Holiday Health: A Holiday Eating Survival Guide

by Leah Frankel, MS, RD

Holiday FeastWith a plethora of special occasions and excuses to indulge, the holiday season can wreak havoc on your diet unless you’re prepared to tackle those festive buffets and eggnog-filled nights. Preventing holiday weight gain and maintaining your normal healthy diet is definitely possible with a little planning.  First, don’t accept the mentality that you can indulge now and start your diet and exercise regimen when New Years comes around.  You’ll be fighting an uphill battle with even more calories to burn!  Food is meant to be savored, just not in excess!  Enjoy the tips below that outline how to navigate your way through the holiday season as well as some ideas for healthy variations of your traditional holiday favorites!

Tips for Holiday Health:

Have a plan before attending a holiday gathering. Adjust your diet and workout schedule, if necessary, the day of the party to compensate for the food you’ll be eating later that night. If you know you’ll be at a party tonight, skip the desserts at work during the day.

RunningMaintain your exercise schedule, or modify it to fit your situation. If you’re not going to be home for your usual workout, bring running shoes with you to enjoy exercise outside with family and friends.  A game of catch or tennis before dinner is a great way to spend time with family and stay fit.  You can also research gyms in the area where you’ll be staying and make exercising a family activity.  Remember that working out can help reduce stress, regulate your appetite and maintain your weight.

Eat a snack before hitting up the holiday party. If you go to a party or holiday dinner hungry you’ll be more likely to overeat and will have more difficulty resisting the tempting high calorie and high fat treats. A good pre-party snack should include a glass of water, some protein and high fiber carbs, such as an apple with peanut butter or whole grain crackers and cheese.

Use small plates. This is a good tip for all year, not just during the holidays. Studies show that people who switch to smaller plates or bowls consume fewer calories. Grab an appetizer plate instead of a large entrée plate to prevent overindulging.

FeastAssess all the food options and choose which foods you really want to eat. While you might really love chocolate chip cookies, remember that your Aunt Molly’s pecan pie only comes once a year.  Think through which foods you really want and choose a combination of small portion of your “treats” mixed with healthy foods like fresh fruits or vegetables.

Stay away from the buffet table. Once you’ve filled your plate, moving away from the table can prevent overeating. Remember that the holidays are about spending time with family and friends, so enjoy their company instead of eyeing the food table. If your hands feel empty once you’ve finished your food, keep them busy with a low- or no-calorie beverage.

Bring your own dish so you can guarantee a healthy option. Most hosts would love help with the cooking.  Ask them what they’re preparing and suggest some dishes you could prepare. Check out the suggestions below for some healthy culinary ideas.

EggnogBeware of calorie-laden drinks. Alcoholic drinks can pack more calories than a burger and fries at McDonald’s and drinks during the holidays are no exception (see our previous article, Know thy Liquor: What’s in a Drink).  Eggnog, hot cocoa and cider all contain excess calories.  Try to stick with your low-calorie choices such as wine, light beer or mixed drinks made with low- or no-calorie mixers. Also, try to drink a glass of water between alcoholic beverages.  It helps prevent hangovers (see The Hangover: Make it go Away!) and keeps your waistline the way you want it.

Pay attention to what you’re eating. Food is meant to be enjoyed so slow down and savor the foods you’ve chosen. Take small bites and chew your food thoroughly to prevent overeating and to truly appreciate your food. Your host has spent hours slaving away in the kitchen.  Why not slow down and savor all that hard work?  Also, beware of mindless eating which can happen if you settle down on the couch with your hand in the chip bowl.

Beware of snacking. Mindless snacking while cooking or socializing can add hundreds of excess calories that you don’t ever realize you’re consuming. Eat a nutritious snack or chew gum while cooking to prevent yourself from snacking mindlessly.

If you’re full don’t be afraid to say no to seconds.  While family members or friends may push you to eat more, remember that it’s your decision what you eat.  You’ll feel better afterwards if you say no to seconds when you’re full, than if you keep eating.Fitness Class


If you overeat don’t beat yourself up. Just because you ate too much at one meal doesn’t mean you should give up your health-conscious ways and stop eating healthily. Make sure your next meal is lighter and then return to your usual eating pattern. Remember that one meal alone won’t make you gain weight.  It takes 3500 excess calories to gain a pound.  Lastly, a nice long workout later that day or the next can help burn those excess calories you consumed during your holiday splurge.

Begin a tradition of hitting the mall on Black Friday, going on a family bike ride, or playing a game of touch football the morning after a holiday meal. This will force you to get in some exercise the next day while enjoying time with family.

Don’t turn the day after a holiday meal into round 2 of holiday eating. With your fridge filled with leftovers it can be difficult not to indulge in these foods the next day. Try supplementing the leftovers with healthier items, like fruits and vegetables, so that you can enjoy your favorites again without the extra calories.

Transforming Holiday Classics into Healthy Well-Balanced Dishes:

Sweet Potato CasseroleInstead of Mashed Potatoes: Choose mashed sweet potatoes which contain more nutrients including fiber, vitamin C, potassium, and vitamin A. If you want to make traditional mashed potatoes, consider replacing milk and butter with broth. Adding cauliflower to mashed potatoes provides extra fiber and nutrients and will be equally filling with fewer calories.

Instead of Dark Meat Turkey with Gravy: Choose white meat and skip the skin. Turkey is a great source of lean protein if you choose the right parts. If you want to drizzle a small amount of gravy on top, try refrigerating the gravy beforehand and skimming the fat off the top to cut calories and fat in your savory topping.

Whole Wheat StuffingInstead of Corn Bread Stuffing: Try making your stuffing with whole wheat bread and add healthy additions like nuts, fruits, and vegetables. The added fiber in the bread, fruit, and vegetables will keep you full with fewer calories and less fat.

Instead of Pumpkin Pie: Serve pumpkin pie filling with cool whip.  Cutting out the crust will save calories and fat, and pumpkin is a good source in beta-carotene. You can also substitute low fat evaporated milk or light cream into your pumpkin pie recipe.

Instead of Green Bean Casserole: Modify the recipe by choosing a low fat cream of mushroom soup or using light butter. You could also serve green beans as a cold salad with nuts, onions and light Italian dressing.  Green beans are a great source of many nutrients including vitamin C, vitamin K, vitamin A and potassium and can be an excellent healthy addition to a holiday feast if prepared correctly.

Instead of Cranberry Sauce: Cranberry sauce from a can is very high in sugar and not nearly as nutritious as whole fresh cranberries. Cranberries are an excellent source of vitamin C and cooking cranberry dishes from scratch is a healthier way to enjoy the fruit. Trying cooking your own cranberry sauce, adding dried cranberries to a salad, or baking cranberry muffins.

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12 2009

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