Posted on Dec 22, 2023, 4 p.m.
For some of us with more intricate schedules, the holiday season is in full swing (Halloween through New Year’s Day). With all the hustle and bustle it can be easy to lose track of health plans and fall into a pattern of convenience, even though we know it is not always the most healthy choice. This also means that we are in temptation season, surrounded by all of those delectable smells and tantalizing culinary sights that seem to be like a mythical Siren trying their best to lure us to eat more and more.
For those of us trying to engage in a more healthful lifestyle, please be kind to yourself during this time of year. We may indulge a bit more, but this is generally due to the stresses, anxiety, and tempting goodies that are associated with the holiday season. It is also important not to judge yourself or others for the ways chosen to cope during a season that seems to be geared towards excess.
On average most Americans are estimated to gain between 1-8 pounds over the holiday season with no significant loss by springtime. This may seem small but it adds up over the years, and over the course of 5 years this could be 5 to 40 pounds.
"For some people, it may seem like a contradiction to be able to enjoy the holidays and maintain a healthy weight, but it's not," says Jennifer Ventrelle, MS, RD, a dietitian and lifestyle program director for the Rush University Prevention Center. "By making a few tweaks to some of your traditions and behavior, you can participate fully in the holidays while staying healthy."
"The first part of your new tradition is a change in mindset," says Ventrelle. "We have to lose the notion that we can worry about our health after the holidays are over. Taking a healthy approach throughout the holidays will not only make you feel good, you'll be able to avoid that yearly accumulation of extra pounds that can really start to cause problems with your long-term health."
"People seem to forget that it’s all about the number of calories that you bring into your body balanced with the number that you use," Ventrelle says. "Your new tradition is to both be careful about what you eat and get daily physical activity to burn off those calories."
Looking for lower calorie alternatives to make healthful food swaps to your traditional dishes may help:
- Look for foods flavored with herbs and spices rather than high-fat flavoring choices such as oils, margarine, or mayonnaise.
- Select food choices that are steamed, baked, or broiled over those that are fried.
- Rather than foods that are sauteed in oil, opt for those cooked in a broth.
- Try eating those veggies raw, or look for low-fat/fat-free salad dressings.
- Rather than starchy mashed potatoes and gravy look for low-fat vegetable dishes with light dressings.
- Whenever possible choose whole foods over processed food choices.
- Stick with water or club soda over eggnog and hot cocoa.
Keep in mind that alcohol and sweet drinks have a surprising amount of calories in them per single serving and try to avoid consuming all those empty calories from high-calorie foods with little nutritional value such as candy, alcohol, soda/pop, and other sweet drinks such as lemonade, sweetened tea, and sweetened juices.
"You should never go to a holiday event hungry," says Ventrelle. "Eat a healthy snack before you go. Choose something with a little fiber and protein, such as a peanut butter sandwich on whole grain bread, a bowl of high fiber cereal, an apple with peanut butter, or a small serving of peanut butter or cheese on whole grain crackers."
Staying hydrated is important, sometimes people can forget this when they get busy. Making sure that you get enough water can help you avoid making some less healthy food choices. It's a good idea when attending a gathering/function to choose a low-calorie drink or water to keep from overeating, which can easily be done with some of the elaborate spreads that are laid out. It is worth a friendly reminder that sometimes when people think that they are hungry, they are actually thirsty.
“A low-calorie drink is the perfect thing to keep your hands and mouth busy," says Ventrelle. "It may also keep your stomach feeling more satisfied because the brain often doesn't distinguish between hunger and thirst. You may be feeling hungry when your body is actually thirsty."
I find that my eyes are way more ambitious at what I need to eat than what I can handle. When it comes to meals practicing mindful eating habits can really help, this is especially true over the holiday season full of tempting delights. Don’t overload your plate, keep portion sizes in mind, and try slowing down how fast you eat, make meals more leisurely, and really chew the food before you swallow. Keep in mind that you are under no obligation to try everything on the table, and you absolutely do not have to clear your plate. This will allow you to get maximum enjoyment from the food, help digestion, and let you spend more time with the company of your friends and family.
"It takes 20 minutes for your brain to recognize that the stomach is full," says Ventrelle. "If you take your time at a meal, you're more likely to eat less. It’s not just what you eat, it's how much you eat. You can enjoy your favorite high-calorie foods, just in smaller portions. As a host, you can make things easier for your guests by having portions already cut. Mini portions let your guests sample a number of options. Eat small meals with fewer calories the day of a holiday event."
If you are unsure of what you will be eating at a holiday event you can always bring a dish to share. Most people don’t mind when a dish is brought to share, this way you know what you are eating. Some healthier choices can include a fresh fruit platter, baked chips with salsa, whole-grain pita chips with hummus, a fresh salad with a low-fat/fat-free dressing, or maybe a spinach dip in a pumpernickel bread bowl surrounded by veggies.
Keep in mind that you do not have to eliminate all indulgences, the point is to keep it in moderation because intentional portion-controlled indulgences, even on a daily basis, can be part of a healthy plan. It is not realistic to deprive yourself of all of your favorite treats, and if you do, it may be setting yourself up to backfire and binge on those forbidden foods when you least expect it which could lead to bad habits returning to sabotage all your efforts.
Making healthful choices can be a hard thing to do with a busy schedule during the holiday season, but taking some time to balance your calorie intake with some physical activity will make good use of those extra calories. Maybe try taking a walk with a friend or family member or enjoy spending some time catching up with a person you haven’t seen in a long time. Weather permitting, if there’s snow you can make it fun and build a snowman, and skating whether it be on ice or in a roller rink is a fun activity that everyone can enjoy that may inspire memories and create a tradition.
"I think that walking is one of the easiest ways to increase your physical activity," says Ventrelle. "You can make this a new tradition with your family to take a walk after a meal. It doesn't require equipment and it's something you can do with the whole family."
Be kind to yourself, no one is perfect. The important part is that you are trying. During your journey, you may experience slips and setbacks, but it is not a failure; it is just a minor speed bump. Take it as an opportunity to learn and grow from. Pick yourself up and start over again. Do not give up, you can do this, and you are well worth it. You deserve the benefits that each day of healthy lifestyle improvements will bring to you.
As with anything you read on the internet, this article should not be construed as medical advice; please talk to your doctor or primary care provider before changing your wellness routine. This article is not intended to provide a medical diagnosis, recommendation, treatment, or endorsement. These statements have not been evaluated by the Food and Drug Administration.
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T.W. at WHN