By Cindy Heiss
The holiday season is a time of joy, celebration, and traditional holiday foods. As festive gatherings fill our calendars, it’s easy for temptation to lead us to consume sweets, treats, and rich dishes that can derail a healthy lifestyle. However, with a mindful approach to holiday eating, it’s possible to maintain a healthy balance without sacrificing the joy of the season. Follow these steps for a happy, healthy holiday:
Remember the “reason for the season.”
The true meaning of the holidays is to celebrate all that is good in your life, especially the people. Focus on gatherings that will allow you to appreciate the great people in your life. Many gatherings will have food to enjoy, but focus more on meaningful interactions with the people at the event.
Amidst the festive atmosphere, it’s easy to get caught up in conversations and mindlessly munch on snacks. Practice mindful interactions by focusing on conversation, then take breaks in the conversation so that you and your friends can enjoy eating by paying attention to your food, savoring each bite, and appreciating the flavors and textures. Do this as a fun mindful eating activity and talk about the food after you have savored it. This will slow down eating and make everyone appreciate the food more.
Out of sight, out of mind
Sometimes we eat when we are not hungry. Try to “check in” with your hunger level, and heed your body’s signal to not eat if you are not hungry. But if you are human, and no doubt you are, if something tastes good, most of us will eat even if we aren’t hungry. If you see something you know will taste good, that cue will often lead to eating that item. So do not leave tasty foods in sight—wrap them up and put them away in cabinets. Making access to treats less convenient to access helps, too!
Not all holiday treats are created equal. Select healthier alternatives when possible. For instance, choose steamed dumplings or spring rolls over egg rolls, or fruits instead of sweet desserts. Making conscious choices can make a significant difference in your overall calorie intake.
When at a holiday buffet or meal, if you do choose a less healthy option, choose a small portion and enjoy it. One approach to a holiday buffet is to think to yourself—is this a food I have all year long? If it is, skip it and focus on the foods that you only eat at this time of the year.
Prioritize portion control
The buffet tables at holiday gatherings often offer many delicious, but not always nutritious, foods. Rather than filling your plate to the brim, practice portion control. Choose smaller servings of your favorite dishes and savor each bite. This way, you can enjoy the flavors without overindulging.
At meals, aim for a balanced plate. Fill half your plate with colorful, fiber-rich vegetables, a quarter with lean protein, and the remaining quarter with whole grains, fruits, or complex carbohydrates. This approach ensures you get a mix of nutrients without excessive calories.
With all the delicious food, it’s easy to forget the importance of staying hydrated with water or an unsweetened beverage, like tea. Water not only helps digestion but also helps you differentiate between hunger and thirst. Before reaching for that second helping, try sipping on water first. This simple act can prevent overeating.
If you drink alcohol, do so in moderation. Alcohol has a lot of calories and can be dehydrating. Choose beverages that are lower in calories, like wine, a wine spritzer, or a lite beer. Avoid sugary beverages with alcohol as they have the most calories. Remember that alcohol can reduce your inhibitions around food, and result in excessive eating. Also, never drink alcohol on an empty stomach, because alcohol can irritate the lining of the digestive tract.
If you know you’ll be attending a holiday gathering, plan to eat something healthy beforehand to curb your appetite and reduce the likelihood of overindulging at the party. Additionally, consider bringing a healthy dish to share, ensuring that there’s at least one nutritious option on the table.
Maintaining an active lifestyle during the holiday season can help counterbalance the extra calories consumed. Encourage family and friends to join in physical activities, such as a post-meal walk or a friendly game of football, volleyball, or ping pong. In addition, organize activities that provide interaction among people that do not involve food, like making decorations or playing cards and board games.
Healthy eating during the holidays doesn’t mean deprivation; it’s about making mindful choices and finding a balance that allows you to enjoy the festivities without compromising your well-being. By remembering the reason for the season (appreciating each other) and following the tips above, you can navigate the holiday season with both joy and good health. So, savor the flavors, cherish the company, and make this holiday season a celebration of both tradition and good health!
Cindy Heiss, PhD, RD, CDCES is a Professor of Nutrition at Metropolitan State University of Denver where she conducts research in blood glucose control. She is a Subject Matter Expert and presenter for the Commission on Dietetic Registration’s Certificate of Training in Obesity Interventions, and has worked as a diabetes educator.