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Healthy Eating for the Holidays

Health and fitness expert Pam Peeke gives tips on trigger foods during the holidays. Illustrates HEALTH-EXERCISE (category l), by Vicky Hallett (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (Handout.)

Health and fitness expert Pam Peeke gives tips on trigger foods during the holidays. Illustrates HEALTH-EXERCISE (category l), by Vicky Hallett (c) 2012, The Washington Post. Moved Wednesday, Nov. 28, 2012. (Handout.)

If Santa really does stuff his face with every cookie he encounters after shimmying down those chimneys, that explains the big belly. But health and fitness expert Pam Peeke might say Saint Nick’s behavior also could be a sign of something commonly found south of the North Pole: food addiction.

Peppermint bark pushers might sound significantly less nefarious than cocaine dealers, but they’re offering folks the same surge of dopamine, Peeke explains in her new book, “The Hunger Fix.” Peeke, an assistant clinical professor of medicine at the University of Maryland and founder of the Peeke Performance Center for Healthy Living, says that being hooked on food can be every bit as devastating as a drug addiction, and the only way to kick the habit is by undergoing detox and recovery.

Remember how you felt the last time you became one with the fruitcake?

“Raise your hand if you’re tired of doing that again,” says Peeke, who notes that food addiction spans a spectrum, starting with people who have just that one weakness. “They see jelly beans and they lose it. That can lead to a binge.”

For others, there’s an array of trigger foods, or what Peeke calls “false fixes,” that consume their thoughts — and get consumed in vast quantities. Inevitably, it’s stuff that’s fatty, salty or sugary (or a combination thereof), rather than a crisp, juicy apple.

Peeke says a majority of Americans show some signs of struggling with food addiction, because of either a genetic predisposition or our modern-day environment that surrounds us with cues to constantly chow down.

When people argue that food addicts should simply use a little willpower, that shows a lack of understanding of the human noggin, and particularly the prefrontal cortex, explains Peeke. “It’s the smarty-pants of the brain, and it reins in impulsivity. However, in full-on addictive mode, your prefrontal cortex is damaged,” she says.

Without your brain to back you up, counting on willpower is wishful thinking: “That’s like asking me to run a marathon with a broken foot.”

Not that Peeke considers this science an excuse to give in to addiction. But it means that unhealthful eating habits are something to take seriously, especially during the holiday season, when there’s no escaping the cookie parties, office potlucks, family gatherings and an endless list of other social engagements focused on food.

Although it’s impossible to quit food cold turkey — without some very serious consequences — Peeke says you should try to lay off anything that you identify as a false fix. For Peeke, that’s sweets. “You can put cheese and crackers in front of me and it won’t do anything. With sugar, my brain lights up,” she says.

What you don’t eat, you can’t overeat. And there are ways to substitute other foods so you don’t feel deprived. “You have to experiment and figure out what you feel safest with,” says Peeke, who offers the example of eating frozen yogurt instead of ice cream. Or, if you always want to devour an entire baguette, maybe switch to a whole-wheat pita, so you won’t lose control.

Making these choices becomes harder when you’re fretting that your gossipy cousin is about to spill your deep secret to the rest of the family, or you can’t manage to figure out how you’re going to get that gigantic project wrapped up by the end of the year.

“Stress is the Achilles’ heel of everyone with addiction. It makes you cave to the crave,” Peeke says.

The best way to tamp down these feelings and avoid grabbing something out of the fridge that you shouldn’t? Exercise.

Sure, working up a sweat torches calories, and that’s reason enough to keep moving during the holidays. But what’s even more critical, Peeke explains, is how exercise beefs up your brain.

“You’re developing better behavioral circuitry. Addictive genes and obesity genes get deactivated,” she says. At the same time, you’re creating a different reward system. You can get the high you were looking for from the treadmill instead of the triple chocolate cake. And that can lead to the best holiday gift of all: not having to commit to a New Year’s resolution.