Originally created 12/13/04

Navigating the holiday dessert table



EDITOR'S NOTE - This is the first of a five-day series on the topic of diet during the holidays.

Does it seem as though the season of giving has become a two-month cycle of gaining?

Try blaming the sweets, that endless parade of holiday goodies that starts with leftover Halloween candy, slowly marches you through pumpkin and pecan pies, and winds up with the obligatory eggnog and fruitcake.

How successfully you navigate this terrain of sugar and fat helps determine whether you will be one of the millions of Americans promising yet again that the new year will bring about a new, slimmer you.

But be reasonable. It's the holidays, you will be surrounded by sweets, and you are bound to indulge.

If you are one of the lucky few who can be satisfied with just a bite of this or a nibble of that, great. The rest of us need concrete strategies for dealing with the deluge of delicacies.

Rule No. 1 for Jane Kirby, author of "Dieting for Dummies," is to give yourself permission to enjoy dessert.

"Looking at them and turning your back on them is not a very realistic expectation," she said. "You're only one bite away from failing. For a lot of people that means, 'I've already blown it, I might as well eat everything else in sight.'"

Finding the middle ground can be challenging. Though plenty of cookbooks offer diet-friendly dessert recipes, those only help when you play host or are headed to a potluck where you will be happy eating only what you bring.

It's better to plan for the worst and assume each day will present another banquet of fatty, sugary temptations.

First, the basics. It seems obvious, but leave room for dessert. But this doesn't mean starve yourself in anticipation of a brownie, says Lucy Beale, author of "The Complete Idiot's Guide to Weight Loss."

It's simple math. Eat more calories than you burn and you gain weight. If you want dessert, eat fewer calories at the meal.

When it is time for sweets, consider the options before grabbing just anything. Eat only your absolute favorite one or two items, and take only those special desserts you are unlikely to find other times of the year.

When you are eating them, sit down and focus on the food. Standing up and chatting, especially near the buffet table, makes it easier to lose track of what and how much you have consumed.

"Sometimes we think if we eat half a cookie standing up it won't count," Kirby said. "Then we go back and eat some more, and more and more, and before you know it you've eaten your weight in cookies."

The next step is to choose an approach. Will you cut carbs or fat? Few desserts that have not been specially prepared can satisfy both strategies, so pick your poison and avoid it.

Whichever way you go, know that these foods are loaded with calories. This is about damage control, not dieting. The goal is to find lower-carb and lower-fat choices that allow moderate indulgence.

If you opt for cutting carbs, avoid desserts with lots of sugar and flour, such as cakes and most cookies.

Beale says you instead want the fattier desserts, which can be more satiating. Good choices include rich ice creams, chocolate mousse, puddings, flourless chocolate cakes, cheesecake and fresh fruit with whipped cream.

Pies are another good option, particularly pumpkin, so long as you skip the crust.

If you go the low-fat route, pass on most of those items. Instead head for angel food cake, which has no fat, very little sugar and only about 800 calories for the entire cake. Eating the whole cake still isn't a good idea.

Other good choices are fruitcake, spongecake and macaroons.

Crustless pies are good for you, too. Crusts are loaded with butter or shortening, to the tune of about 120 calories. Be sure to stick to fruit or pumpkin pies; avoid anything with cream on or in it.

Speed also is key. Ounce for ounce, desserts tend to be laden with many more calories than other foods. That makes it easy to overeat, and to do so quickly.

Kirby suggests using low- or no-calorie beverages, such as water, diet soda and coffee, to slow yourself down. Taking a sip between bites lets you enjoy the food longer and helps you feel full.

But beverages also can sabotage your efforts. Anything with alcohol or cream, such as many specialty coffees or holiday drinks, are packed with fat and sugar. Save those calories for the pie, which will be more satisfying.

Christine Senft, executive editor at Atkins Nutritionals, says the key is to savor whatever you choose.

"It's important for people to not look at all the things they can't have, but to look at all of things they can have," she said. "And there are so many things you can have in their traditional state."

Tips for avoiding dessert pitfalls

Nutrition and diet experts offer these tips for avoiding the trap of too many luscious desserts.

-Leave room for dessert. If you plan to have the chocolate mousse cake, skip the cheesy artichoke dip.

-Don't just grab any dessert. (You don't like fruitcake anyway.) Pick the dessert that's rarely available, like Grandma's buttermilk pie or your neighbor's great fudge.

-Pick your poison. Do you want to avoid fat or carbs? Then seek out the foods that fit your strategy.

-Drink no-cal or low-cal drinks. Save those fat and sugar calories for the pie.