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Maintain don't gain

Prevent weight gain over the holidays.

With candy, pumpkin pie and holiday cookies at every turn this time of year, healthy choices can feel especially challenging. The key to success, says Iowa native and food psychologist Brian Wansink, is to make the healthy choice the easy choice.

In his popular 2014 book “Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life,” Wansink offers simple suggestions for reshaping our kitchens, schools, restaurants, supermarkets and workplaces. As a result, says Wansink, healthy eating becomes less of an effort, and more of a natural process.

“Becoming slim by design works better than trying to become slim by willpower. It’s easier to change your eating environment than to change your mind,” Wansink writes in the book’s introduction. He goes on to outline hundreds of small, everyday steps families can take to eat better without really trying. Here’s how to start:

At home

  • Serve from the stove. Sitting down for a family dinner is always encouraged, but try keeping calorie-rich entrees on the stove or counter. People who filled their plates before sitting down ate 19 percent less than those serving themselves from bowls on the table, Wansink found.
  • Keep healthy food in sight. You’re more likely to eat the first thing you see, so line eye-level refrigerator shelves with chopped produce in clear containers. Store snacks, cereal and sweets out of sight, in opaque containers in the cupboard or freezer.
  • Choose your plate carefully. We serve 18 percent more food when a plate matches the color of food it carries, so shop for dishes in contrasting colors. Think small, too. It’s easier to keep portion sizes in check on a 10-inch plate than a 12-inch one.
  • Keep kitchen counters clean. This leads people to snack 44 percent less in the kitchen. Clean counters signal that meal or snack time is over.
  • Keep fewer than two cans of soft drinks in the fridge. If you are trying to cut down on soft drinks, this is a good way to do it. It slows down how much you drink because warm soft drinks aren’t as tempting.

At the store

  • Practice the half-cart technique. Use a scarf, purse or backpack to physically divide your cart in half. Fill the front half of your cart with fruits and vegetables, and place other items in the back.
  • Start in the healthiest aisles. Begin your shopping in the produce section, and then head for aisles with frozen and canned fruits and vegetables, whole grains and other healthier foods. Save the snack section for last, when your cart is already full and you’re ready to get going.
  • Chew sugar-free gum in the store. Many food cravings are mental, says Wansink. Interrupt those sensory thoughts by chomping on a piece of gum, and you might be less likely to buy a bag of chips for the drive home.

Healthy holidays

During holiday gatherings and hearty meals, it can be tempting to hit pause on nutrition and fitness goals. Still, staying healthy doesn’t mean saying no to everything. By planning ahead and practicing moderation, you can enjoy seasonal festivities without putting on extra pounds.

  • Don't skip meals before heading to a party. Enjoy small servings of low-calorie food throughout the day, so you’ll be less likely to overeat later.
  • Transform traditionally heavy dishes with healthy substitutions. Use fat-free yogurt in dips and sauces, reach for low-fat cheeses, and bake or broil foods instead of frying.
  • Treat yourself to rich foods, but only on Thanksgiving Day and Christmas Day, rather than overindulging regularly throughout the holiday season.
  • Survey the buffet table before digging in. Choose one small indulgence to enjoy, and fill the rest of your plate with fruits, vegetables and healthy whole-grain options.
  • Don't be hard on yourself. The holidays can be as stressful as they are joyous, and chances are, you’ll make an unhealthy choice. Rather than staying in an unhealthy spiral for the rest of the day, get right back on track with good choices.

Yes, you can

Telling people they can’t eat something rarely inspires healthier choices, writes Wansink. Instead, he recommends focusing on what we can eat while making healthy options the most convenient, attractive and normal.

For example:

  • Put colorful fruit in a pretty bowl on the counter and store cookies at the back of the freezer until it’s time for a special treat.
  • Stock the candy dish with cherry tomatoes or pack a healthy lunch instead of grabbing a to-go burger.
  • At restaurants, request a high-top table near the entrance. Wansink’s research shows that diners order more salads and fish when settled at elevated tables, while they are more likely to order dessert when seated far from the front door.

For more healthy tips and information, check out “Slim by Design: Mindless Eating Solutions for Everyday Life External Site,” by Brian Wansink, Ph.D.