By: Selima Hauber

‘It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas,’ and there is so much to be excited about this year. Our country’s premier national festival, Junkanoo, is back! Holiday house hopping will once again be in full effect – boiled fish breakfast at the parents’, Christmas ham and turkey dinner at Grammy’s house and numerous stops at friends’ homes to share some holiday cheer. At each stop, you will be invited to partake in culinary delights resulting from hours of careful planning and painstaking preparation, all for your dining pleasure. Dining is one of the main sources of feel-good vibes at this time of year as we enjoy elaborate meals lovingly prepared from scratch and enjoyed in the warm company of those, we hold dear. What’s not to feel good about? Nonetheless, most people enter the New Year lamenting their gastronomic sins, begrudgingly resolving to adopt a diet of deprivation, usually for the sole reason of losing the extra few pounds that got hitched to the wagon during the festive season. However, it is possible to navigate holiday dining and emerge on the other side feeling good, with fewer or no extra pounds to show for our enjoyment of the traditional cornucopia of holiday delights.

First, it is important to acknowledge the gems of holiday dining. One notable upside is that most holiday meals are home-cooked and made from scratch using whole ingredients. The biggest problem with how we eat for most of the year is that it is composed largely of highly processed foods. Modern-day Bahamians have adopted a diet that is identical to that of our American neighbors. Unfortunately, the Standard American Diet is one of ultra-processed foods, including sugary soft drinks, packaged snacks and pastries, cereals, processed meats and instant soups and noodles. Statistics show that Americans derive almost 60% of their total caloric intake from ultra-processed foods. Created in factories by Big Food using ingredients from Big Agriculture, these calorie-rich but nutrient-poor foodstuffs create chronic inflammation in the body, which can fuel the epidemic of chronic diseases such as Type 2 diabetes, hypertension and cardiovascular disease. If we were to maintain our holiday tradition of preparing and eating more nutritious, home-cooked meals throughout the year, we would be on the right track for improved health and smaller waistlines.

The second gem of holiday dining is enjoying meals in the company of others. Studies have shown that intimate and casual social connections, such as those made around the holiday table, are important predictors of longevity. We thrive when we are a part of strong, positive relationships and circles. The convivial nature of dining offers other benefits in addition to strengthening social ties. Engaging in dinner conversation can slow down eating, enabling us to recognize that we are satiated sooner, hence preventing overeating. When we are on the hamster wheel of everyday life, as is the case for most of the year, many of our meals are consumed on-the-go, or at our desks while we multitask on electronic devices to keep up with numerous obligations. Bringing the social and celebratory spirit of holiday dining with you into the New Year and making it a point to enjoy your meals intentionally and in good company can also yield benefits.

As you anticipate the various gastronomic adventures that await you this season, consider these tips to help you burst into the New Year without bursting the seams of your trousers. For starters, try drinking two glasses of water before each meal. In a study comparing two groups of overweight participants, those who drank two glasses of water before each meal lost weight 44% faster than compared to those who did not preload with water. Simply hydrating yourself is a cheap and uncomplicated way to reduce your appetite and avoid extra pounds.

Enjoy a low-calorie salad as an appetizer. Studies investigating preloading showed that consuming one cup of a low-calorie food before a meal, results in the consumption of 100 fewer calories during the main course. Another study investigating preloading lunch with a low-calorie vegetable soup recorded participants eating less at lunch and less at the following dinner. In yet another study where participants were given a large apple before their main meal, a whopping 300 fewer calories were consumed. To gain a similar calorie deficit, consider starting your meal with one cup of fresh fruit or vegetables. For family dinners or group gatherings a Crudité (veggie) platter is an excellent and visually enticing choice.

Preloading behind you, here are additional strategies to help guide you away from those extra holiday pounds. Make sure most of your plate is plant rich. The high fiber content of plant-based dishes means you will feel full quicker. Not only is fiber exceptionally low in calories, but it also slows fat absorption by absorbing it from your meal and sweeping it through your digestive system and out of the body before it reaches the bloodstream. Another amazing benefit of consuming large quantities of fiber-rich, plant-based dishes stems from what our microbiome does to the fiber. The good bacteria in our gut break down the fiber and, in the process, produces short-chain fatty acids. These short-chain fatty acids enter the bloodstream and travel to the brain, where they dial down our appetite. This triple score for plant-based dishes is exactly why they should dominate your plate even beyond the holiday season.

With these simple tips under your belt and in practice, the guilt-induced habit of launching into a daunting or extreme deprivation diet in January may finally be broken. When those tantalizing and delicious culinary opportunities present themselves over the next few weeks, do enjoy, but resolve to resist the temptation to overindulge. Not only will you avoid the dreaded post-holiday scale gains, but you will be developing healthful dining practices to take into the New Year. Lastly, determine to be fully present in each moment. Allow yourself to embrace the feeling of deep gratitude and joy as you break bread to nourish your body, soul, and mind surrounded by the greatest gift of all – close family and friends.