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Eating Expert Ellyn Satter on Preventing Holiday Weight Gain

If you're worrying about how to resist temptation at the next holiday party, you are not alone. Sadly, too many party-goers are more focused on their ever-spreading mid section than spreading holiday cheer. If all you really want for Christmas is the secret to overcoming overeating, you're in luck.
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If you're worrying about how to resist temptation at the next holiday party, you are not alone. Sadly, too many party goers are more focused on their ever-spreading mid section than spreading holiday cheer. If all you really want for Christmas is the secret to overcoming overeating, you're in luck. I recently discussed preventing seasonal weight gain with one of the leading experts on feeding our families ourselves: Ellyn Satter.

Before I devoured Satter's writing on food and family, I gobbled up her definition on "normal eating." Even if you're familiar with Satter's un-American definition, it's worth rereading.

2012-12-20-DSC08784croppedsmall.JPGAs a psychotherapist and dietitian, Satter really understands why the great majority feel compelled to eat like there's no tomorrow. So when it came time for my annual interview on seasonal eating concerns, I could think of no better subject than the author of Secrets of Feeding a Healthy Family. What follows are questions and answers from my recent conversation with Ellyn Satter.

Q. How would you describe normal holiday eating?

A. Normal eating is all about trusting yourself to eat in a way that is right for you. The trouble most people have with holiday eating is they get caught up in what they should and shouldn't eat. They're anxious and ambivalent about eating. They might try to resist at holiday parties, but the table is laden with "forbidden foods," and they throw away all control and overdo it. Many times they're over-hungry because they're trying to restrict themselves and lose weight. So the standard definition of holiday eating becomes eating way too much.

Q. How about your approach to healthy eating: "eating competence." How would you describe that?

A. Rather than tricking yourself about what you should and shouldn't be eating, you trust yourself to eat food you enjoy. No food is off limits. [Which isn't to say] you eat like there's no tomorrow. With eating competence, [you maintain control by] eating [regular] meals and snacks, and by paying attention while you're eating. You trust yourself to eat as much as or as little as you need.

Q. What does eating competence look like at a holiday party?

A. You take your plate and pick and choose what's most appealing. You sit down and eat if you can. If not, you stand in a quiet place and enjoy your food. If you want, get seconds and eat until you feel satisfied. That's the opposite of standard party eating, where a person doesn't take time to eat. The food may taste good momentarily, but, because they're not really paying attention, it's just absent-minded munching.

Q. When I suggest what you're suggesting, new clients say: "If I let myself eat whatever I want, I'd really pack on the pounds." What do you tell clients who are worried about gaining weight?

A. Competent eaters don't gain weight over the holidays because they're accustomed to eating as much as they want of the foods they enjoy. It's just another opportunity to eat good food. If you go home too full, you probably aren't going to be too hungry for breakfast. [Conversely,] controlling eaters say: "I really overdid it! I have to cut down today." They deliberately under-eat, then overdo it. Come New Year's, they gotta get back on the diet. This [vicious] cycle creates a lot of misery, and, in the long run, weight gain. People believe that being hard on themselves is somehow better than being positive and sympathetic.

Q. Can you say more about New Year's resolutions?

A. People say: "I'm not going to eat all those delicious foods I love. I'm only going to eat fruits and vegetables [and other 'good' foods.] These foods are wonderful, but if you're eating them as penance, you're not going to enjoy them. Later, you're going to throw away all control and do the opposite.

Q. How do you suggest parents help their children become competent eaters?

A. Have meals and sit-down snacks, and regularly incorporate "forbidden foods." Don't set up deprivation with [sugary, fatty] foods. When you set up deprivation, the same thing happens with children as with dieters -- they restrict, then overdo it. When you serve dessert, serve everyone a single portion. Then let everyone eat it when they want -- before, during or after the meal. Periodically, at snack time, get out the milk and a whole platter of cookies, and let children eat as many as they want. If they haven't been allowed to eat cookies, they'll eat a lot of them at first. But if the parent does this repeatedly, the newness will wear off. The child will eat a cookie or two and be fully satisfied. It works.

Q. Eating competently is easier said then done. What's the best way to get started?

2012-12-20-SECWeb.jpg A. It's different for everyone. For one person, it might be packing something she really enjoys for lunch. For another, it might be making family dinners a priority. That's a tall order right there. If you want to make family dinner a priority, begin by eating what you're eating now. Whatever it is, the idea is to sit down together and enjoy it. After a month or two, if you're paying attention, you'll realize: "This stuff is getting boring. What can we add to make it more interesting?" At that point, it's important you don't add anything you or your kids don't like. When the meal's on the table, let everyone pick and choose from what's available.

Q. I can hear parents worrying their kids will get fat. What would you say to those parents?

A. It's too bad that there's so much anxiety and confusion about eating. It's making our children finicky and fat. Don't get me wrong, some children will be large because, genetically, that's the way they are. But no child has to be fatter or thinner than nature intended. If we do a good job with feeding, we can raise children who have bodies that are right for them.

Jean Fain is a Harvard Medical School-affiliated psychotherapist specializing in eating issues, and the author of "The Self-Compassion Diet."

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