How to Battle Holiday Desserts, and Win

Ah, desserts.

Thanksgiving is the one time of the year when people feel they have earned the right to eat dessert.

It also kicks off the holiday overeating season.

Indeed, Thanksgiving is the start of the all-out holiday attack on our waistlines that doesn't stop until brunch on New Year's Day.

Once upon a time, the average person could expect to gain between 5 pounds and 7 pounds over the holidays.

Today, that weight gain is only about 2 pounds. Averages aside, many people gain a lot of weight during the holidays, especially on Thanksgiving, when desserts are everywhere.

Ice Cream Stress Headaches Are Avoidable

To anyone who really enjoys eating dessert but who is also watching his or her weight and/or health, desserts can be as challenging as they are pleasurable.

Perhaps it's no accident that "desserts," spelled backward, is "stressed." But desserts don't have to make you feel that way.

You can easily fit in dessert on Thanksgiving without going to war with the bathroom scale the next day.

The U.S. Dietary Guidelines for Americans acknowledge that Americans like dessert, and those guidelines consider most desserts to be chock-full of discretionary calories.

In other words, desserts are foods that aren't essential and supply mostly calories, and not much else.

Although we often think of desserts as sweets, at least half the calories are usually coming from fat and not sugar.

Pie crust, for example, is just flour mixed with one or more sources of fat (butter, shortening, etc.) The same goes for cookies and cake, and even though they have additional sugar, a good half of the calories are from fat.

Still, these calories can work into a balanced diet and on Thanksgiving. Let's do just that.

Dessert Calories Can Fit Within Government Guidelines

How many discretionary calories do you get in a healthy diet? Depends on how many calories you need for the day.

The dietary guidelines suggest a starting point of 2,000 calories per day, which allows for a modest but reasonable serving of dessert.

Most men will need a few hundred more; some women, especially smaller or sedentary women, will need a few hundred less.

The dietary guidelines figure on about 10 percent to 12 percent of our total calories as discretionary.

To avoid overdoing it, have a plan for how you will save up and spend your Thanksgiving calories.

This is not the time for spontaneous decisions. Having a plan puts you in control and still gives you some permission to enjoy yourself.

Start by keeping to one alcoholic drink. After that, keep to water.

Those drinks -- and even punch -- count as discretionary calories and can really add up.

Also remember to do some physical activity, either the day before or on Thanksgiving. Take the dog for a walk, rake some leaves, do an exercise video with the kids, or hop on the stationary bike.

Aim for a good 30 minutes of activity. Even going for a family stroll between the meal and dessert can help you feel full and satisfied, and more comfortable about a sensible portion of dessert.

More Diet Tips

Here are some additional useful tips to get you through the dessert course and be happy (and thankful), not depressed afterward:

Choose ONE dessert. Only one, so make it the one you want, not one that someone wants you to have.

Single portions here, and be reasonable. Think a little more than the amount you'd receive from a hospital tray. If it's a pie or cake, think about an "arc" the width of three fingers.

Hold the bells and whistles. "A la mode" is just an additional dessert.

Take your time and savor! Be the last one to start eating the dessert and the last one to finish it. Enjoy every bite. Have coffee with your dessert to stretch out your savoring, and put a little real half-and-half in your coffee. It's only a few extra calories and there's no need to overachieve.

Even if it's your favorite dessert, leave any parts you don't really want. If you go for the filling but not the pie crust, leave it.

As for calories, an average slice of pumpkin pie (1/8 of a pie) is about 260 calories -- almost exactly the amount of your recommended discretionary calories.

Makes you wonder whether the USDA and the dietary guidelines had Thanksgiving in mind.

Pumpkin pie even has some nice nutrients -- like beta carotene and fiber -- but hey, it's Thanksgiving. Just enjoy it.

Check out those guidelines at

Keith-Thomas Ayoob is the author of "The Uncle Sam Diet," based on the 2005 U.S. Dietary Guidelines, and an associate professor of pediatrics at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine.