Last year's six-week food fest started with a holiday potluck. I arrived straight from yoga, hoping downward dogs would steel my willpower. But one look at the mashed potatoes and my sun salutations were long gone. The creamy spuds started an evil domino effect. I'd already splurged, so why not go for quiche instead of crudites — and a third glass of eggnog? This year I want to celebrate without getting a belly like Santa's, so I asked experts and FITNESS readers for strategies to tackle four of the most tempting diet danger zones. My holidays will be happy and healthy.
At the Mall
Sad but true: The food court is full of diet crimes. One of the worst offenders, a supersized cinnamon roll, can have around 850 calories and 34 grams of fat. Eyeing that chocolate chip cookie? Its calorie count is better (about 280), but it can pack as much fat as two fried-chicken drumsticks. A mall snack less likely to ruin your chances of zipping up your little black dress on New Year's is a plain soft pretzel. At around 340 calories and 5 grams of fat, it's a decent option, but it's no superfood.
Get up and go. You'll beat the crowds if you hit the mall as soon as it opens; plus, the aroma of that 400-calorie slice of stuffed pizza is less enticing at 10 a.m. Wendy McMillan, 35, a teacher in Longmont, Colorado, always prepares herself a healthy breakfast before she heads out for a shopping trip. "If I fill up on oatmeal, fresh fruit, and whole-grain toast, I don't even think about food until early afternoon. By that time, I've already left the mall," she says.
Nail it. Can't bear the thought of standing in one more line? Indulge in a calorie-free splurge — a relaxing spa pedicure instead of a fattening peanut-butter cookie. "It's dangerous to think of sweets as a reward. Once you start to justify eating unhealthy foods, you're setting yourself up to consistently make poor choices," says FITNESS advisory board member Madelyn Fernstrom, PhD, founder and director of the University of Pittsburgh Medical Center Weight Management Center.
Dine in style. Take a break from the hustle and bustle by savoring a real meal in one of the shopping center's restaurants. "You're more likely to find nutritious fare, such as a grilled-chicken or salmon salad with vinaigrette," says Joan Salge Blake, RD, clinical associate professor of nutrition at Boston University. Plus, the setting will be less chaotic than the crowded food court, and research indicates that you tend to eat more slowly and consume fewer calories when you're in a zen dining atmosphere.
At a Party
Cosmos and crab puffs and cake, oh my! It's a diet minefield of appetizers, cocktails, and (cue the scary music) the buffet. Those petite plates look innocent, but two scoops of spinach-artichoke dip with a handful of pita chips, a couple of slices of bruschetta, and — yikes! — you just downed nearly 500 calories. The worst part? The skimpy snacks don't even fill you up.
Work the room. Marcy Luhrs Brye, 30, an advertising executive in Richmond, Virginia, makes a beeline for friends she hasn't seen in a while as soon as she arrives. "Nonstop chatting keeps me too busy to overeat," she says. "It's always the parties where I'm bored that I find myself mindlessly wandering over to the dessert table."
Spread yourself thin. University of Minnesota studies found that you're more likely to overdo it when you see a variety of foods, so pick just a trio of safe bets: Think special-occasion foods like shrimp cocktail, prosciutto-wrapped melon, and caviar. You'll feel like you're indulging, but they're often lower in calories than such fried faves as chicken fingers and crab cakes, Fernstrom notes. Same goes for cocktails. Your skinniest pick is a flute of Champagne (about 85 calories).
Schedule a sweat session. Rebecca Lillis, 28, a teacher in Greenport, New York, books a training session for the morning after a bash. "It keeps me in check all evening," she says, "because I know I'll be wasting time and money if I'm too full or hung over to have a good workout." So make plans to go for an a.m. jog with a pal.
At the Office
The kitchen is a dumping ground for the goodies your coworkers don't want in their homes. A trip to the coffeemaker has never been so dangerous, with snickerdoodles and lemon bars (both around 140 calories) lurking on every counter. Don't be fooled by your boss's seemingly innocuous slivers of chocolate fudge; the rich bites pack nearly 120 calories per ounce.
Ditch your desk. Squeezing in a lunchtime workout helps Christine Plasterer, 32, an editor in Stafford, Virginia, sidestep the sweets. "If I've made the effort to go to the gym, I think twice before making a bad food choice afterward," she says.
Enlist a diet cop. Josephine Geraci, 44, an entrepreneur in Lloyd Neck, New York, sends her friend Victoria a daily e-mail detailing her diet slipups; her pal does the same. "Knowing I'll have to spill the beans makes me reconsider splurging," Josephine explains.
Play the waiting game. Lori MacGregor, 33, a public relations director in Los Angeles, doesn't let herself snag a sugar cookie until 3 or 4 p.m. "If I wait until the afternoon, everything looks picked over and stale — and way less tempting," she says.
At the Coffee Shop
Sleep deprivation has turned you into a gift-wrapping zombie. An eggnog latte or peppermint mocha seems like the perfect pick-me-up, but it's dessert in disguise, with up to 700 calories and about the same amount of fat as a Quarter Pounder with Cheese. And don't tell yourself that a tasty drink will help you resist the pastries (there can be 500 calories in a slice of banana bread, BTW). Studies show that calories from beverages don't fill you up as much as those from solid foods.
Buddy up. When a java craving strikes, invite a fit friend (the one who drinks small skim lattes) to join you; that peer pressure may help you make a positive choice. "Or decide on a healthy drink before you go, and order first so you're not tempted by a pal's unhealthy pick," says Sofia Rydin-Gray, PhD, clinical psychologist at the Duke Diet and Fitness Center in Durham, North Carolina.
Use the five-minute rule. Drooling over the pastries? Tell yourself you can indulge if you wait five minutes, Rydin-Gray suggests. Pressing "pause" on a craving helps retrain your brain to resist the urge next time, she explains. Still want a cookie? Waiting in that line a second time may make you reconsider or at least take a smaller portion, says Stella Volpe, PhD, RD, a faculty member in bio-behavioral and health sciences at the University of Pennsylvania School of Nursing in Philadelphia.
BYO brew. Bypass the coffee place by bringing your own joe to work or on a shopping trip. Think about the cash you'll save; that's what Elizabeth Wagner Buehler, 30, an IT specialist in Chicago, did. "I realized my daily coffee habit cost me $25 a week," she says, "and I could use the money on one personal training session a month."