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Holiday Diet? An Oxymoron!!! Beyond Diets and the Joy of Food

Displays of holiday food clearly present a challenging dietary environment, whether in the office, with family, or in a restaurant. But, honestly, the “Holiday Food Challenge” pales in comparison to our routine exposure to fast foods, fad diets, coffee delights on every other corner, and the in-your-face presence of candy, soft drinks, and other non-foods at every check-out lane… in every store…everywhere…with numbing advertisements prodding us along!

Constant access to these diverse and sugary pleasures lead many of us to believe that we can enjoy food 24/7…a sure sign of Gluttony Gone Wild! However, when we really stop and think about the true meaning of flavor and nutrition, we realize that gratification of the senses is not a substitute for the joy of good food.  There is a way to simultaneously enrich our palate as well as our entire physical and mental well-being and it has more to do with regulating our risk exposure than to regulating our weight.

“It is not only possible but healthy to enlist pleasure as your dietary ally”,  says Peter Kaminksy, the author of “Culinary Intelligence,” recently published by Knopf (listen to interview here). As we work through our holiday food pleasures, it is helpful to realize that (number one) diets rarely work and (number two) they often don’t work because we end up denying ourselves certain pleasures and so engage an endless cycle of purging and then binging. (I am so guilty!) Eating healthy means that food does not have to be bland, that not every calorie needs counting, and that we can fully enjoy the flavor and richness of good food and feel good at the same time.

I know, I know. By now, you might be thinking: “I am reading this blog and, at long last, I have final justification for all those guilty nights imbibing (many) cups of Toffee Crunch ice cream.” Well,to some degree you would be correct. To some degree. About six years ago, I read Dr. David Katz’s research chapter on dietary claims for weight loss, where he (Kaminsky and other researchers) convinced me of the following:

  • Popular diets tend to emphasize weight loss while ignoring the importance of dietary pattern to overall health.
  • The responsible “eater” should do just the opposite. Follow healthful dietary and physical activity practices, with less emphasis on weight control.
  • When coupled with skills and strategies for eating well in a challenging environment, your appetite for fad diets and fast foods will start to decrease.
  • However, you still need to find a way to regulate your food intake; if you are overweight, have too much body fat, or have high cholesterol.
  • You must also be able to deal with the challenging food and fast-paced environment we live in.
  • Refined grains, added sugars, and added fats are inexpensive, good tasting, and convenient…and they are all around us!
  • Short-term weight loss is consistently achieved by any dietary approach to the restriction of choice and calories, but lasting weight control is not.
  • Lasting weight control involves cultivating a refined palate, limiting our exposure to unhealthy foods, and enjoying healthy vegan foods that are rich in flavor
  • We can lose weight if we don’t focus on weight loss as the be-all-end-all of a healthy life-style and INSTEAD think before we eat, choose good ingredients, understand how flavor works, and make the effort to cook.
  • Yes. We need to give up most fast food and all junk food and we can enjoy dessert in moderation; by eating delicious, flavorful foods, we’ll be nicely satisfied (not disgustingly over-gratified) with smaller portions.

So, what does this have to do with the Holidays? Several things. First, if you find yourself thinking “I can eat a lot now because I will just go on a diet later” then consider yourself a binge-purger who has been indoctrinated into our fast-food, fat-laden, sugar-pumped culture. Hey, It’s not your fault that you have been trained to think this way! But now that you have caught yourself thinking this way, tell yourself instead: “Hi there! I want you to take good care of yourself now. I am now eating less sugar and fat and really enjoying food (flavor, texture, nutrition) in a whole new way!”

Second, you may be in a setting where you are pressured to eat. Aunt Sally’s Deep Dish Pecan Pie? Brother Bob’s Deep Fried Turkey Wrapped in Bacon? Egg Nog? When faced with these, be tactical. There are lots of alternative things to try. Drink a lot of water before you go to these events or get into a routine of drinking healthful teas (white, oolong, or yerba mate). Bring your own vegetarian options with you. Take a smaller portion. Go for a walk right before the meal and right after. Enlist a fellow revolutionary prior to the onslaught.

Third, related to the above and as I have been saying, it is important to really know your setting and it’s profound influence on your behavior. The 2010 Dietary Guidelines from the U.S. Departments of Agriculture and Health & Human Services adopted “A social ecological framework for nutrition and Physical activity decisions” that is reproduced here. This little map is a good thing to know when it comes to the holidays.

Think about it. There is the “environmental setting” where you are surrounded by scrumptious morsels without any path to escape! Then there are “sectors of influence” that shape your coworker’s and family member’s decisions to assault you with the latest and greatest Holiday recipe. And, finally, there are social and cultural norms. Like my grandmother who would make me feel guilty for not eating, and eating, and eating! The next time you are faced with holiday food pressures, you have my permission to shout out, with pointing finger… “Get away from me you shameful ‘Sector of Influence’ and “Be Gone oh evil ‘Social and Cultural Norm.” Of course, not all of these social factors are shameful and evil but hopefully you get my point! Actually, I think it would be cool if you donned a SuperHero “Social Ecological Framework” cape next time you go to the holiday party.

Fourth, it’s important to remember the basics.  The 2010 guidelines show that we really should balance our diet with the right types of foods. There are six things to remember (see diagram) and listed here:

  1. Focus on fruits.
  2. Vary your veggies.
  3. Get your calcium-rich foods.
  4. Make half your grains whole.
  5. Go lean with protein.
  6. Know the limits on fats, salt, and sugars.

During the holidays, it is important to be especially conscious of  #5 “Go Lean with Protein” and #6 “Know the limits of fats, salt, and sugars.” One easy way to do this is to #2 vary your veggies and #1 focus on fruits. That’s right. These six practices work together. You can create new social norms by bringing varied vegetarian dishes and making dishes that have less fats. For example, one of my relatives brings mashed potatoes made with sinful amounts of cream cheese. One creative alternative is to mash up grilled Navy beans into the potato recipe to give it more flavor and more protein.

 Holiday Diet Blog 2


Healthy Regards,

Dr. Bennett

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