Beth Reardon, director of integrative nutrition at Duke Integrative Medicine, usually serves her family healthy, high-fiber foods like salads, veggie wraps and spelt-flour chocolate chip tart cherry cookies.
But for the holidays, she whips up decadent whoopie pies.
"It's a family recipe that we treasure not only because it is delicious, but because it was taught to me and my siblings by our favorite teenage babysitter," Reardon said. The special occasion recipe has extra meaning for Reardon's family because the babysitter died of cancer at age 24.
Reardon shared this story during a "Survival Guide to Holiday Eating" seminar to illustrate the complex intersection of emotions, traditions and calories that can lead to an excess of unhealthy food choices over the holidays. The free seminar was sponsored by DukeWell, a health management program offered to Duke employees.
"The key to eating well over the holidays is to be mindful of what you are eating and why," Reardon said. "If you can make healthy decisions 85 percent of the time, it's probably OK to have an occasional whoopie pie moment."
Reardon pointed out that Americans often celebrate with food, and that the time from Halloween to New Years is especially conducive to overindulging.
"We are bombarded with opportunities to eat at social events during this time," she said. "And many of the traditional foods could use a healthy makeover."
She said a typical holiday meal of turkey with trimmings can easily top 3,000 calories, but most individuals need to eat less than 2,000 calories a day to maintain weight. To help manage calories, Reardon recommended carefully making food choices.
"Plan ahead and don't fill your plate with everything offered," Reardon said. "Pass up on the store-bought crackers or cookies so that you can have a whoopie pie or a slice of that special pie that your aunt only makes once a year."
Reardon also recommended preparing mentally and physically before holiday parties and family functions involving food.
Eat a hard-boiled egg or a small cup of soup before a party can moderate hunger. "It takes 20 minutes for your brain to catch up with your belly, so eating before a party helps you feel more satiated by the time you arrive at the buffet," she said.
Commit to one or two healthy behaviors at each party, such as substituting sparkling water for the second glass of wine or having a second serving of vegetables before anything else. "Having concrete goals is much more effective than simply trying to avoid overeating," she said.
The seminar also covered options for cooking healthier versions of traditional foods. Cooks can cut calories by removing turkey skin before roasting, skimming fat off gravy, substituting unsweetened applesauce for butter in cookies and cakes and flavoring mashed potatoes with garlic and herbs, not butter.
"If you are in charge of the meal, you can also add more vegetables and experiment with low-calorie beverages like flavored water," Reardon said.
Betty Jones, a staff specialist with the Duke Alumni Association, attended the seminar. She said she found the discussion of substitutions particularly enlightening.
"I've recently started to make major changes to my diet to try to lose weight and decrease my risk of diabetes, so this was helpful," she said. "But what was even more important was the affirmation that the holidays are about family, not food. If I can remember that, I'll be OK."