‘Tis the season to be skinny?
The yearly Thanksgiving feast with turkey and pumpkin pie is over, but the calories, the guilt and the leftovers remain. The holiday season has officially started, which means over a month of dinners, office parties and potlucks filled with cookies, chocolate fudge and other hyper-caloric foods that will leave many with a few extra pounds and a New Year’s resolution to lose weight. Although it is possible to survive the season without packing on pounds, it can be challenging. According to Yvonne Ortega, a registered dietitian and nutrition professor at Santa Monica College, Americans tend to gain between nine and 12 pounds during the holiday season.
Andrea Ibarra, an international student at SMC, celebrated her first Thanksgiving this year with a traditional dinner. Turkey with gravy, stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet jams, and pecan pie with whipped cream replaced the yogurt she usually eats for dinner.
In total, she consumed around 3,000 calories—double the amount she usually eats during an entire day. In order to burn the 3,000 calories, Ibarra would have had to take six cardio classes or cycle for around five hours. Instead, she watched a movie with friends, letting the extra calories settle into her body.
If, like Ibarra, you are one of many who ate 3,000 calories during Thanksgiving, there are still ways to maintain your weight. Ortega recommends going back to a normal eating routine and increasing exercise.
“If people went a little crazy on Thanksgiving, they can get back to their normal eating patterns the day after,” Ortega says. “People need to remember that Thanksgiving is not doomsday. If they went a little crazy one day of the year, they should be fine. The problem is that people continue to eat during the entire season, and that is what causes such an increase in weight for many people.”
Ortega’s main recommendations for the season are exercise and planning.
“I recommend to establish an exercise routine, and to plan the next important dates in order to eat healthy before those occasions,” Ortega says.
For the dietitian, the “planning” involves eating less before events like parties and holiday dinners.
“What I recommend for people is that if they are going to go out for a family meal or a festivity, and they know they are going to have foods that are high in fat and sugar, they should eat something small for breakfast and lunch,” Ortega says.
Ortega recommends eating foods high in fiber, and believes that planning can help people managing calorie intake during the holiday season.
“High fiber keeps you full longer,” she says. “An example would be milk and oatmeal for breakfast, which can sustain people for a while, followed by a tuna sandwich for lunch. That way, people can get the nutrients without being starving by dinner time.”
Ortega reinforces the importance of exercise as a way of burning the extra calories consumed during the holidays.
“For those who cannot exercise regularly, I recommend to find outdoor activities like a short walk or a hike,” she says. “I believe we always have time, we just have not devoted it to exercise. The time people spend sitting watching TV could be spent in a short workout. Even 30 minutes of exercise a day can make a difference.”
Alvaro Torres, a personal trainer at L.A. Fitness, also highlights the importance of working out, and recommends increasing physical activities during the season.
“I think it is necessary to modify the regular routines and increase the cardio activity,” Torres says. “If you take a kickboxing cardio class or a spinning class one hour a day, you would burn around 500 additional calories.”
According to Torres, working out should be a priority during the holidays.
“Burning the extra calories is very important during this season,” he says. “If people take in more calories than they burn, the body will store the fat. I believe that during the holidays, people should focus on maintaining their current weight and not on losing weight, because it is hard to lose weight when people are eating so much.”
SMC student Philly Gizzo is an instructor of Pop Physique in Santa Monica, a new exercise approach that combines ballet barre, Pilates, and lightweight work in a one-hour class. Gizzo recommends working out at least three times a week.
“Even if you cannot go to a class, you should do something simple like take a walk on the beach,” Gizzo says. “It is good not only for your body, but for the spirit too. We planned an after-Thanksgiving special for SMC students that includes three classes for $20 to help burn those extra calories.”
For those who think prevention is not necessary to maintain weight, Ortega reminds them that the holidays reunite three major factors that contribute to weight gain: an excess of calories, a lack of physical activity, and large portion sizes. The dietitian recommends that people remain mindful of these factors.
Excess of calories
“The jams, rolls, gravies, and buttery foods, plus the excess of calories in the alcohol, contribute to gaining weight,” Ortega says.
According to the dietitian, the calories pile up in a short amount of time because the events surrounding Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hannukah, and New Year’s usually include foods high in fat and sugar.
“Alcohol is also something we need to watch, because people tend to ignore the fact that there are many calories in certain drinks, so I would recommend lower-calorie beverages,” Ortega says.
Torres explains that alcohol causes weight gain not only because of the empty calories it contains, but also because alcohol slows the body’s ability to burn fat for energy, and it increases appetite.
Lack of physical activity
Ortega believes that the change in routine can affect weight.
“During the holidays, our schedules are different,” she says. “We are off from work, or we have many events to attend, so the physical activity tends to suffer. The fact that we are not active messes up the balance.”
According to the the dietitian, the lack of activity is also related to the winter season weather.
“The cold weather makes people stay indoors,” Ortega says. “However, in Southern California people have the opportunity to be more active than in colder regions, so it should not be an excuse. There are many 5K [walks], which people can do with the family. People can also go on hikes and walks on the beach, or play football.”
For Ortega, outdoor activities are important to maintain weight and health.
“We associate holidays with food, but we can change that, and include physical activities during the celebrations,” she says.
Large portion sizes
Ortega explains that people should be more moderate during the holidays when it comes to portion sizes.
“Holiday foods are high in fat and sugar, so people need to take smaller portions,” she says. “Have the mashed potatoes and the gravy, but just one portion; you don’t need seconds and thirds of everything. Have the pie for dessert, or the cookies, but don’t have a lot of it. People should never feel deprived, but they should watch what they are eating.”
Ortega wants people to understand that they do not have to gain weight during the holiday season.
“People need to understand that the holidays are one and half months of feasting,” she says. “People usually think there are just few meals during the season, but the truth is that they are eating the same food day after day.”
The dietitian recommends that people pay attention to what they eat in order to maintain their weight.
“Balance the food and exercise; it is the only way to manage our weight during this time,” Ortega says. “If we eat it all and do nothing we will see pounds creep up very quickly and without realizing it.”