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Taste of the season: How to eat healthy during the holidays

GRAND FORKS - After enrolling in a once-a-week weight loss program, one Grand Forks, N.D., woman has the skinny on how to stay healthy and fit during the holiday.

In April 2010 Kathie Howes, an accountant at the University of North Dakota, enrolled in a local Weight Watchers group. She and the group meet weekly. Group members share recipes and lifestyle tips, like how to withstand temptation at Thanksgiving.

"We give each other ideas of how to survive the holiday," she said.

Eleven months and 60 pounds later, Howes reached her goal weight.

Howes said she survived the holidays last year and is confident she can enjoy the upcoming holidays, too, without overindulging. She's planning a traditional meal with a few tweaks: like a pumpkin pie, but without the crust.

"I'm not nervous about it this year. I know how to be prepared for it," she said.

Like many Americans, Howes watches what she eats throughout the holidays and tries to cut out calories when she can.

The average American gains about a pound during the winter holiday season, according to the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases. The finding runs contrary to popular belief that most people gain 5 to 10 pounds from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day.

Although the findings show weight gain throughout the holidays isn't as extreme, it can contribute to other health concerns later in life as it accumulates.

But experts agree Thanksgiving guests and hosts don't need to re-invent the winter squash to keep the pounds off this holiday season.

"I don't try to make it a diet meal because I know that everyone really enjoys it and looks forward to it," said Julie Garden-Robinson, food and nutrition specialist with the North Dakota State University Extension Service in Fargo, N.D.

Garden-Robinson said in one Thanksgiving meal alone, a person can consume more than 2,000 calories, which to maintain his or her weight is what an average person should consume in a whole day.

She recommended recipe modifications like skim milk instead of cream and serving a vegetable tray, green salad or broth-based soup before the meal.

Both the host and the guest have a responsibility to serve healthy dishes and then not to eat too much of them, Garden-Robinson said.

At her house, she and her family skip dessert and take a walk after the meal. They save the pie for later in the afternoon when guests' bellies start rumbling for a snack.

Howes' methods are also subtle.

From her Weight Watchers support group, she learned to set up a buffet in the kitchen instead of on the table. That way, she and her guests eat in the dining room to avoid second helpings. Howes said she sets the table with smaller plates to reduce portion sizes, and eats a light breakfast in the morning followed by a small snack before the big meal.

Calories aren't the only concern for some celebrating the holiday.

Although many of the patients at Eventide at Hi-Acres nursing home in Jamestown, N.D., have special dietary needs, residents there eat a traditional Thanksgiving meal with turkey, dressing and pumpkin pie. On holidays like Thanksgiving, residents get to celebrate the way most everyone else does. That's important to the residents' well-being and overall quality of life, said Kim Wiese, licensed registered dietitian at Eventide at Hi-Acres.

Some residents may test higher for blood sugar or other indicators later in the day, Wiese said, but in the more than 20 years the nursing home has furnished traditional holiday dinners, no resident or family member has complained.

Many families stop by to see their loved ones at the nursing home, and eat their traditional Thanksgiving meal there, too, said Deb Haggart, cook.

"It's just like going home to Grandma's but they come here," she said.

The enjoy-it-once-in-a-while attitude toward the holidays isn't a bad idea, said Robin Iszler, unit administrator at Central Valley Health in Jamestown.

Iszler suggested cutting back on calories the week before Thanksgiving so celebrants can enjoy without worry the day of.

To cut back, drink water instead of sugary or alcoholic beverages and if you're traveling, pack healthy meals instead of stopping for convenience items or fast food, Iszler said. If you're nervous about the dishes available at the Thanksgiving gathering, she suggested bringing a healthy side to share.

Too much turkey, however, doesn't require the health conscious to scrap their diets.

Howes said she occasionally slips too.

"It happens, that's life. And no, I don't beat myself up about it," she said.

Katie Ryan-Anderson is a reporter for the Grand Forks (N.D.) Herald. The Pioneer and Herald are both Forum Communications Co. newspapers.