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Holiday eats can be land mines for health

POSTED: December 9, 2008 5:00 a.m.

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The holidays can be a minefield for anyone who’s on a special diet.

It’s no secret that most people gain a few pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. But the consequences of overindulging can go far beyond weight gain.

"Sometimes (diabetic) people do end up in the emergency room after a party, to get their blood sugar down," said Maureen Stoy, a registered dietitian and diabetes educator at Northeast Georgia Medical Center. "Over the long term, high blood sugar will affect the arteries, eyes and nerves. It’s cumulative."

And diabetes is not the only health condition that requires patients to keep a close eye on their diet.

"People with high blood pressure need to watch out for all the salt," said Stoy. "And people with kidney disease have to watch their protein, salt and potassium."

Many favorite holiday foods are high in both fat and salt. For example, a slice of baked ham has about 21 grams of fat and 1,460 milligrams of sodium. That’s more than half the maximum amount of salt recommended in a single day.

For people with gluten intolerance, who can’t eat wheat and similar grains, virtually all desserts and breads are off limits. And for people with food allergies, a holiday party can be treacherous. The majority of Christmas treats contain common allergens such as nuts or dairy products.

"It’s very difficult for people with food allergies to eat out," said Stoy. "Usually they have to stick to plain fruits and vegetables, or else go to a potluck dinner and bring a dish they know they can eat."

Dietitians always advise their patients to read food labels at the grocery store, and nutrition information often is available at chain restaurants. But at a party, you have no way of knowing what ingredients are in a dish, unless the cook happens to be there and can divulge the recipe.

Fortunately, most people aren’t acutely sensitive to a particular ingredient. They’re just trying to avoid gaining weight. For them, the strategy is just to use common sense.

"Remember, there are two holidays: Thanksgiving and Christmas. The four weeks in between are not the holidays," said Suzanne Burns, a registered dietitian with the Longstreet Clinic. "If you go to every party between now and Christmas, you can expect weight gain unless you’re very careful."

Debbie Wilburn, a consumer science agent with the Hall County Extension Service, said parties are about socializing, not scarfing down huge quantities of appetizers and sweets.

"Food should not be the focus of the party," she said. "It should be about being with family and friends."

Wilburn said people need to come up with a game plan and stick to it.

"Having a salad, a cup of broth, or a big glass of water (to fill up your stomach) before you go really does work," she said. "People make the mistake of skipping lunch so they can eat more at the party, and then they’re starving."

Once you’re confronted with the vast array of goodies, you need to be mindful of how much you’re eating.

"The No. 1 rule is to put your food on a plate. If you’re ‘grazing,’ you’ll consume so much more food than you realize," said Wilburn. "Go in with a plan of about how much you’re going to eat, and decide on which things you really want."

For most people, special foods are an essential part of the holiday tradition, and if they have to forgo those treats, they may feel as if they’re not truly celebrating the season. But Burns said there’s no need to deny yourself everything.

"The key is moderation," she said. "If you want pumpkin pie, you can have a piece. Just make it a small piece."

Stoy agrees.

"Watch portions. That’s the most important thing," she said. "Eat one favorite food, something you shouldn’t ordinarily have, and then be ‘good’ with the rest of what you eat."

Stoy said most people have no idea of what an appropriate serving size actually looks like.

"For high-fat, high-calorie foods, you shouldn’t take more than a tablespoon," she said. "And for carbohydrates, 15 grams is considered a serving. That’s half a cup, about the size of an ice-cream scoop."

She said diabetics are allowed 40 to 50 grams of carbs per meal. But they can’t "save up" those carbs and consume them all at once by binging at a party. That could trigger a blood-sugar crisis.

Burns said certain types of foods should send up red flags to anyone who’s trying to restrict their intake of fat and calories.

"Fried foods, desserts, casseroles, anything with cheese in it," she said. "Also, I tell people to be real careful about their drinking, because alcohol can carry a lot of calories."

Nonalcoholic beverages can be hazardous to your health as well. One cup of eggnog, for example, can pack 350 calories and 20 grams of fat.

"In general, the plainer the food, the better," said Burns, citing lean turkey meat and unadorned vegetables as good options.

But skip the dip for those veggies. Most dips are made with mayonnaise, cheese or sour cream, so they’re laden with fat.

Even if you never go to parties, it’s hard to escape the deluge of holiday foods. At the office and at home, there are jars of candy, plates of cookies, tins of caramel corn.

Burns said people have to take charge of their own environment.

"You know what your temptations are," she said, "so don’t even bring that stuff home. Don’t buy it."

And what if someone gives you treats as a present? Stoy said there’s nothing wrong with passing it along to someone who can appreciate it.

"Don’t be embarrassed to ‘regift’ if you’re given a food gift you can’t have," she said.

But how can you deny holiday treats to the rest of your family? Burns said you don’t have to, but just be reasonable about it.

"Making cookies with your children is a wonderful memory, and I’m not saying you shouldn’t do it," she said. "But you don’t have to make cookies every day. Maybe once or twice."



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