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December 1998 Issue
Eat Hearty at Christmas ... How to Stuff Yourself Intelligently and Live Through It
by Michael Fick
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Eat as you do the rest of the year: just sample, or even skip, the dishes highest in saturated fat -- cheese, poultry skin, butter, bacon, certain desserts, prime rib, most sauces and gravies, etc. Better yet, go eat with a family that knows how to fix all that good stuff with greatly reduced sat fat; maybe you can fill up before they realize they don't know you.  When Mom passes you her famous goose skin deep-fried in coconut oil and smothered in sausage gravy, pass it on to Mikey -- he'll eat anything. Don't let Mom's glower, single glistening tear, or heart-rending sobs break your renewed vow to eat right; just ask her to pass you another heap of her candied yams smothered in baked apple slices, walnuts, raisins, cinnamon and marshmallows -- they're just as tasty but don't have the sat fat. We can burn off the calories, but we can't scrape the plaque from our arteries. The bottom -- pun intended -- line for holiday eating is that if you eat the same kinds of healthy food you always eat -- even if you eat twice as much of it  -- it will do you little harm if you work it off later.

So when Aunt Ample arrives after the hydraulic eating binge ends, carrying the best chocolate fudge butter cream cheesecake on the planet, what do you do? Just say No, or merely taste it. After all, you still have two turkey legs, four pieces of rhubarb pie, and three bowls of black-eyed peas'n'fatback stuck in your teeth, let alone in your craw. There's surely no room left in your stomach or your arteries for another load of sat fat. If your will power is buried under that last pound of low-fat stuffing you ate, at least reach for the unbuttered popcorn rather than the cheesecake. It's a basic part of developing and sustaining healthy eating habits.

Now, if you, your weight, and your genes are healthy and your life insurance is paid up, you could just eat any dang thing you want. It's CHRISTMAS, Aunt Ample's cheesecake is worth risking your life for, and few insurance policies have cheesecake clauses. Eat light and right before and after the holidays, and enjoy seconds of Mom's goose skin'n'gravy on Christmas day. Then when Jan 2 comes around, and it's all over but the purging, go run it off. A 500-mile jog in big, soft sand dunes should just about do it.

Whichever approach you take, follow the usual dieting tips. Eat slowly, chewing each bite into total oblivion, and put your shovel down between bites. If the sparks from your utensils burn the tablecloth, slow down. Talk up a storm. Take small servings so it takes a conscious effort to access more food. Our fullness gauge lags our stomach seams by 20 minutes, so eating slowly fills us up with less food. The minute you begin to wonder whether you have room for another whole pie ... you don't. 

Drink lots of water with your meal. It will fill you up sooner, help your body process all that food, and let the post-prandial pain subside more quickly due to quicker absorption. Do you really want that entire fried chicken sitting in your stomach until 3 AM? (In case it does, take a Pepcid in the evening. You'll sleep better.)

Eat lots of fiber with the meal. It fills us up quicker, keeps all that water mixed in where it needs to be, and keeps us full enough to refuse the cheesecake that gets passed around at halftime. The squash and black-eyed peas, the homemade whole grain bread, and Uncle Joe's marvelous beer-baked jalapeno pinto beans will help keep all that other stuff from turning to concrete overnight.

Our brain plays an important part in holiday eating. It reminds us how and what to eat, tells us from experience that we're getting full before our full gauge registers, and should remind us of the following consequences of eating and drinking too much: Too much food gives us immediate pain (if we do it right), costs us sleep if we forget the Pepcid, and constipates many of us if we skimp on the fiber or water. The sat fat can kill us tomorrow, and we can't work off the weight gain for months. Alcohol and/or rich foods give many of us pounding headaches. Don't drink so much that your judgment -- followed by your spouse and dog -- depart. Unfettered by rational thought, food-lovers often binge.

For all of us, the greatest immediate rewards from learning how to eat at holidays include avoiding the pain, gloating because we avoided the pain, and comfortably eating again sooner. For many of us it's less weight gain. And for some of us the greatest reward is life itself.

Incidentally, I did survive judging that club dessert-baking contest. Oh, the desserts were not a threat; I ate more of the best ones after everyone else was stuffed. I survived by having the presence of mind not to pick a winner -- i.e., 29 losers. I love to eat, but I'm not stupid. By the time they realized they'd been HAD, I had tested the best desserts a third time.

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