UTHealth experts spill beans on festive party food preferences

Festivebuffet-Getty
How to eat, drink, be merry, and mindful at festive parties. PHOTO CREDIT: Getty Images

HOUSTON – With the holiday party season in full swing, deciding what to wear can be the biggest headache. But paying attention to what you eat at such occasions might reveal it’s your diet more in need of a makeover. The good news is experts at The University of Texas Health Science Center at Houston (UTHealth) can help.

If you’re someone who demolishes everything in sight, devours all the desserts, or goes overboard on the cheeseboard, it’s worth considering the price your health may pay.

“The holiday season is a time of joy and festivities, so it is easy to overindulge. It is a special occasion, so treat yourself, but keep in mind that you can navigate parties in a healthy way without feeling deprived,” said Shannon Weston, MPH, RD, nutritionist supervisor for the Nourish Program at the Michael & Susan Dell Center for Healthy Living at UTHealth School of Public Health.

It’s not just the immediate ill effects of one too many meatballs, cheeseballs, cupcakes, or cookies to keep in mind.

“The choices people make at the buffet table can also speak volumes about someone’s diet, as we tend to gravitate toward what we know we like. And sometimes it can be difficult to be mindful in situations where there are so many options,” Weston said. “That’s why taking a closer look at what you eat might give food for thought about positive changes to make, particularly with New Year’s resolutions in mind.”

Before tackling the problem, you’ll need to recognize it first. Can you tell what party food personality type you are?

Eat all you can

We’ve all seen this in action and perhaps you, or your slightly embarrassing significant other, are a pro. Besides prompting second glances from those questioning your table manners and a bout of indigestion, it can take an eventual toll on your waistline.

“Overeating is probably one of the biggest pitfalls,” Weston said. “It is easy to eat a lot of sweet and salty foods and we are often distracted when we are eating at parties, which makes it hard to keep track of just how much you’re consuming.”

High-calorie culprits will most likely be dips, anything fried, breads, sweets, and cheeses.

“Reserve quarter or half of your plate for these foods and fill the rest of your plate with what you know is healthy and makes you feel good, like fruits and veggies,” Weston said. “This way, you are enjoying the foods you like but you are consciously keeping the portions in control, while also filling up on healthy foods.”

Liquid diet

Going without food altogether can be as dangerous as eating to excess, especially if you opt for alcoholic beverages. Any plan to skip food in order to save calories and instead down offerings from the drink trolley is likely to backfire.

“Alcohol is high in calories, especially if you pair it with mixers high in sugar. Make sure you don’t drink alcohol on an empty stomach. Alcohol actually has a hypoglycemic effect which can stimulate appetite, meaning you’re likely to end up eating and being less in control of your choices,” Weston said. “If you are having alcohol, make sure you are eating a balance of protein and carbohydrates to mitigate the effects. Be careful about how many alcoholic beverages you consume. Try alternating drinks with water.”

Another reason why alcohol should only be enjoyed in small quantities is because it’s a depressant, which can affect our thoughts, feelings, and behavior.

“The holidays are a time to create happy memories with family and friends, so the saying ‘Eat, drink, and be merry,’ works best in moderation, especially with alcohol,” Weston said. “Plus, no one wants to wake up with a bad hangover.”

Carbophobe

If you’re on the ketogenic diet, fearing the bread basket may be a familiar feeling. But is saying “no” to sandwiches, steering clear of the pasta salad, and staying strong when confronted by crackers, the only path?

“Filling up on foods high in simple carbohydrates is not satisfying, which is why we tend to overeat foods rich in them. Make sure you eat some protein at the party to stabilize appetite and blood sugar,” Weston said. “That doesn’t mean you have to avoid carbs altogether. Sweet potatoes, legumes, and whole grains, such as brown rice or quinoa, are all good options that are low in fat, high in fiber, and will help you feel full.”

Dipstick

Dips are healthy, especially if you’re digging in with sticks of bell pepper, carrot, and celery, right? Sadly, no. Although the veggies are great, they won’t cancel out all the calories and fat in those cheesy, creamy dips.

“Most dips are loaded with fat. The typical serving size for a dip is one to two tablespoons, which is about the size of a serving spoon. If you serve yourself you can keep the amount under control,” Weston said. “Healthier options tend to be hummus, as chickpeas are high in protein; herbed tzatziki, made with Greek yogurt; or salsa, made with fresh tomatoes. But you’ll still need to be aware of portion size.” 

Just desserts

Anyone with a sweet tooth knows this spells disaster if you’re trying to keep your weight under control. A strategy to go cold turkey on savory dishes and dive straight into dessert may not be smart.

“It is ideal to eat dessert after eating a meal. If you eat dessert on an empty stomach you are probably going to treat yourself to larger portion of sugar and fats than you normally would,” Weston said.

Thankfully, there are ways not to be a total downer when it comes to sweet treats.

“With pumpkin pie, not eating the crust is a big calorie saver. Or if you’re making your own, consider using cinnamon graham crackers instead of pastry. For toppings, substitute ice cream with frozen yogurt or whipped cream,” said Weston. “Bite-sized desserts are another neat way to get your sugar fix without overindulging. Try to eat slowly and really savor the moment, so you’re less tempted to go back for more or destined to feel guilty afterward.”

Big cheese

Cheese lovers have had lots to celebrate lately with news that whole dairy foods may not be so bad for you after all.

“Whole fat dairy foods are rich sources of nutrients, such as calcium and potassium, which are essential for people of all ages. There’s a growing body of evidence suggesting that dairy fat does not increase risk of heart disease or overall mortality in older adults,” said Marcia Otto, PhD, assistant professor of epidemiology, human genetics, and environmental sciences at UTHealth School of Public Health.

But this isn’t a green light to hog the cheese board all night.

“Dairy food products are important parts of a healthy, nutritious diet but balance is important. Other good party foods to go for are seasonal fruits, vegetables, nuts, and seafood and lean poultry,” Otto said. “Stay away from fatty meats and foods or drinks that are high in added sugars or sodium.”

Little bit of everything

Everything in moderation may not be the best way to go, according to recent research. But variety is the very essence of the traditional buffet.

“Most studies investigating effects of diet variety on satiation and food consumption showed people ate significantly more when served foods of different flavors, textures, or appearance, as opposed to a limited number of food items,” Otto said. “Having a wider range of foods during the course of one meal may keep the appetite stimulated for longer, delaying the feeling of fullness and extending the desire to eat.”

Often called the smorgasbord effect, this is particularly relevant when it comes to festive party food. In short, even smaller portions of everything on the table is likely to result in serious calorie overload.

“It’s important to limit the variety of processed foods, starches, and refined grains, which are typically less satisfying, and may lead to overconsumption of foods and weight gain,” Otto said.

Now that you’ve got a clearer idea about what to eat and drink, you can go back to worrying about finding that perfect party outfit.