Image: Sweet potatoes
Richard Alan Hannon / The Advoca
Sweet potatoes are healthy on their own, but add butter and marshmallows, and it's a fat trap.
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updated 12/22/2005 4:32:03 PM ET 2005-12-22T21:32:03

Around the world, holidays are inextricably tied with food. Often the bigger the holiday, the bigger the feast. Not only that, but the food is nearly always especially tasty — and extremely fattening.

Partly this is due to the fact that most traditional recipes predate our era of calorie counting and cholesterol consciousness. These are foods that are often rooted deep within a culture, made from the most special or delicious ingredients — heavy creams, butter, meat, nuts, sugars, candied fruits, preserves, oils, i.e., the stuff that tastes good — that a family could afford. In some cultures, such celebrations often originated around the lifting of a fast or the approach of winter, when the extra fat from such a feast served to strengthen the body against past or future times of hunger.

Of course, these days in societies where food is abundant year-round, such feasts just make our pants harder to button. Despite the pleasure that many of us take from that extra helping of turkey with stuffing and gravy, or another of Grandma's special sugar cookies, we inevitably regret the food hangover that follows.

"I think the holidays are difficult times for people because there are so many special foods available that people don't have very often, such as eggnog or potato latkes," says Marlene Schwartz, Ph.D. and associate director at the Yale Rudd Center for Food Policy and Obesity. "It makes sense to enjoy these special foods in moderation, but not use the holidays as a reason to pay no attention to what you are eating."

While just one holiday meal can result in thousands of calories — roast goose alone has a whopping 784 calories per serving — it's the desserts that really pack on the pounds. According to Information Resources in Chicago, U.S. retail bakery sales were at about $895 million in October 2004 and rose 2.8 percent to more than $920 million by December 2004. These treats are packed with sugar and refined carbohydrates, which are unhealthy because both can result in unstable insulin levels and weight gain. That apple pie may taste great, but each slice contains around 500 calories; and a bowl of Christmas pudding will cost a person almost 400 calories per slice — and that's not even a la mode.

Schwartz says the best way for one to watch their weight is to plan ahead, especially if there is a holiday party or celebration. "Figure out the calories for some of your favorite treats and then plan your day around that. While you don't want to arrive at the party starving, it makes sense to plan particularly healthful meals and snacks surrounding the party, so in the end your day is balanced."

If it is too hard to keep count, Ashley Borden, a personal trainer in Los Angeles, says there are a couple of foods to stay away from. “Say no to eggnog and high dairy desserts like ice cream and remember that alcohol and high sodium foods like dips, chips and pastries can make for one bloated holiday.”

Just remember, most holiday foods contain fat; that's why they taste so good. On the same note, it won't benefit anyone to get worked up over a cupcake. The real catastrophe to the waistline is overeating. Think twice before having that second helping. Do you really need to sample both kinds of pie? Too many people just can't say no, and by Jan. 1, weight loss centers like Weight Watchers are slammed with new clients.

So while it's not fun to think about the harm that holiday foods have on the body, it's always smart to be aware of what you're about to eat. A good place to start is with our list of fattening holiday foods. The slides that follow contain nutritional information taken from Recipezaar.com — a site where anyone can post their favorite recipes and get a full detailed nutritional analysis. It takes one to two days for recipes to be posted, but is immediate for premium members. To get more information go to www.recipezaar.com.

© 2012 Forbes.com

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