Holiday Inspiration -- Reconciling Expectations And Behavior

I KNOW A WOMAN WHO DOESN'T DREAD the holiday onslaught of cookies and candy and butter and gravy. Instead, she prepares for it by losing five pounds before the holidays. Then, she figures, she can indulge in her favorite treats with minimal guilt and weight repercussions.

If this is not your MO (or mine), it's a little late and a lot silly to try to adopt it now, for this year. But I still use her approach as inspiration. She has, it seems to me, recognized her expectations, owned up to her behavior and figured out a way to accommodate them both. Along the way, she actually enjoys the holidays.

Perceptions often are a little behind what's really going on. Like when I keep thinking I'm 34 - though I'm reminded, when I do the math, that that age passed a few years back. Or when I assume it takes 15 minutes, just as it always has, to drive anywhere in Seattle - until I'm plodding through yet another all-day backup.

Or take restaurants. My understanding is that they're reluctant to put more low-fat items on their menus because they think people eat out on special occasions, and want to splurge. Yet for many people, eating out is not special, it's typical of daily life. Cooking a full meal at home - now that would be special.

I don't mean to be a grinch, but perhaps the holidays aren't so special anymore. Not from a food point of view, at least.

My family used to have party mix once a year, at the holidays. We'd make a big batch to last through the month, two roasting pans overflowing with Chex cereal and pretzel sticks and peanutless mixed nuts and butter and garlic powder and Worcestershire sauces.

Now I can buy something like it in one-ounce packages in the vending machine at work.

We used to have turkey once a year, at Thanksgiving. Now, whenever I want, at most supermarkets I can find fresh turkey breast, or smoked turkey legs or even cute little turkey breakfast sausages.

I used to look forward to Christmas sweets, which often featured ingredients so rare or expensive they came out just once a year. Now I can pick up a Fran's macadamia-nut dark-chocolate Gold Bar whenever I shop at PCC. Who am I fooling when I lust after a plate of Christmas cookies as if I haven't seen anything like it for 12 months?

Of course, everyone knows at least a couple of holiday dishes that live up to expectations. My mother's cranberry-orange relish, for example. And Aunt Annie's salad, the family ambrosia, which gives her a presence at our Christmas table long after she's gone.

But if we recognize that most of our holiday temptations are not so special anymore, except in their abundance, perhaps the onslaught is a bit less overwhelming.

If that doesn't work, nutrition and fitness specialists have plenty of other thoughts on getting through the holidays.

"Choose the best and leave the rest" is the strategy suggested by Marilyn Guthrie, spokeswoman for the American Dietetic Association and manager of health promotion and patient education for Virginia Mason Medical Center. If Grandma's fruitcake is not one of your favorites but you do enjoy pumpkin pie, she says, go for (a small piece of) the pie and don't feel guilty about it. "That applies to activities you choose, as well," Guthrie says.

Kim Williams-Brinck of Kirkland, a personal trainer, tells her clients to eat normally rather than starving themselves to "save up" for a special event. "The body thinks it's going into starvation mode, and stores the fat. Then it's harder to lose." She recommends Debra Waterhouse's book, "Outsmarting The Female Fat Cell."

Many people believe that diets, not the holidays, are the real problem. "Dieting is the cause of most weight problems," says Janet Edlefsen, a Seattle counselor specializing in eating and weight problems and sports nutrition. "Compulsive eating is a backlash to dieting. . . . One reason people gain weight during the holidays is that they threaten themselves with going on a diet in January." Regaining a normal relationship with food begins, she says, with thoughts like, "I'm always free to eat whatever I want," "Do I feel like eating now?" and, that holiday party favorite, "Do I enjoy eating standing up making small talk with strangers?"

All this has serious implications, of course, for New Year's resolutions. I'll get back to that next week.

Molly Martin is assistant editor of Pacific.