(MCT)− OK, the online power shopping you did this week was more fingertip than physical, so you're burning fewer calories than battling crowds at the mall. Stressful hours spent in airports or on highways often mean grabbing fast food on the fly or snacking to keep boredom at bay.

The holiday season is here with many unique challenges to eat right and stay fit, and while this may not seem like the most ideal time to start a healthier eating plan, it can be.

Ask yourself, "Is it really any different from the rest of the year?" Every season brings its own temptations from Super Bowl Sunday's nachos and beer to the Fourth of July's fried chicken and ribs.

Research shows that the most successful dieters − those who lose weight and keep it off for the long haul − practice healthy eating and exercise habits all year. They don't make unrealistic New Year's diet promises. They set a time limit or portion limit such as "I'll eat fries only once a month" or "I'll eat ice cream in a small bowl." Or a holiday version, "I'll enjoy a big dinner out with the relatives, but I'll have a bowl of soup for lunch."

There's no time like the present to begin healthier eating habits even if you're headed to a party tonight.

  1. Freshen up your food life. Keep fresh fruit, whole-grain crackers, granola bars, nuts and fresh veggies on hand. A handful of pecans or almonds before heading out to dinner can calm your appetite so you don't dive in the minute you arrive. Look for healthier options on restaurant menus.
  2. Recognize barriers. It's going to be tough to say no to holiday favorites like chocolate fudge and that creamy cheesy hot artichoke dip. Know your splurge foods and resolve to enjoy them in small quantities. Use a small plate to serve yourself. Research shows that your mind will think it looks like a lot more food than the same amount on a large plate.
  3. Enjoy the taste of eating right. Deviled eggs, steamed shrimp, roast beef and chicken on skewers often served at holiday dinner parties are all diet-friendly, lean protein choices. Look for lighter versions of holiday faves such as low-fat eggnog.
  4. Start new habits. Keep a list of what you're eating and drinking for a few days. This snapshot will help you keep track of overindulgent occasions. Write down physical activity. Did you take the stairs instead of the escalator at the mall? That counts, too!
  5. Have a plan. Schedule time to take a walk or go to yoga class. If you're going to a potluck, bring the salad or vegetable side dish. Most people gain about one pound over the holidays. That doesn't sound like much, but after 10 years, that's 10 pounds. Successful long-term weight control is a balancing act.

Carolyn O'Neil is a registered dietitian and co-author of "The Dish on Eating Healthy and Being Fabulous!" Email her at carolynoneil@aol.com.

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