Business has been a bit slow since the week of Thanksgiving. I get the sense that many people don’t want to talk nutrition just before the holidays. Perhaps they are afraid I’ll set them up with some unrealistic meal plan featuring 3.0 oz. of white turkey meat and a 1/2 cup of mashed potatoes made with skim milk. Perhaps they have read one too many articles with holiday eating tips like “Avoid alcoholic beverages at holiday parties, they increase your appetite!” or “Save calories by eating only the filling of the pie, not the crust!”
Maybe you’re like me in that you’re not going to count every calorie of a holiday meal. Maybe you’re also like me in that you think the crust is the best part of the pie, and your glass is first to be held out when the wine is pouring.
If that sounds like you, check out my top five tips for healthy holidays – including the one thing that you should just say no to during your holiday meals.
1. Stop saving up.
Excess calorie intake leads to weight gain, so it would seem to make sense to “save” calories before the big event. However, calories aren’t quite like a bank account – too much “saving” can lead to “overspending” far too easily. Skipping meals not only sets you up for overeating later, I think it leads to a less healthy mindset – almost like you are telling yourself that enjoying holiday treats can’t be a part of your healthy lifestyle.
Focus keeping your usual meals and snacks healthy during this time of year. Be sure to meet your nutrient needs by including fruits, vegetables, legumes, and whole grains. Drink plenty of water, especially if you plan to imbibe later! You want your meals and snacks to leave you satisfied – not so hungry you’ll overeat at a holiday buffet, but not so full that you don’t have an appetite for your favorite treats!
As a final note, being totally ravenous won’t help you enjoy holiday treats – if anything, you may eat faster and take less time to savor.
2. Choose carefully.
When it comes to holiday eating, there are definitely foods you should leave off your plate! How should you know which foods to eat and which ones to include?
My #1 recommendation for foods to leave off your plate — anything you would consider unspecial. Maybe you can have it any time of the year, or maybe you have it every holiday but never really enjoy it. If a food isn’t special to you, or isn’t one of your favorites, skip it. A great example – nibbles like crackers, cheeses, and chips. These snacks provide hundreds of calories, but are available on plenty of non-special occasions too. In contrast, a favorite dish made by a family member or friend definitely deserves some real estate on your plate, and you would probably consider it “worth” any extra calories!
Take a minute to survey the scene and choose the foods you really want.
3. Take your time.
Take a minute to check out all the offerings at a holiday buffet. A study by Brian Wansink’s team at Cornell University found that when people at a buffet viewed all available dishes before making their selections, they ate ~14% less than those who served themselves without surveying. Taking time to decide on your selections can help you avoid overeating, and ensure that what you do eat is what you really enjoy.
Pace yourself while eating. Chances are, most or all your loved ones will be eating a little more than usual on the holidays. You do not have to keep up with the fastest eater! Take the time to enjoy all the flavors, and set your fork down between bites – this will help you both enjoy your food more, feel satisfied earlier, and enjoy more conversation with friends and family. Besides, some research indicates that slower eaters eat less over all. Think about it – you’ll spend just as much time tasting all the flavors, while taking fewer bites overall.
Take a break before serving yourself seconds – you may find you’re already overly full. If not, you’ll have another opportunity to decide on which foods you really want more of. Keep in mind, the first few bites of a food give us the most pleasure – a third scoop of mashed potatoes won’t offer the same reward as the first scoop.
Exercise frequency seems to decline for many people during the holidays. We get busy and often get stressed. For me, stress relief is one of the primary reasons to exercise – all year long, but especially at the holidays. Getting some time to myself or with a loved one to get some physical activity is one of the best ways for me to get my mind in the holiday spirit. Research shows that unlike many other things we use for stress relief – like alcohol, shopping, or food – exercise has both short and long term stress relief benefits.
How about the damage control? With a big indulgent meal, or several indulgent meals, it’s true that moderate exercise probably won’t burn off all the calories. But it really does help – sticking to your exercise plan is one of the most demonstrated tools for weight maintenance, although it hasn’t been shown to be as effective at helping with weight loss. Exercise will help you get rid of some of those excess calories – and if your exercise is intense enough, it can help you keep burning calories even after you’re done.
Most importantly, I think regular exercise helps to set a healthy tone for your day – it’s an additional mental trick to show yourself you are caring for your health despite indulging a little more. One of my clients recently noted to me how one healthy choice often leads to more healthy choices – exercising for even a few minutes is a great way to make that first healthy choice. If you have an exercise habit, keep it or even ramp it up. If you don’t have one, consider starting!
5. Just say no
My last tip is about the ONE thing you should probably say no to this year. So, what’s the worst thing to add to your holiday meal? In my opinion, it’s guilt!
When we feel guilt over a less-than-healthy decision, it often leads to further less-healthy decisions. A study published in the Journal of Social and Clinical Psychology found that that when people didn’t feel guilty about overeating, they were less likely to continue overeating than those people who experienced guilty feelings. If you go overboard on one holiday meal, it won’t have significant detrimental effects on your health – unless you let it spiral into a chain of overeating.
Special meals with favorite foods, enjoyed with loved ones, are part of a healthy lifestyle. And if you maintain your usual healthy lifestyle, a few extra calories (or even a few hundred extra calories) at a wonderful meal won’t derail your health. Don’t spoil a delicious meal with feelings of guilt.
What healthy holiday eating strategies work for you?