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How to Avoid Regret, Debt and Heft This Holiday

Faculty share expertise on diet, cybersecurity, shopping and health

holiday package

The holiday season this winter will be more joyful, Duke faculty say, if families take a few steps to protect their health and finances.

Ready or not, those annual decisions that can make or break your holidays are just around the pear tree.

Should you indulge in a second slice of pumpkin pie? Is it safer to shop online or in-store? And which payment option is the most secure -- debit, credit or mobile wallet programs like the new Apple Pay?

Fear not -- Duke faculty experts can help you avoid turning your holiday season into one of regret, debt and heft.

First, the food.

Professor Gary Bennett, an expert on treating and avoiding obesity, writes in a Huffington Post column that we actually worry too much about weight gain during the holidays. Most people only gain about a pound during the November-January stretch, Bennett writes, and only about 10 percent of us gain more than five pounds during the holidays.

But, he cautions, if you are already overweight or obese, you're at risk for gaining even more pounds during this stretch.

In what he calls the P.I.E. principle, Bennett offers some helpful tips to avoid falling victim to the grub all around us this time of year:

P. Proximity is the problem. The biggest risk factor for overeating is simply being around food. Try moving gift baskets of candy, fruitcake, etc. away from arm's reach, serve dinner from the counter instead of the table to help you avoid second helpings and be more selective about which food you keep around.

I. Indulge selectively. Choose the one food item you enjoy most and let that be the object of your indulgence, rather than whatever your eyes gaze upon.

E. Exercise helps. Bennett says exercise is not the most effective method for losing weight, but it is an excellent way to avoid weight gain.

Shopping Safely, Wisely

We have many options ways to pay for gifts and goodies -- via the Internet, in-store, PayPal, Apple Pay, debit card, credit card or even cash.

Major security breaches at Target, Home Depot and other retailers within the past year have cast a wary light on the security of high-tech shopping.

Associate professor Landon Cox, a computer systems security expert, says it's safer to buy things with your plastic in a bricks-and-mortar store than online.

"The retailer can tell that you are the person using the card, whereas in an online setting all they have is the number and the expiration date and they don't necessarily know who is using those credentials," Cox says.

Credit cards are the least safe, he says, and should only be used as a last resort. Using a mobile wallet program like the new Apple Pay is safer because they produce a unique credit card number for every purchase.

"Even if the terminal, the card reader itself, was being monitored by a hacker, which is what happened at Target, any of the numbers they received through the card reader would not be useful because it's only valid for the single purchase," Cox says about paying with a mobile program.  

Ultimately, though, Cox says the safest option is to pay with cash.

Scott Huettel, professor and chair of Psychology & Neuroscience, notes that holiday shopping is challenging because it’s a difficult, open-ended decision problem.

"We often have many people to shop for, thousands of potential gifts to choose from, and real constraints on both our time and our finances," he says. "But, you can reduce the challenge -- and maintain our sanity -- by adopting some simple approaches to shopping.

Huettel advises shoppers to:

• Look for good-enough, not perfect. When you face very complex decision problems with many possible choices, trying to make the optimal choice (i.e., find the perfect gift) can get us into trouble. You can spend so much time searching that you never find the best option. It’s much better to try to identify gifts that aren’t perfect, but seem good enough, and then continue with our shopping.

• Pre-commit to avoid temptation. It’s very easy to spend more than we budgeted, especially with conveniences like credit cards and electronic payment. One effective way to limit your spending is to bring only cash, not credit cards, Huettel says, so that you are physically unable to spend more than you budgeted. It’s easier to “pre-commit” to a budget at home than to resist temptation while shopping.

Prioritize experiences, not physical goods. Substantial research now indicates that people report more satisfaction from experiences like travel and concerts than they do from similarly expensive physical goods. Give gifts that generate experiences, especially social ones. They’ll lead to more satisfaction and better memories.

Family Health History When gathering with family during the holidays, Dr. Lori Orlando says it's a great time to talk to older relatives about family health history.

"Family health history is essential information, critical to understanding what diseases you might be at risk for and how to keep them at bay," says Orlando, an associate professor of medicine. "And it doesn’t stop there: the same information that informs your health, also informs your children’s health."

Orlando points to a U.S. Surgeon General tool called My Family Health Portrait that lets people enter and store family history data.

She's also involved with a Duke tool called MeTree, which calculates your risk from the information you enter and advises how to lower the risk.

"It's complex and takes time," Orlando says. "However, family health history is one of the single most important pieces of information that informs your future health -- it tells us about your risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, liver disease and more."

For more information, visit the Duke Center for Personalized and Precision Medicine.