Health & Fitness

Here it comes, friends - the most meaningful holiday of the year. Whether it means food, gifts, food, family, food, in-laws, food, Christ's birth, food, rancor, food, housework, food, football, or even ... food, it delivers whatever we expect in spades. We at Seasoned Cooking hope you have a good one, and hope we can contribute a little bite to its success.

After that subtle subliminal message, perhaps you can guess what part of your holiday this award-winning e-zine is most likely to address. My contribution to your Christmas cooking: you can stuff yourself with minimal harm if you stuff intelligently.

Maybe you even gorge yourself over the holidays. You might be a gorging candidate if your overall appetite or one-meal capacity has led to any of these symptoms:

  1. Waitresses often advise you you've ordered too much food ... but you inhale that and enjoy a dessert -- or two.
  2. Buffet employees closely watch you and your coat pockets.
  3. A buffet manager has told you you can't have any more food.
  4. Twice.
  5. Another buffet manager said you're why he converted to an a la carte cafeteria,
  6. and now keeps your itemized meal ticket on his wall as a reminder.
  7. Friends accuse you of being from another species, planet, or dimension.
  8. You eat half your meals -- usually the third half -- alone, because the rest of the family refuses to sit around the table for half an hour after they've finished dessert.
  9. You're asked to judge a club dessert-baking contest because no one else

    could sample all 30 entries,

  10. and you sampled them all at least twice to be fair.
  11. You take your own 24" plate to pot luck dinners.
  12. The colonel ordered you to a) leave the 24" plate home, b) go to the back

    of the line at the Christmas pot luck and c) wait for seconds until everyone else has finished eating.

Unrealistic? Nope -- personal experience. I KNOW what Christmas means to many people: unlimited access to an unlimited quantity of meats, gravies, stuffing, candied yams, cheeses, breads, green chile enchilada casseroles, butter, desserts -- heck, even some veggies if one thinks a couple of broccoli sprigs will atone for three turkey drumsticks and a rum cake for lunch. Every bite, all week long, is worth every moan, every groan and every promise to all that's holy never to do it again.

Sounds bad, but 100% of us have survived that stupid, painful, marvelous, eagerly-awaited ritual every Christmas (and Thanksgiving, and potluck, and smorgasbord) for decades. Does that mean it's 100% safe? Of course not; it just means that 100% of the people reading this are alive ... so far. i.e., we ain't died from it yet. (Can you spot the operative word in that sentence?) 

But no one ever died from one meal, right? Sorry to burst your aorta, but millions of people have died from one meal. It happens often, as arteries narrowed from years of bad genes, bad diet and/or a bad couch are finally blocked by that last surge of cholesterol from that last huge meal of saturated fats. Uncle Max's habit of daily double bacon cheeseburgers -- or just lousy genes -- set him up by narrowing his arteries, but subconsciously eating that kielbasa and lard fondue while watching the game is what finished him off. He should have at least saved the fondue for the July 4th picnic; heart attacks peak in the dead of winter, even in sunny southern California. 

So what can we do to not only survive holidays but even sail through them without having to let out our pants -- heck, our SHOES? Several things come to mind.

Eat before you eat. Half an hour before you sit down to the trough, eating contest, or training table -- whatever atmosphere your family presents -- eat something with some fiber and fat in it. It will help dull your appetite from a deafening roar to a loud noise. The right snacks are everywhere; bran muffins, homemade bread, nuts, strawberries, pumpkin and rhubarb pies, and veggies'n'dip are covering every horizontal surface in the house. Wash something down with tea or the kids' punch and you'll be merely hungry, rather than ravenous, when you sit down and start shoveling in earnest. That way you can still sample every dish at the trough without wanting thirds. You'll be able to get just as overstuffed (don't want to miss that) on less food. All the pain; less gain ... can't beat that with a bagel!

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.