, including monitoring your weight and food intake. If you have a lapse, don’t dwell on it. Just use the experience to redouble your efforts afterward.
  • Take time for yourself — whether it’s to enjoy a hot cup of tea or a 20-minute daily walk — during the busy holiday season. Slowing down can help keep you centered and focused on what’s important.

Chow Line is a service of Ohio State University’s College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences and its outreach and research arms, Ohio State University Extension and the Ohio Agricultural Research and Development Center. Send questions to Chow Line, c/o Martha Filipic, 2021 Coffey Road, Columbus, OH, 43210-1043, or

Editor: This column was reviewed by Carolyn Gunther, nutrition specialist for Ohio State University Extension, the outreach arm of the College of Food, Agricultural, and Environmental Sciences.

Exercise for the health of it

177522302My sister seems to think she can eat as much as she wants over the holidays and not gain weight as long as she exercises more. I’m skeptical. Who’s right? 

It really depends. The key is to balance calories you take in with the calories you use up.

But most weight-loss specialists say a combination of diet and exercise — not one or the other — is what’s needed, especially when indulging in special treats.

That makes sense. Figure it this way: If you estimate an average Christmas cookie has about 100 calories, and your sister eats as many as she wants — say, five? — that’s 500 calories she will need to work off if she doesn’t cut back calories somewhere else. For a 160-pound person, that’s an extra hour of high-impact aerobics, or nearly two extra hours of walking at a moderate to brisk pace. And that’s just to counterbalance the cookies. It doesn’t count any other bouts of excess.

Recent research backs up this line of thinking. A Texas Tech University study published in September in the European Journal of Clinical Nutrition involved 148 people from mid-November to early January. Half said they regularly exercised almost five hours a week. The others didn’t exercise regularly.

Guess what? The men in the study gained an average of two pounds during the holidays, and women gained about a pound. Participants who were obese tended to gain more. But the amount of exercise a person engaged in just didn’t seem to make a difference. The researchers weren’t sure why; it could be that people who exercised a lot also consumed more calories. The study wasn’t designed to answer that question.

Still, your sister’s idea has merit: Physical activity offers more benefits than just expending calories.

In fact, another study, published in November in the British Journal of Sports Medicine, indicates that you’re never too old to reap those benefits.

The study involved data from 3,500 people who took part in the English Longitudinal Study of Aging between 2002-03 and 2010-11. With an average age of 64, every two years the participants reported their level of physical activity.

After eight years, the researchers found that those who engaged in moderate or vigorous physical activity at least once a week were three to four times more likely to remain healthy.

While the study doesn’t prove cause-and-effect, it’s clear that engaging in exercise — during the holidays and year-round — can be the gift that keeps on giving.

Holiday ideas to ‘maintain, not gain’

181431584I’ve lost 30 pounds this year. During the holidays, I want to make sure I “maintain, not gain.” Any hints? 

First, congratulations on your weight loss. You should be proud.

You probably already know this, but it’s not easy to keep weight off once you do lose it. Experts continue to examine why that is. Some cite a lack of emphasis on maintenance in weight-loss programs; others believe biology plays a stronger role, blaming significant changes in metabolism during and after weight loss. Those changes often make battling weight regain a Herculean task.

Despite the challenges, there’s hope. Here are some ideas that could help you attain your no-weight-gain goal during the holidays:

  • Be aware that you’re going to encounter a lot of cues that will tempt you to indulge in special treats. Try to counter the temptation by keeping reminders of the positive results when you resist the urge. For example, post photos of your new, svelte self on your refrigerator, inside your pantry and even on your office desk, especially if your workplace tends to be generous with holiday goodies. Another idea: Buy some healthy-living magazines and place them in spots where you know they’ll catch your eye.
  • Know your trigger foods and the times of day when you run into trouble, and ask for help. If you know you have trouble resisting nacho chips at holiday parties, ask a friend to help you keep yourself under control. If you tend to have difficulty when you’re home alone in the evenings, ask someone to call or text you each night for the next few weeks with a gentle reminder to stay the course. Such support can go a long way.
  • Think about tactics you’ve used in the past and renew those efforts: Keep a stash of celery sticks in the refrigerator to fill up on before going to a party. Brush your teeth after every meal. Park at the farthest parking space to help you add steps to your day. Think about what works for you, and make the decision to do it.
  • Be vigilant about sticking with your regular healthy routine: eating a healthy breakfast, drinking plenty of water, getting a good night’s rest and engaging in some type of physical activity every day. Keep yourself accountable by keeping a daily record.
  • Give yourself permission to enjoy the foods of the holiday season, but in moderation. Go ahead and savor a few bites of your favorite treat, but realize you don’t need to eat the whole portion. And, look for ways to be kind to yourself that don’t involve food, such as going to a mind-body class like yoga or Pilates. The rewards are great — and you’ll begin the new year on the right track.

