Survival guide to healthy holiday eating

By Liz Meszaros, MDLinx
Published December 22, 2016

Key Takeaways

The holidays are a wonderful time for gathering with family and friends, sharing gifts, good food, and holiday cheer. But, can you enjoy the holidays without gaining weight? According to Jessica Bennett, a dietitian and certified personal trainer at Vanderbilt University Medical Center, Nashville, TN, yes, you can. But you must have—and stick with—a game plan going in.

“It’s a good idea to eat in a healthy way all year round, but for a lot of people, it’s especially challenging during the holidays,” Bennett said. “Fortunately, with a little planning and thought, it’s possible to have a good time, eat well, and still maintain a steady weight through the holidays.”

She offered 10 tips to avoid that holiday weight gain that all too often happens after eating, drinking, and being merry:

  1. Don’t rely on skipping meals before a party or family dinner—the so-called “saving to splurge” strategy. According to Bennett, it usually doesn’t work.
  2. Never go to a party hungry. Always have a snack first—an apple or a handful of nuts, for example.
  3. At a buffet or party, consider all of your food options, and don’t load up on whatever is there just because it is there. Take only small servings of the food you really want.
  4. Don’t add salt to anything before you taste it.
  5. Take a smaller plate, if you can.
  6. Do not eat standing up.
  7. Eat slowly. Try to put your fork down between bites.
  8. Don’t consume high-calorie beverages. Stick with water or sparkling water in between cocktails, or dilute juice with water.
  9. Share leftovers with family and friends.
  10. Do something active on the day of the party.

Sam Emerson, doctoral student, food, nutrition, dietetics and health, Kansas State University, Manhattan, KS, agrees with Bennett: having a plan going in is key to maintaining weight and staying healthy over the holidays.

"Eating food that is not nutritious is commonly part of celebrating, but it can become problematic if we make no effort to curb the splurging," said Emerson. "We need to go in with a plan for how active we're going to be, how much we're going to eat, and whether we'll allow ourselves dessert. That way, you can know later to not eat a second piece of pie because you already ate the one piece of pie you were going to have."

Another good rule of thumb to follow, according to Emerson, is moderation as opposed to strict avoidance, especially when it comes to those wonderful holiday desserts. Also, keep in mind that some desserts will affect your waistline more than others, with pecan pie being the worst offender. One slice 1/8 piece of pie can rack up about 500 calories, compared to the same serving of pumpkin pie at 320 calories, or—the best option—sweet potato pie, at under 300 calories.

Loading your plate with vegetables or salad can help you fill up before you hit the dessert table, or come face to face with the stuffing (350 calories/cup) or the mashed potatoes (250 calories/cup).

Eggnog, at 450 calories/cup, is dangerous as well, noted Emerson. "Many people don't drink just one cup. If you drink two cups, that's nearly 1,000 calories, which is about half a moderately active person's recommended intake for the whole day," he warned.

Like Bennett, Emerson recommends exercise to healthfully balance holiday overeating. For example, completing just one workout session up to 15 hours before eating a high-fat meal with many calories can help your body digest the meal, lessening its effects on glucose levels, blood lipids, and inflammation.

"You could exercise in the morning, eat a really large meal that evening and still see benefits from your earlier exercise in terms of how your body processes the meal, which is pretty incredible," Emerson said.

"Overall, I recommend trying to focus on being with family and friends. Eating is a part of the holidays, but if we aim to make it more about enjoying time with people and less about eating a lot, that can help us make more beneficial decisions for our health," he concluded.

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