Your Holiday Diet Survival Guide

The most wonderful time of the year doesn’t have to derail your diet.

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Ah, 'tis the season for merry making, office parties, stressful family interactions and too many trips to the buffet. Unlike any other time of year, the holidays possess the ability to take level headed, health-conscious folks and turn them into binge drinking, pigs-in-a-blanket stuffing zombies. Before we tackle the problem, let's review why "the most wonderful time of the year" tends to derail so many of us.

Mounting Stress

While most of us do look forward to spending time with family and friends, these gatherings do not always mirror a Norman Rockwell painting. Old rivalries can bubble up and successful, adult children can fall back into the childhood roles they once held as soon as they step into their parents' home. Or maybe you don't have a family to go home to. Certainly distracting yourself with parties and happy hours could seem like a great way to avoid feelings of loneliness

And for those of us who stick to a healthy eating plan, heading off to mom's house can be disconcerting if she decides not to stock the fridge with your essentials. And then there are folks who are "good" all year, only to overindulge and feel like they've ruined their diet – so they say "screw it" and continue to eat their way through until the New Year, when they resolve to join a gym and shed those unwanted pounds. 

I have an idea! This year, why don't we take control before the rest of the holidays hit and use strategies to avoid unnecessary weight gain and guilt? 

[Read: 7 Ways to Decrease Holiday Stress.] 

Commit to Staying on Course 

Travel and social commitments can throw you off your normal workout schedule. It's easy to skip the gym when there's a party to go to and presents to buy. Plus, it's getting rather nippy in many parts of the country, and your regular run might not be as enticing anymore. True, these are all valid reasons to skip a workout, but the thing is that you're going to be much less stressed and able to make better decisions when you find the time to fit in exercise. Here are some ideas: 

• Instead of meeting a friend for dinner or holiday drinks, make a date for a run or power walk. You can catch up, and heck, you can still go for a hot toddy afterwards – guilt-free. 

• Gatherings with small kids can be turned into active events by scheduling some time to head to the playground or go skating or sledding. The bonus is that the kids will be so knocked out afterward that the parents can actually spend time catching up. 

• No time to workout? Put on a FitBit or another activity tracking device and start shoveling! The average person can burn up to 300 calories an hour shoveling snow. 

• If you're going to be in another city for a week or so, look online (Active.com is a great resource) to see if there's a Jingle Run/Walk or another holiday-related fitness event. Ask your sister-in-law to join you and sign up! 

[Read: Your Big, Fat, Gluten-Free Holiday.] 

Smart Eating Strategies 

1. Don't go hungry. You don't need to have an entire meal before heading to a party, but don't go starving. If you do, you're likely to wolf down whatever you see first. Have an apple or a piece of cheese or a slice of bread with 1 tablespoon of nut butter before you go, and you'll be able to make better decisions at the party.

2. Serve it up. No matter what, always use a plate (the smaller, the better). If you just stand by the buffet table and snack, it's easy to lose track of what you've eaten. Plus, holding onto a plate helps to keep your hands busy, so you don't eat mindlessly. 

3. Colors come first. Fill half of your plate with vegetables and fruit first, then fill 1/4 of it with protein, and the last 1/4 with grains or starches (for example, crackers, bread, or rice). Eat the fruits and vegetables first, then move on to the rest. 

4. Play favorites! A holiday dessert table can melt anyone's willpower. Make sure to eat some real food first, then pick one or two of your absolutely all-time favorites from the dessert tray. If the first bite isn't worth it, toss it! No use wasting calories on something you don't love. 

5. The 1:1 Rule: If you're drinking alcohol, make sure to only have one drink per hour, and follow up with a glass of water (still or sparkling). Those booze calories add up! Here's a breakdown: 

5 ounces of red or white wine = 125 calories

12 ounces of beer = 153 calories

5 ounces of sparkling wine = 110 calories

12 ounces of mojito = 230 calories

1.5 ounces of Bailey's Irish Cream = 144 calories 

And what if you're going to visit someone whose eating habits aren't exactly stellar? You don't want to offend them, but you also don't want to be subjected to a week without fresh produce and fiber. Here's my suggestion: Offer to go grocery shopping for them. Ask for their list, and then also pick up the items you need to help you stay on track. That should keep everyone feeling quite jolly. Happy Holidays! 

[Read: Healthy Holiday Drinks.] 

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns and feedback. 

Frances Largeman-Roth, RDis a best-selling author and nationally recognized health expert, and the former Food and Nutrition Director at Health magazine for nearly eight years. Prior to that, she was part of the editorial team at the Discovery Health Channel and was managing editor at FoodFit.com. Frances is the author of Feed the Belly: The Pregnant Mom's Healthy Eating Guide and co-author of the best-selling The CarbLovers Diet and The CarbLovers Diet Cookbook. Her cookbook, Eating in Color: Delicious, Healthy Recipes for You and Your Family will be published in January 2014. Frances earned her undergraduate degree from Cornell University and completed her dietetic internship at Columbia University in New York.