Eggnog. Mashed potatoes. Pecan pie. Lauri Wright knows full well the challenges of eating healthfully and staying fit during the holiday season. Wright, 47, is a registered dietitian and an assistant professor in the department of Community and Family Health at the University of South Florida's College of Public Health. Prior to USF, she worked at Veterans Administration hospitals for 20 years, specializing in infectious diseases and directing a dietetic internship. She also taught at the University of North Florida in Jacksonville and at USF Polytechnic, where she developed a nutrition concentration. Wright is also immediate past president of the Florida Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics (eatrightflorida.org), which promotes optimal nutrition and health for all people. Last week, she spoke with City Times/North of Tampa editor Richard Martin about her work at USF, her own fitness regimen and her fondness for a sweet treat from her native Ohio called a buckeye.
Tell me about your work in the department of Community and Family Health.
I am very interested in what's called the nutrition transition, the changes in dietary patterns and activity patterns that happen as a community or country develops. In the U.S. and many developed countries, we're dealing with the issue of obesity. My work is looking at what are some of the lesser-known causes and contributors to obesity … I also try to take what we learn in our country to countries, like Belize, that are rapidly going through this nutrition transition. Their obesity and diabetes rates are off the board.
Do the holidays present added challenges in achieving your mission of improving the community's health?
Many times, peoples' health takes a back seat to getting caught up in the holiday activities. When individuals are trying to consciously make healthy choices, that gets put on the back burner during the holidays. People on average gain 1 to 2 pounds during the holidays, which doesn't sound like a lot. But people never take that weight off. So holiday after holiday, those begin to add up. It's overeating and not eating the healthy foods. And because people are busy shopping and going to parties, they're not exercising either.
What are the biggest challenges to staying fit during the holiday season?
I think it's finding the time to be healthy, finding the time to continue an exercise pattern. Exercise is important not just for physical health, it's also a stress reliever. And the holidays are stressful.
Do you have some "eat this, not that" suggestions?
I like the idea of substitutions so people don't feel completely deprived.
A cup of eggnog has 350 calories; if it's spiked, it's 450 calories. Compare that to a glass of wine that's 150 calories or a bottle of seltzer water, which has no calories.
Mashed potatoes have 250 calories, plus another 200 for gravy. Instead of that, you can have mashed sweet potatoes, which are 200 calories. That's a little less, but packed with vitamins and minerals.
Pecan pie has 500 calories a slice; pumpkin pie has 300. Even (substituting) something like chocolate-covered covered strawberries, you get a lot fewer calories, and you're still getting some fruit in.
Are there some common misconceptions or myths about dieting and exercise?
I think that people need to be realistic. These are lifestyle choices, not just a temporary diet, or a temporary exercise program, you go on. It's really about lifestyle choices.
You may never be a marathon runner, and that's absolutely fine. Exercise can be walking your dog. It can be riding a bike with your kids. All of the small changes add up.
When people are getting ready to make these changes, I always encourage them to write down everything they eat and drink and what they do for exercise for three days. And what you can do is look at the biggest problem areas for that person.
That's why diets fail, because they're not tailored to the individual person.
Does shopping at the mall count as exercise? How can people squeeze more exercise into their busy holiday schedules?
The recommendation is for 30 minutes a day. It can be broken up. It can be taking the stairs instead of the elevator, or parking at the back of the parking lot. I saw something this Thanksgiving, this lady was between dinner and dessert and she took the time to go walk around the neighborhood. That can apply at work. Instead of your 15-minute coffee break, take a walk around your building. Not only does it get in some physical activity, but it wakes up the brain a little bit.
What's your fitness/exercise regimen?
I do the elliptical machine every day. I used to be a runner. I try to do some variety, with the elliptical machine, treadmill and bike. And about three times a week, I do light weights.
What's your favorite holiday season indulgence?
I make a candy called a buckeye — I'm from Ohio. It's basically a higher-caloric Reese's Peanut Butter Cup. It's a peanut butter ball (peanut butter, margarine and powdered sugar) dipped in semisweet chocolate. It looks like a buckeye.
Do you try to avoid it altogether?
For me, it's about the tradition. It was a tradition I did with my daughters. I try to focus on our time together doing it. And then I will indulge in one after I've dipped them. Honestly, I more enjoy giving them to friends and having the time with my girls. But one is enough.
Sunday conversation is edited for clarity and brevity.