A local dietician and a health-conscious personal chef offer nutritional advice for your next holiday meal.

For many of us, it’s a tough time of year. With delicious dishes at every party and tasty temptations lurking around every corner, by the time the new year arrives, it may also be time for a new—and larger—pair of pants. But this year, with the help of two local food experts, you can beat the winter bulge and post-feast funk by learning some new ways to curb your cravings.

“Many people tend to indulge more at the holiday season,” says Golda Ewalt, who directs the Dietetic Internship Program at OSF Saint Francis Medical Center. “Food is used as a way to celebrate; it’s a very social element of our environment today. So, the big thing is just not to overeat.”

“If you just moderate everything, you should pretty much be okay,” affirms Chef Amanda Williams, an instructor at Illinois Central College and owner of the personal chef service, Tastes of Home. “I don’t believe in denying yourself completely the things you want. I find that when I do that, I end up just splurging even more.”

While they come in many forms, the main culprits of an expanding waistline are sugar and fat. Swearing off the dessert table completely often results in a leftover binge later, so Williams and Ewalt both suggest limiting yourself to one dessert, or splitting really indulgent treats with a friend. “Just try little bites of everything,” says Williams, who has slyly modified some of her own recipes to make them healthier without compromising taste. Some of her tactics include replacing high-fat, high-calorie ingredients with lighter ones that mimic the same flavor and consistency, and reducing sodium and fat with seasonings. “Seasonings are a low-fat way to achieve a lot of flavor,” she explains, “which is really what we’re looking for when we think of holiday foods… those punches of flavor.”

Ewalt likes to incorporate fresh produce in her cooking, which she says delivers the best taste and makes it easy to control calories. “Take advantage of what’s in season well into the fall,” she suggests. ”Right now, squash is coming into season and will be in season through at least Thanksgiving, if not later.” She says butternut, acorn, delicata and hubbard squashes, along with sweet potatoes, Brussels sprouts, rutabagas, turnips, parsnips, Swiss chard and kale are very easy to cook, naturally low in fat and calories, and packed full of healthy nutrients. “They’re going to taste really good when they’re in season. And a lot of them can be found locally.”

Williams also includes many nutritious whole grains in her recipes, something that comes easy for someone who has adhered to a gluten-free diet for close to eight years. After training under a gluten- and dairy-intolerant chef and upon her mother’s diagnosis of adrenal fatigue, Williams started cooking gluten-free to meet others’ special dietary needs, and to simply feel better in general.

“A lot of people like the gluten-free diet,” she says. “They feel like they get more energy from these other foods because they’re eliminating the gluten, which is basically white flour… And usually those supplements that they’re putting in place of that happen to be whole grains… [which are] just packed full of nutrients.”

Williams adds that many people find they also lose weight when they eliminate gluten. Many vegetable-based ingredients are used as replacements, which cuts down on the carbohydrates that would normally turn into sugar and excess calories during digestion. As one can see from the increasing number of gluten-free products both locally and nationwide, this trend has taken off, and Williams does not anticipate it ending anytime soon. In fact, the diet has become so popular that she holds a “Gluten and Dairy-Free Cooking” workshop every semester at ICC.

Whether or not you go gluten-free, the experts agree on the healthiest things to eat at a holiday party. “[Vegetables] are naturally not cooked with fat—or not cooked at all, so they are good things to munch on,” Williams says. “They also fill you up a lot more.”

“Our diets in general tend to lack fruits and vegetables,” Ewalt explains. “That’s what I would encourage people to select more of… It’s about making better choices and going a little bit lighter on the high-fat foods.”

Also important is exercise. Not only do the holidays enable poor eating habits, they also throw a lot of us off our normal routines. “Exercise seems like it always gets pushed to the backburner,” Ewalt adds. “When we let [it] go, that’s when we tend to not feel as good as we normally do, and that’s when the pounds can get packed on.”

Since everyone’s metabolism is different, there is no single formula to follow to keep your eating in check at end-of-the-year festivities. But by adopting some of our experts’ techniques and following their advice when you’re tempted by the pecan pie and cheesecake, you can enjoy the holiday season—and all the food that comes with it—without regretting it later.

“When we eat so much that the only thing we can do is go take a nap, that means we ate too much,” Ewalt sums up. “Relax during mealtime and enjoy the company. And make sure the meal lasts at least 20 minutes, because that will allow time for your body to say ‘Hey! You’re full! You probably don’t need to go back for more.’”

So this year, take some time to make thoughtful choices and listen to your body when you get stuck in those scrumptious situations. Good luck, and happy, hungry holidays! a&s