The holidays are filled with lots of food and drink, but there are ways you can enjoy yourself without packing on extra pounds.  UPMC Lifestyle Dietician, Angela Zaccagnini, MS, RD, CSO, LDN discusses how to navigate the buffet table at holiday parties and family gatherings.

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– This podcast is for informational and educational purposes only. It is not medical care or advice. Clinicians should rely on their own medical judgments when advising their patients. Patients in need of medical care should consult their personal care provider. The holidays are here once again, and with all the celebrations can come some extra pounds. So, what are some smart strategies to make your way through the holiday eating season? Hi, I’m Tonia Caruso. Welcome to this UPMC HealthBeat Podcast. And joining us right now is Angela Zaccagnini. She is a lifestyle dietician with the Wellness and Integrative Oncology Program at UPMC Hillman Cancer Center. Thank you so much for joining us.

– Thank you for having me.

– All right. So in general, let’s begin with, why are smart eating strategies important, especially around the holidays?

– Definitely. I think that during the holiday season, we have a lot of unwanted stress, and weight gain is associated with that because food choices, sweets, lack of activity. So, to practice some of these smart eating strategies during the holiday season, you can avoid all of that unnecessary guilt associated with your food choices and the unwanted weight gain.

– They used to say people can gain five to 10 pounds during the holiday season. Some research says, oh, it’s really like maybe one to two. But the problem is every year if you do that, it starts to add up.

– Definitely. So, I think it can vary from person to person, and depending on what they’re doing during the holiday season, or if they’re more active or not, that can result in the amount of weight gain. But, it’s usually after the holidays that we struggle, too, because it’s more of a depressing time. I think that people do try to practice some goal-setting and set resolutions for themselves, but sometimes they’re not realistic. And then they end up falling off, or they don’t meet their goals, and then it’s, again, this vicious cycle. So if you continue to practice or maybe set your goals ahead of the new year, you can avoid all of that.

– All right. So what’s the No. 1 thing that people should keep in mind?

– You should keep in mind that you should enjoy yourself, for one thing. Everything’s OK in moderation, and we talk about that in nutrition all the time. However, you still want to be mindful with your food choices. You want to be aware of what you’re choosing and how much you’re choosing. I know that whenever we are in a group setting and we haven’t seen someone for a long time, we tend to socialize and then maybe grab for things we’re not even thinking about doing, right? So, you’re in front of the appetizers and you’re just kind of picking, and talking, and not realizing what you’re picking or how much you’re picking. So, mindfulness and awareness are super important.

– OK, so I’m going to a holiday party.

– Yes.

– Are there things I should do at home before I go? Does it make sense to eat something before I go?

– Absolutely. I think you should maintain your normal routine. So, wake up, have a decent breakfast, perhaps a light lunch so that you make room for your dinner and your appetizers. And then, drink your water, maybe even get in a workout. I think that maintaining your activity routine throughout the holiday season is even more so important.

– I’ve heard before drinking water fills up your stomach. Is that true?

– It is true, to an extent. It’s more or less high-fiber foods that make us feel full, paired with protein to help with that feeling of satiety, where you’re at that point where you’re like, “OK, I feel good. I don’t want to overdo it.” But it’s usually fiber. So I always say to start with high-fiber foods like fruits and vegetables. If there is an appetizer with a dip, perhaps choosing the vegetables rather than the cracker or the potato chips with it.

– OK, so if I’m at home and before I go, if there’s a light snack I should eat before I go to this party, what should that be?

– Definitely, yeah. I think you should, again, maintain your normal routine. But if that is cheese and crackers, or if it’s a yogurt with fruit, or hummus with vegetables, or even like a half of a sandwich and a bowl of soup. Anything that you would typically eat is better than skipping and avoiding meals all day, and then you get to this event and you kind of go crazy.

– All right, so I get to this event, and let’s just say I didn’t have time to eat ahead of time, so now this giant buffet is in front of me. What are the foods I should gravitate to? I know you said everything in moderation, but what should I sort of avoid?

