By Gina Christian | Catholic News Service
PHILADELPHIA – Parties, cookie exchanges, family get-togethers and that bowl of Christmas candy on your co-worker's desk can all weigh heavily on the scale at this time of year.
According to a 2016 study by Cornell University and Finland's Tampere University, Americans gain an average of 1.3 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day. (If it's any comfort, German revelers tend to gain a bit more at holiday time, packing on 1.7 pounds.)
That may not sound like a lot, but "if you don't do something, it adds up," said Libby Mills, an adjunct professor of health sciences at Pennsylvania's Neumann University and a registered dietitian at the MacDonald Center for Obesity Prevention and Education at Villanova University outside of Philadelphia.
Although most people lose about half of the holiday bulge quickly, "the other half lingers until Easter, or even into June," said Mills, who hosts a weekly radio show on nutrition. "And if you turn a blind eye to that fraction, over time, you'll gain five or 10 pounds."
Steering clear of the December desserts can be difficult, since memory and tradition play a key part in holiday eating patterns, Mills said. Despite the popularity of organic foods and simpler recipes, "when it comes to the holidays, we're naturally going to gravitate back to the things our parents made."
And that includes our first parents, who fell into original sin, said Mark Graham, associate professor of theological ethics at Villanova University.
"From the time we're out of diapers until we die, we're imbued with a spirit of materialism," said Graham, adding: "The thinking is that if you have a desire, you should fulfill it."
Graham also observed that our descent from an ancient hunter-gatherer lifestyle has left us with a "feast or famine" mentality that drives us to excess, even when food remains in steady supply.
Temperance can help us to avoid the pitfalls of gluttony, he said.
One of the four cardinal virtues, temperance enables a person to regard created goods – and goodies – with holy restraint.
Developing temperance is a year-round effort, Graham said. The first step is being mindful that desires can lead us astray; the second is learning to tame them by "unplugging from them."
"If you like to snack in the evening, try not eating for four hours or so," he suggested.
Mills added that resolving to maintain your current weight and then avoiding the "food free-for-all" are additional ways of mastering the merriment.
One place to start is at the office, Mills advised.
"Get together with co-workers and decide to do things differently," she said. "Instead of a cookie exchange, trade something nonedible, like homemade ornaments – things that have meaning, but not calories."
If you have a sweet tooth, avoid skipping meals to indulge it – otherwise, you'll risk a trip on the "sugar roller coaster," Mills warned.
"Kicking off your day with a cookie is not the breakfast of champions," she said. Instead, having a treat with a regular meal can help reduce spikes in blood sugar.
Being mindful of the food you eat also is key, as is making time for exercise. Even an after-dinner walk can help keep your weight in check.
"It's tempting to get caught up in the holiday whirlwind and let our fitness endeavors go by the wayside," Mills said. "But there's a lot at stake – to feel your best, to fit into your clothes, to have the energy to keep your social commitments. So schedule it in."
Citing the work of St. Thomas Aquinas, Graham said that limiting desires leads to greater personal freedom and a sense of "being fully alive" – as well as a bit lighter on the scale.