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MIREILLE'S MUSINGS: Keeping Your Equilibrium Over the Holidays

The holidays are a love/hate relationship for many American women I know. A time for celebration, friends and family, but between the dinners, cocktail parties, cookies and cakes sent by friends, it can also be a time of insidious weight gain. Then the choice becomes losing the weight come January (no easy feat if the damage is more than a few pounds—and it often is), or worse, not losing the weight and having it add up year after year. Many women approach the season with a feeling of trepidation, but staying healthy during the holidays is really just a matter of balance. There is no reason why you can’t keep your equilibrium during this season of feasting, or at least no more than a very minimal gain that melts off easily once January comes around and the parties cease. This is a good time to remember the principles of eating like a French woman and use some of the tips and tricks I’ve talked about before. A few of the strategies I find most helpful during this time of year are as follows:

1. Choose your indulgences: There is no lack of rich food right now and, absolument, you should enjoy your favorites, but beware the tendency to “let it all go” and indulge at each and every opportunity. Choose wisely when you’re at a party. If a glass of champagne sounds too good to pass up and you know you’ll want to savor dessert, then skip the bread and consider a lighter entrée such as fish rather than the steak frites. Decide what you want most, enjoy that fully, and make your other choices lighter.

2. Do not settle for the sub-par: Much of the holiday weight gain is caused by foods that don’t even bring much pleasure and could just as easily be skipped. For example, how much pleasure do you really get from those processed snacks that come in the food baskets arriving at your office? Why eat the mediocre cheesecake at the potluck dinner when you know you have a sumptuous chocolate torte to look forward to at a friend’s upcoming dinner party? This concept is key all times of year, but especially now when the volume of food is so much higher. Don’t waste calories on food you don’t really want—save the indulgences for what counts.

3. Don’t arrive starving: Before you go to a party, have a yogurt and piece of fruit or something similar (a combination of protein with carbohydrate works best) so you aren’t ravenous when you get there and feel you need to make a beeline for the appetizers.

4. Avoid mindless consumption: Are you grazing mindlessly on the appetizers out of nervousness or just unconsciously keeping up with your friends? Popping tartlets in your mouth while chatting with colleagues? During cocktail hour, focus on conversation rather than food (eating standing up, on autopilot... a big waste, really). When you do eat, be sure to focus on what you’re eating and really savor and enjoy it. It will help you feel satisfied much sooner and will make it easier to pass up the next tray of hors d’oeuvres that comes around.

5. Watch the alcohol consumption: It’s all too easy to take in several glasses full of calories and sugar from the colorful mixed drinks that abound at holiday affairs, which then make the damage even worse by dulling the senses and leading you to eat more. I stick with champagne or wine, which have far less alcohol and sugar, and only a glass or two. Sipping very slowly prolongs the pleasure and helps you avoid over-indulging. Incidentally, this can also help avoid the embarrassing moments that inevitably happen each year as someone has a bit too much at the office party and becomes the subject of office gossip the next day…something always best avoided.

6. The 50% solution: This can be used anywhere. At a dinner party, pause after eating half of each course and see if you’re satisfied. If not, eat another half of what’s left, then stop to reassess, and so on. At a buffet take only half as much as you think you want (tell yourself you can take a second trip if you’re still hungry), and then see how that does you. If you go back, again take only half as much as you think you need.

7. Make your office healthier: Ask your boss if he/she would be willing to ban cookies, soda and junk food for a month at office events and in the office kitchen, to help those employees trying to avoid temptations. This may be more welcome to co-workers than you expect. From the emails I receive, I know too many women feel “forced” to eat in order to avoid drawing attention to not “conforming” or having to explain why they don’t want the cookies. Having healthier options available, like fruit and water, is an easy way to help everyone stay healthier this winter (and avoid sick days, raising productivity).

8. Enjoy lots of soups: Part of every French woman’s arsenal, soups are one of the best ways I know to stay slim. If you go to a dinner party one night, make soup for dinner the following evening as a compensation. Soup is wonderfully satisfying in relation to calories and is also an easy way to include more vegetables in your diet (which can be another pitfall of too many rich meals out—it’s too easy to miss the vegetables and fruit). Served with a slice of bread, piece of cheese and fruit, soup makes a light yet satisfying meal.

9. Other enjoyable compensations: There will be many indulgences this month, so it’s wise to plan now for some compensations. Soup is an easy one, as I mentioned above. Taking the stairs instead of the elevator, adding some yoga, walking to the party instead of driving or walking documents to colleagues rather than using interoffice mail are all examples of small ways to painlessly compensate. Consider adding one or two this month.

10. Take a daily plage de temps: With all of the bustle and stress of the holiday parties and holiday shopping, you may feel you have no time for yourself, but it is even more important now, truly vital to maintaining your equilibrium. Taking even ten minutes a day for some breathing, yoga, listening to music—anything that will help you feel centered again—is an absolute must. It will help you relax, stay mindful and avoid stress-induced eating.

11. Prioritize sleep: This is another indispensable element that will help make it easier for you to maintain your balance. Prioritizing sleep is tough in the whirlwind of the season, but it is non-negotiable. Let it go and you will find yourself hungrier, less able to deal with stress, more easily temped by the siren call of the buffet table.

12. Focus on the many varied pleasures of the season: There is such a focus on food during the holidays, and though food is something I am always happy to celebrate, there are many other pleasures to be had this time of year that shouldn’t be overlooked. Remembering and focusing on these things helps us stay in balance and avoid indulging too heavily in the food festivities at the expense of the others. Giving to others gives us immense pleasure, and there are plenty of opportunities for this, particularly at the year’s end. Family, friends, the rich colors, the twinkling lights all over town, the crisp air, all of these are to be savored, too.

By staying mindful of each moment and pleasure, the holidays become a richer experience altogether, not to mention making it far more pleasant come January when we don’t feel panic set in about the post-holiday bulges. Trying to avoid all indulgences is bound to lead to failure, but planning intelligent, meaningful indulgences, with enjoyable compensations to follow, works for me every time.

I wish everyone a happy holiday season of enjoyment, pleasures and not getting fat.