– So, especially if appetizers come first, there’s typically some sort of fruit or vegetable on hand, maybe even some cheese, or crackers, or things like that. The thing is, though, I feel like people tend to overeat with the appetizers to the point where they’re full, and then they may not eat a good, balanced meal. So, be mindful of what you choose, keep it minimal, and then maybe start with a big salad, which is always usually included in the holiday dinner. And then a lean source of protein, again, more vegetables, and then I always say keep the carbohydrates to a minimum on the plate. So, that would be your potatoes, your rice, your pasta, things like that. So, that’s usually the way to go.

– Pasta seems very filling, but is it true, is a protein more filling than a pasta?

– So, again, it’s the protein and the fiber combined. So that’s why we talk about balanced meals. So, not only pasta, but you want a protein and a fibrous food, so whether that is vegetables or fruit paired with that. So that combination of foods is what’s going to make you feel full and satisfied, rather than just to have one of each separately.

– Is fiber like a whole wheat bread?

– Yeah, absolutely. So, whole grains, beans, lentils, fruits and vegetables, those are going to be your main sources of fiber.

– OK. And so, when you’re at a holiday party, there are smart choices at the buffet, also smart choices at the bar. What do you want people to keep in mind about that?

– So, again, moderation. You know, don’t overdo it. Enjoy it, but don’t overdo it. And a lot of things related to alcohol can be high-calorie. So, for example, tonic water is like 120 calories as a mixer. Ginger beer, super high in sugar and calories. And then, of course, sometimes those punches are high in sugar. They’re made with like soda pop and other sweetened beverages, like fruit punch and things like that. So, you may want to avoid that and maybe go to something like a light beer or a white wine. Keep it to a serving. I know. And then maybe if you want to do like a liquor, mixing it with a club soda or a sparkling water, maybe add some fruit to it just to, again, lessen that unwanted calories. Because, to me, I want my calories coming from food.

– Do you recommend red wine over white? I know you said white wine.

– So, I did say white wine, but either/or, to be honest. I think it’s your preference, right? And I do believe for about a 4-ounce glass, it’s about 120 calories across the board.

– So, that’s the holiday party. Also, at the holiday party, so we’ve had the main buffet, we’ve been to the bar, and then there is the dessert table. So, does it make sense, and can you play the game of not eating a lot at the buffet table so that you can have dessert? Or, what do you say to folks about that?

– So, I say, once again, enjoy it. I know a lot of these things we only see once a year, or maybe we enjoy it once a year. So, you should be able to include that into your diet or your regimen. However, that’s where the exercise comes into play. That goes into the fact that you should be mindful about how many appetizers you’re consuming, what meal you’re choosing. And then, yeah, making room for it is OK. I feel like where I work, a lot of patients will bring in sweets, and co-workers will bring in sweets during the holiday season. And it’s very hard to avoid when you’re walking past it constantly, or you’re seeing other people eating it, and you’re like, “I really want that.” You want to avoid the unnecessary negative feelings and guilt associated with that. So, that’s where the mindfulness comes into play. Are you going to feel better after you eat that? Or are you going to feel guilty after you eat that? So, you need to base it on that. So, if you have one cookie, great, good. But if you have five cookies, you’re going to feel not so good.

– All right, so from the party to the holiday family dinner, and there are so many traditions wrapped up with the holidays, and so often those traditions are food-related.

– Definitely.

– So when you go to a family dinner, same rules apply in terms of what you should go for first?

– Yeah. Try a little bit of everything. I do believe that. Especially if it’s something you look forward to and you don’t get it often, you should be able to enjoy that and, again, look forward to it. But maintain your normal routine, be mindful of your choices. Think about how you compare vegetables and lower-calorie options with those ones that are maybe a little bit more higher in calories.

– I was just about to ask, do you feel like there’s better control in a family setting of swapping things out in recipes and making smart recipes?

– So, I definitely think it’s worth experimenting. There are some healthy desserts that you wouldn’t even know are considered “healthy.” They actually taste that good.

– What are some of those examples?

– So, it’s funny. We recently made a chickpea cookie dough.

– OK, now I’m going to say …

– Your face says it all.

– Yeah, that’s not exactly what I would have thought, but let’s tell folks about that.

