By Lisa C. Cohn, R.D. contributor
updated 12/15/2006 11:24:50 AM ET 2006-12-15T16:24:50

A 32-year-old woman came to me stressed about her holiday eating. She'd already gained 5 pounds since Thanksgiving. Her hectic schedule meant she was missing her spinning classes. And she was worried about packing on more weight during the winter.

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An overworked 49-year-old male client was exhausted from his year-end, 70-hour work weeks. He was grabbing candy bars for lunch, drinking too much at parties and was too tired to make his weekly tennis game. He, too, was concerned about weight gain.

A 30-year-old woman came to see me after downing a bag of M&M's for breakfast. She'd been skipping lunch to do holiday shopping, but was otherwise eating more and sleeping less. "I feel out of control," she confessed. "My brain is not working right."

Like many of you, these people are feeling the stresses of the holiday rush. Not only are work and family demands more intense, so is the pressure to look good. The problem is, disruptions in our normal eating, sleeping, drinking and exercise routines leave us more vulnerable to fatigue, anxiety and weight gain.

Here are some some ways to give your diet an energy boost that can help carry you through the holiday season without packing on the pounds:

Foods that pick you up, not drag you down
Your holiday diet should consist of complex carbohydrates for long-term energy, lean proteins for immune support and healthy fats for a steady energy supply.

If you're feeling anxious and get cravings for processed breads, muffins, sweets and sugary foods or beverages, instead choose foods high in complex carbohydrates and glutamine (an amino acid which is used more during intense activity and helps keep your tummy settled during stressful times), such as oatmeal with wheat germ. Add protein to make a mini-meal using tofu, fish or lean beef, which will help keep your energy high and reduce cravings.

If you're having headaches, feeling moody or have crunchy snack cravings, you may benefit from foods high in the amino acid tryptophan, which helps to restore brain serotonin levels and stabilize mood. Try: cottage cheese or Swiss cheese with banana and sunflower seeds, salmon, blue fish, mackerel or turkey.

Eat smaller meals regularly
If you skip meals, you may end up overeating because of extreme hunger. Keep your body supplied with energy by having smaller meals every three to four hours. This also leaves room for an occasional extra drink or even a sampling of a holiday treat.

Keep your memory sharp
If you are hungering for fatty foods or have trouble concentrating and focusing on details, try foods high in B vitamins and choline, which helps the nerves communicate with your muscles — especially when you are fatigued and getting less sleep. These include grape juice, fish, chicken, eggs, cheese, cauliflower, cabbage, iceberg lettuce, fava beans, almonds, peanut butter, wheat germ and blueberries.

Avoid excess sugar
Skip sugary selections and opt for spices such as cinnamon, nutmeg and cardamom to satisfy your sweet tooth. Also, consider that foods such as mango, salsa with lime, citrus zest, orange sections, vanilla, as well as herbs like parsley, are fuller in flavor than artificial sweeteners and act like energizing aromatherapy for the brain.

Catch up on sleep
Being sleep-deprived is stressful for the body and slows metabolism, which can lead to weight gain. Aim to get as much sleep as possible — even a power nap helps the body keep its normal rhythm.

When my overworked male client tried these approaches, he became more productive and could handle a longer work day. He is drinking less and sleeping better.

The 32-year-old harried holiday eater made an effort to balance her complex carbs with protein instead of grabbing sugary, fatty snack foods. It lightened her mood — and her weight.

If you can stay energized through the holidays, you'll reach the New Year with less stress, little or no weight gain, and less to regret. 

Lisa C. Cohn is a registered dietitian with over 20 years experience in nutrition research and training. She is president of Park Avenue Nutrition Spa, a services and consulting group in New York.

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