Natalie Pompilio

is a Philadelphia writer

Marietta admits she's often "an object of curiosity." The 65-year-old suburban grandmother is a longtime follower of the eating plan endorsed by Food Addicts Anonymous, meaning she doesn't consume anything containing sugar, flour, or wheat. She'll pack her own food before holiday parties, leaving it in the car at first to ensure she won't upset her host by bringing it in. If there's any possibility her food will offend, she'll sip water during the event, eating after she leaves.

"It can be uncomfortable when everyone's eating fried chicken and potatoes, cake and cookies, and you're sipping water, but I explain to people I'm on a diet and have to be very cautious about what I eat," she said. "People say to me, 'Oh, I never could give up bread!' Or 'I'd rather die than give up sugar!' That's fine. This is not for everybody. This is what works for me."

That last sentence may be the key to any healthy holiday eating:

Go into this season of indulgence with a plan, be it following the guidelines of a group like Food Addicts Anonymous; substituting planned snacks for open grazing; or allowing for some indulgence but eating and exercising as normal on days without parties instead of writing off the whole month as "the holidays."

"In many ways in our society, food has become a surrogate of how we show our love and appreciation for people," said Kelly Allison, an associate professor of psychology at Penn Medicine's Center for Weight and Eating Disorders. "In moderation, that's fine, but there are folks that really struggle and feel guilty saying no."

Being aware helps, but different approaches work for different people.

Food Addicts Anonymous is a 12-step program that believes even moderation is harmful because certain foods can trigger biochemical cravings that can't be conquered by willpower or therapy. FAA's website - ww.foodaddictsanonymous.org - says the program has more than 3,000 followers worldwide. Besides weekly in-person meetings, online and phone meetings are available.

Marietta, who attends Saturday morning FAA meetings at a Newtown Square church, said she found the program four years ago. She had tried every weight-loss program out there, she said, and FAA is the only one that has allowed her to lose and maintain a healthy weight.

"We always say people conclude they're a food addict because nothing else has worked," she said. "A lot of people don't understand the seriousness of it."

As part of the program, Marietta has become a "sugar and flour detective," she said, carefully reading all product ingredient labels. Who knew, she said, that ingredients such as xanthan gum, sorghum, and maltodextrins are actually just sugars? She also does a lot of legwork before dining out, calling restaurants and evaluating menus. One of FAA's mantras is "Prior planning prevents poor performance."

"I have friends in other 12-step programs like Overeaters Anonymous, and they can have one or two cookies at Christmastime and then get back on track," Marietta said. "I cannot get back on. My body's chemistry doesn't work that way. So I don't get off."

Penn Medicine's Allison said she was concerned that such an "all or nothing" approach could cause some people to relapse.

"When folks have a plan for a situation and end up not sticking to it, they can talk to themselves in a very negative way, and that can totally backfire," she said. "It can make them more likely to continue to overeat."

She suggests going in with a plan, trying to stick with it, and finding forgiveness if things go off track.

"I suggest they put out a mental stop sign and say: 'Maybe I ate differently than I intended to, but it is what it is. I enjoyed it, it was good, and the next meal I'll get back on track. I'm going to move on now,' " she said. "Try to make weight maintenance a goal as opposed to trying to lose weight during the holidays."

It's also important to remember that food doesn't need to be the focus. Marietta said she enjoys the holiday season now, on her restricted eating plan, much more than she ever did before.

"Imagine being able to fit into my clothes and not being anxious about how I look or present myself," she said. "Now I have conversations with people instead of standing by the dessert table and eyeing the ones I want to eat. . . . I love decorating and the lights in the stores and the church services and buying gifts for my grandkids and wrapping them up. I'm more present in my own life."