Watch sugar intake over holidays

159190816I have a sweet tooth. I’ve been cutting back on sugar lately, but I’m worried about the holidays and all the extra sweets. Do you have any guidance?

It’s a good idea to eat less sugar — added sugar, that is. It’s estimated that Americans consume 16 percent of total calories from added sugar — the kind of sugar that’s added to foods during processing or preparation, as opposed to the type naturally found in fruit and other whole foods.

That 16 percent is equal to 320 calories a day on a 2,000 calorie-a-day diet — far more than recommended. The American Heart Association suggests that women consume no more than 100 calories a day from added sugars, and men no more than 150 calories a day.

The nutrition community agrees that cutting back on sugar would be a very good thing. Some experts, including the authors of a commentary published in the journal Nature in February 2012, even go so far as to call added sugars “toxic” and advocate regulating them like alcohol. Others are more moderate, saying that added sugars are just a source of needless empty calories and cutting back would help people with their weight and triglyceride levels, which increase when you eat too much sugar.

In either case, you should know that overdoing it on added sugars — or other carbohydrates, including white rice, bread and other refined grains, could cause your blood sugar to spike and then drop, possibly suddenly — and that variation in blood sugar could trigger more sugar cravings.

Be aware that avoiding added sugars can be a challenge. They’re not only in cake, cookies, pie, candy and ice cream, but they’re also in many processed foods, including barbecue sauce, salad dressing, canned soup, pasta sauce, granola bars, breakfast cereal, instant oatmeal, flavored yogurt, frozen dinners and many other foods. The largest contributor of added sugars in the diet is high-calorie soft drinks.

Looking at the “sugar” line on the Nutrition Facts label doesn’t always help, because it lumps naturally occurring sugar together with added sugars. So you need to look at the ingredients listing to determine if the product has added sugar. Look for words like cane crystals, corn sweetener, evaporated cane juice or syrup, fructose, dextrose, glucose, sucrose, fruit juice concentrates, agave nectar (or other types of nectar), high-fructose corn syrup, honey, malt syrup, or molasses.

Or more simply: Eat fewer processed foods and more fresh produce; use fresh ingredients when cooking; and drink more water and milk. And limit yourself to just one or two of those Christmas cookies at a time.

Tips to prevent holiday weight gain

I need some inspiration to help keep me from gaining weight during the holidays. Any ideas?

The temptations of the season often come not with glitter and sparkle, but with sugar, fat and calories.

Fortunately, weight gain isn’t inevitable. In fact, most studies suggest an average weight gain over the holidays of about 1 pound. This is good news, because most people assume it is five or 10 times that number.

Still, researchers warn that people tend to keep that extra pound instead of shedding it after the season is over. Those pounds can pile up over time, leading to significant weight gain.

Studies also indicate that people who are already overweight are more likely to gain five pounds or more during the holidays.

Perhaps the first thing to acknowledge is that this won’t be easy. Accepting that in advance will help you make a more serious effort. With that in mind, here are a few tips from the experts:

  • Unless you can already easily estimate and track calories of the special treats and meals you’re likely to face over the holidays, try a “mindful eating” approach instead. A recent Ohio State University study showed that this technique can help people with diabetes to significantly reduce their weight and blood sugar. To use this method, take a few minutes before eating to assess how hungry you are, and then make a conscious choice about how much you eat. When you’re full, you stop eating — no matter how tempting the food is.
  • Learn to say “no” politely: “It’s delicious, but if I eat one more bite, I’ll feel stuffed.” Don’t let yourself feel pressured into eating more than you want to.
  • Help yourself with portion control by using smaller plates, especially at a buffet. Fill it up with vegetables or lean protein, if possible, before you add other dishes. When eating out, ask for a take-home box to be delivered with your food, and put half of your meal in it before you take a bite.
  • Watch the alcohol. A recent study showed that American adults get an average of 5 percent of their calories from alcohol alone, amounting to about 100 calories a day. That could easily increase during the holidays. Set yourself a limit in advance, and follow any alcoholic beverage with a nice big glass of water.
  • Find ways to increase physical activity to account for extra calories. Stretch your 30-minute workout to 45 minutes. And, make it a point to always park far from the entry to work or the store, just to work those extra steps in.

For more ideas from around the web, see