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Ask the Expert: How Do I Stay Healthy and Avoid Holiday Weight Gain?

Christmas cookies

Office parties. Family get-togethers. Cookie exchanges. A large variety of festivities provide us with many opportunities to over-indulge. So it’s no wonder that many people pack on a few pounds during this time of year.

Avoiding holiday weight gain takes effort, but it can be done. Smart decisions paired with a balanced lifestyle can help you stay healthy and still enjoy all the treats and holiday goodies that are coming your way.

What’s the best way to achieve this? We spoke to Dr. Flavia Soto of SUNY Upstate Medical University about what we can do to prevent overindulging and adding on the pounds.

Flavia C Soto, MD of SUNY Upstate Medical UniversityExpert: Flavia C Soto, MD, FACS, FASMBS, ABOM Diplomat
Title: Assistant Professor of Surgery
Chief of Division of Bariatric and Minimally Invasive Surgery
Campus: SUNY Upstate Medical University

How Do I Stay Healthy and Avoid Holiday Weight Gain?

Food is comfort, and eating puts us in a comfort zone. Carbohydrates are especially soothing. Foods like cookies, pies and cakes, hit the same pleasure centers of the brain that illicit drugs like cocaine do. This triggers endorphins that make us feel good.

Eating is a very emotional event. We eat when we’re happy. We eat when we’re sad. And we eat when we’re anxious or stressed. During the holidays, there are all kinds of emotions, coupled with plenty of opportunities to eat. Most people can’t get away from a party without overindulging in something.

I encourage my patients to be mindful of what they are eating. Instead of letting emotions lead your actions, make a conscious effort to stop and think about you are eating and how much you’re having. Ask yourself, ‘Am I hungry? Am I thirsty?’ We often forget that drinks have lots of calories, too. In fact, alcoholic drinks are nothing but empty calories.

I also urge them to be mindful about the quality of the food they’re ingesting. Ask yourself, ‘What am I getting from that food? Is it a carbohydrate, a protein, or a healthy fat? Or is it an empty calorie like soda or alcohol?’ We should be especially mindful about eating enough protein, such as chicken, fish, and beans, which can help promote satiety.

When you do eat, do it without distractions such as your phone. Take a few deep breaths before you start, so you can be relaxed. Chew slowly, and savor each bite.

Before going to an event, be prepared for what’s coming. For instance, at a large meal, you know there will be a lot of side dishes and desserts. Have a strategy and a plan. Perhaps you’ll try everything on the table but only in small portions. Maybe you’ll bypass seconds in favor of your favorite dessert.

Another strategy: If you’re going to a party, consider bringing your own healthy dish. Doing so will provide you with at least one option that you know you can eat without guilt.

And finally, be vigilant about practicing other healthy habits, like exercising regularly, getting enough sleep and minimizing stress. Moderate exercise of just 30 minutes a day can help you maintain your weight. Physical activity also improves sleep and helps to keep stress at bay.

Too little sleep causes hormones like ghrelin — the appetite hormone — to go up, which makes it more likely you’ll overindulge. Stress that becomes chronic raises levels of cortisol, the fight-or-flight hormone, which can also trigger overeating. So make sure to do something every day that relaxes you, whether it’s listening to music, taking a yoga class, or spending time with friends.

Written by Winnie Yu

Winnie Yu is a writer in the Office of Communications at SUNY System Administration.

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