Holiday Pre-Gaming: Are Your Pre-Party Choices Helping or Harming Your Cause?

Everyone knows you're not you when you're hungry, so of course hitting the holiday party on an empty stomach is a bad idea... or is it?

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‘Twas mere weeks before Christmas and all ‘cross the land, party invites arrived and all health goals got canned.

“But wait!” said a voice, “You don’t have to surrender. You can go to those parties, just not on a bender.”

“Here’s what you do,” the voice then continued: “eat something small before reaching the venue.”

Is it really that simple, you wonder each season? Could a pre-party snack keep your “splurge” within reason?

Enough with the rhymes! But there’s more to debate: should you eat before parties for a healthier fate?

THE PROS

As a dietitian, I hear it from my colleagues all the time: don’t go to a party hungry! Our ability to turn down temptation is dramatically compromised when hunger prevails, so skipping meals leading up to a big feast can often backfire.

Just recently, in fact, I had a client recount a situation where holiday travels took longer than anticipated, and by the time she arrived at the celebration, she was so starving that she ate less nutritious foods that she would have normally declined. She was so desperate for food that she wasn’t thinking about health; she was only concerned with getting something, anything, into her stomach.

To avoid falling into that same situation, health professionals argue, eat a small, healthy snack right before leaving for a holiday party. A bowl of oatmeal is an oft-made suggestion. The fiber will help regulate your blood sugars so your judgment won’t be clouded by hunger when you arrive at your destination. Another common recommendation is Greek yogurt, as the protein can help you feel satiated and less “munchy” or “picky” at the party.

A lot of this advice stems from research on chronic food deprivation, which has indeed shown significant emotional, psychological, and even physiological changes brought on by long-term calorie restriction. Such situations can lead to strong preoccupations with food and a propensity to binge eat even after healthy weight and nourishment have been reestablished. Brief periods of food deprivation can trigger overeating in humans and animals, too. Long-term dieters, who also engage in food deprivation (though to a less severe degree, generally), show a unique tendency to overeat calorie-dense, “unhealthy” foods after being given a small taste. This could, in theory, prove problematic to anyone trying to watch their weight at a holiday party where such foods abound.

THE CONS

Perhaps my favorite argument against this popular piece of advice comes from Michelle May, intuitive eating guru, who likens eating before a party to maxing out your credit cards before going shopping. From her perspective and experience, eating before a party doesn’t generally lead to eating less at the party; it just puts you at risk for eating even more and feeling sickeningly stuffed.

In a small study looking at breakfast habits specifically, researchers found that normal weight college students who are told to skip breakfast wind up eating fewer total calories, not more, for the day. This shows that some individuals may actually do just fine arriving at a party on an empty stomach.

Lastly, some argue that it’s not so much the parties themselves, but all of the little, mindless bites we take here or there that really undermine our health and weight goals. There are advent calendars, leftovers for days, gifts, treats left out at work, and so many other tastes of things we hardly even register taking; and we could stand to focus on those more and the occasional social gathering less.

THE BOTTOM LINE: FIT, BUT…

You have to know yourself to know how you will respond in this type of situation.

If you’re the kind of person who only eats when hungry and isn’t tempted by a buffet unless your stomach is rumbling, then yes, have a healthy snack before heading out. An apple with almond butter, a few hard-boiled eggs, or even full-fat Greek yogurt (that combo of fat with protein helps with satiety) can be enough to take the edge off. Avoid high-sugar, processed snacks, which risk spiking and crashing blood sugars and can have the opposite of their intended effect at the party.

Most people, however, tend to mindlessly munch regardless of hunger and will eat until physically stuffed. If that sounds like you, snacking beforehand may just lead to more discomfort at the party. Instead, eat nutritious meals earlier in the day as usual, but then cut off the eating a few hours before the festivities begin. The goal is to feel ready to eat but not completely starved by the time the food is served.

Remember, food is fuel. An overflowing tank is just as unfavorable as an empty one, so listen to your body and experiment to see which tips and tricks work for you.

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