– So, we blended up chickpeas in a food processor and then added some chocolate chips. And it has the consistency, the texture of cookie dough, and with the chocolate chips, you have that sweet taste. But it was delicious, and I was shocked the fact that it was chickpeas and not, you know, flour, butter, sugar, all of those things. It was funny because in the afternoon, I really wanted something sweet. You know when you maybe get your afternoon coffee and you’re like, “Oh, I just want something sweet with that.” And I was like, “I’m going to go get a spoonful of that chickpea cookie dough.” It completely hit the spot.

– All right, so now we need to tell people. You’ve been here before visiting and telling us about the work that you do. Where can they find this recipe?

– So, this recipe is going to be on our YouTube channel. It’s the Wellness and Integrative Oncology Program. I know that’s a mouthful. But it is our YouTube channel, and if they were to just Google that or search it, they have access to all of our recordings. We do a new cooking class every Wednesday at 9 a.m.

– So, that’s one thing. You say maybe swap out recipes. And should you really plan and think, as you said, take a little bit of everything, but if you were going to encourage someone to take more of one thing, what would that be?

– So, definitely the salads. We made a hot spinach apple salad today in our cooking class, and it was delicious and filling. There was fruit in it, and there was even little bacon bits. So, you have that balance again. But I would definitely fill up on the fruits and vegetables. That’s the fiber that’s filling, and they’re lower-calorie. So, if you can fill up on that and then pair it with some other lean sources of protein. And then again, have the carbohydrates, the carbohydrate-rich foods like the pasta, rice, and the casseroles, and things like that, but maybe keep that your smallest portion.

– Right. And so you’ve mentioned a few times now about keeping up with exercise.

– Yes.

– Can it be as simple as just walking? What if I’m not someone who exercises regularly?

– Right, and that’s the thing because I say maintain your activity routine, but there is a lot of people that maybe are sedentary. And you have to consider that during the holiday season, you will likely consume more carbohydrates and more calories. You know, if you’re not burning your calories in activity, it’s going to result in weight gain. So, it’s all about calories in versus calories out. So, we do burn calories at rest, but as we age and our metabolisms slow, we end up burning less calories at rest. So it’s very important to move, and walking can certainly do that. And maybe doing some hills, or maybe walking a little faster pace so that you’re burning a little bit more calories. But it can be as simple as that.

– We went through lots of things that you can do, tips that you can do at parties, tips that you can do with your family. Do you anticipate everyone to incorporate all of these? Or do you think just by doing a few of these it can make a difference?

– I do think a couple things can make a big difference. And I think maybe even focusing just on the mindfulness and being aware of what you’re choosing and when can be that first step. So, maybe you’re not as active during the holidays because you are spending so much time running around, and cooking, and cleaning, and the family’s in, and all of those things. If you just are a little bit more aware of what you’re choosing and how much, portion control is huge. So, that, I think is one tip to focus on more so, if all of these other ones maybe aren’t doable.

– Right. So if you’re looking at a plate, portion control. Is that fist size? What does that look like? Or is it different for every food?

– So, we talk about my plate a lot. So, if you’re looking at a plate, the largest portion of your plate should be vegetables or a salad of some sort. Then, a moderate size of protein, typically lean. So, avoiding breading, fried things. But, again, if you’re going to a family dinner, you might not be able to choose what your protein source is, so consider that. And then, again, the smallest portion of the plate, which is you know about your fist, would be your carbohydrates.

– What do you want to say to people about taking it easy on themselves if they do overindulge?

– Yes. You should absolutely enjoy the holiday season because I know it can be stressful in itself, so you don’t want your food choices to cause even more high stress. But I know weight gain can really be bothersome, and annoying, and hard to lose. So, if you take these steps, you can maybe avoid that negative feeling, that unwanted weight gain, and that additional stress around the holiday season.

– All right. So we close with, what is your favorite holiday food?

– Ooh, that’s a tough one. I am definitely like a big fan of like a beef tenderloin.

– So, that’ll be on your holiday table.

– I do try to prepare one during Christmas Day.

– Well, Angela Zaccagnini, we thank you so much for coming in and spending some time with us today. Some good information. It’s always fun to have you here.

– Thank you for having me back.

– You’re welcome. I’m Tonia Caruso. Thank you for joining us. This is UPMC HealthBeat.

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