Holiday eating: how to graze without the gain

Along with the Dance of the Sugar Plum Fairy, this time of year brings the March of the Swedish Meatball and the Cocktail Wiener Wiggle.

Nearly every night in December is reason to celebrate the holidays, and those festive party buffets provide revelers the opportunity to graze right through dinner and on to dessert.

All around Washington, partygoers can feast on special holiday-party foods.

Seasonal events at Chinatown restaurant Indebleu include coconut shrimp and a roast beef carving station. Congressional catering company Capitol Host offers cheese boards, ham, yams, mashed potatoes and seasonal cookies at the several congressional holiday parties it caters. Capitol Hill power spot Bistro Bis even served soft pretzels at a recent seasonal party.

But if you think nightly holiday feasts are harmless, think again.

“There is actual research showing that people do gain weight between Thanksgiving Day and New Year’s Day,” said Susan Levin, a registered dietitian at the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine. “Less [weight] than people perceive, but it’s permanent.”

Perhaps the best people to talk to about how to maintain self-control around endless trays of mini-quiches and giant platters of brownies are members of Congress. Reception-hopping, regardless of the time of year, is practically written into their job description.

Rep. Ric Keller (R-Fla.) is chief among his peers in this category. He lost 100 pounds between the summer of 2007 and last summer, and he did it the old-fashioned way: He ate better and exercised regularly.

Keller offered five tips for holiday-party eating:

1. Eat beforehand. “At least an apple, so you don’t go in there starving.”
2. Focus on the people, not the food. “For example, stand by the mistletoe, not the buffet table.”
3. If you get hungry at the party, “fill up on veggies, fruit and lean deli meat.”
4. Nurse one or two alcoholic drinks. “For me, that would probably be a light beer or a glass of red wine.”
5. Splurge every once in a while — but be ready to work it off. “If you end up eating a few Christmas cookies, don’t beat yourself up, just do an hour of cardio in the morning.”

Rep. Zach Wamp (R-Tenn.), chairman of the Congressional Fitness Caucus, also chimed in with advice, reiterating Keller’s point about exercise and discouraging people from skipping meals in anticipation of a holiday feast.

“It’s much better to eat more often in smaller quantities,” Wamp said.

Rory Freedman, co-author of the diet book Skinny Bitch, said holiday partygoers should avoid using food as a social crutch during awkward moments at parties.

More than anything, though, Freedman said, people should be reasonable with themselves, permitting small portions of extravagant holiday foods here and there.

“Allow yourself to indulge,” she said. “To everything there is a season, and for some reason, gluttony does strike us around the holidays.”

What about that pushy relative, though, who won’t be satisfied until you try her deep-fried cheese balls?

Levin suggested something that might not get you onto Santa’s nice list.

“I’ll lie,” she said, when discussing how to avoid eating all the lard-filled dishes her family makes for the holidays. She’ll say, “Yeah, I had some,” when asked if she helped herself to the holiday food she wants to avoid.

“I’m from Alabama, and my family loves some really scary stuff,” Levin said, citing the famous green bean casserole made with cream of mushroom soup and “really weird Jell-O salads” as evidence.

If the lying doesn’t work or isn’t appropriate, “I’ll put things on my plate, but I won’t eat them,” she said.

Levin said many of her clients feel great when they survive the holidays having made good food choices and consequently maintain their weight or even lose a pound or two.

“It just feels really, really good, and it’s just inspiring,” she said. “I think it’s how you should live all year round.”