The beginning of every new year always starts with a resolution to eat healthier, right? And the origin of said resolution derives from the back-to-back holidays that occur between October through December. If you aren’t tempted to snack on your kid’s Halloween treats, the thanksgiving feast that arrives in November and countless Christmas parties in December seem to derail all of us at one point.
So, to stay healthy, does one have to be extremely self-disciplined?
Not so much. As a registered dietitian, I’m going to give you professional insights and secrets on how to enjoy the holiday semester and not feel inclined to drop hundreds of dollars on a new gym or personal trainer in the new year, only to quit after the first couple of months.
So, what are the biggest culprits when it comes to packing on a few pounds during the holidays, and what viable solutions to help prevent that from happening?
Culprit #1 Alcohol
Whether it’s Thanksgiving, Christmas, or just a random social gathering with friends’ alcohol is going to be the biggest antagonist to any health or fitness goals. Alcohol is considered a poison to the body, is a huge contributor to weight gain, and causes several nutrient deficiencies. However, what makes the holiday season worse is that you are further seduced by dessert-like craft cocktails such as eggnog, ciders, and peppermint white Russians. What does that mean? TONS of extra sugar and empty calories are added to your daily intake.
As a dietitian am I going to tell you not to drink at holiday parties or gatherings? ABSOLUTELY NOT! But what I will share is how to be selective in your drink choices so you can enjoy yourself but still be mindful of your intake.
Step 1: Create the mindset that alcohol falls into the same category as dessert. If you choose to drink, stay away from sweets. Pick one or the other.
Step 2: Similar to choosing a single dessert after a dinner meal, select one craft drink you wish to indulge in.
Step 3: Choose lower-calorie spirits to drink for the remainder of the night. Low-calorie beers, seltzers, or mixing your favorite alcohol with a club soda or water is a very viable solution to enjoying holiday parties without consuming excess calories and sugar.
Culprit #2 Buffets
Family-style meals, buffet selections, or a never-ending spread of Hors D’oeuvres can quickly cause you to overindulge due to the variety of selections, not sitting down for the meal, or mindless snacking between sips of your drink. Having a game plan for holiday parties or traditional family gatherings such as Thanksgiving and Christmas are imperative to conquering cravings.
As a dietitian, I will never tell my client to avoid a holiday meal. However, I will help them strategize on how to enjoy themselves without feeling guilty for consuming foods outside of their regular diet.
Step 1: Eat a nutrient-rich AND nutrient-dense breakfast. It sounds redundant, but only because it is THAT important. Starting your day with a healthy meal will curb cravings and keep you satiated for longer periods. It will also help keep you on track to select more nutrient-rich foods later in the day. Select food rich in protein, such as eggs, chicken sausage, or turkey (bacon or ground), and pair that with a complex carbohydrate and some fruit.
Step 2: Learn how to build your plate. This is especially crucial for buffet-style events since portions are prepared in large amounts and there’s a variety of options. While seconds and even thirds are allowed… following this simple guideline will help you stay on track.
Building your Plate:
- 1/4 plate protein (at least 4-6oz)
- 1/4 plate starch of choice
- 1/2 plate of vegetables or fruit
There is no limit to the amount of protein or vegetables you can have. Both are very satiating and will likely fill you up before you even have time to mindlessly snack on sweets. Choosing lean proteins is always best, but fattier meats will also help keep you full! The body has difficulty converting protein to fat, so it makes the “have as much as you want to list”.
Vegetables are fruits that rarely need an explanation, but due to their high fiber content and rich vitamin/mineral profile, there is no limit to how many vegetables you can add to your plate. Regardless of how they are prepared - fried, roasted, drowned in cream or sauces - they are still safe choices.
Even when there is only a selection of small appetizers, grabbing a selection to “build your plate” will be helpful and prevent you from overindulging throughout the night.
Step 3: Be present with your meal. Sitting down, tapping into sensory cues, and listening to your body is a very successful practices when it comes to building better eating habits. Again, with the distractions of family and friends it can be difficult but allowing that to be a part of your “mindful” sensory experience can help you stay on track. In the nutrition field, we refer to this practice as Mindful Eating.
The whole goal is to be in tune with your body to truly discern actual hunger cues from cravings or feelings that lead to impulsive eating and overindulgence. So, every time you go to build your plate, make sure to:
- Pay attention to what you are selecting. Look at your food! See what is in it.
- Sit down to enjoy your meal.
- Focus on sensory cues. Pay attention to the texture, taste, scent, and temperature of each food you are consuming.
In addition to those healthy tips, creating some “healthy alternatives” to traditional holiday desserts and snacks can also ward off feelings of guilt and help keep you on track with your health goals. Try these healthy swaps, adapted from the NASM cookbook!
- 1 1/2 cups dried figs, stems sliced off
- 1 cup almond flour
- 1/3 cup cocoa powder
- 2 tablespoons honey or maple syrup
- 2 teaspoons orange zest (optional)
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon salt
- 1/2 cup chopped walnuts
- Place the figs in a large bowl, cover them with hot water, and let them soak for 30 minutes. Drain the figs and pat away any excess moisture with a paper towel.
- Place the drained figs, almond flour, cocoa powder, honey or maple syrup, orange zest (if using), vanilla, cinnamon, and salt in a food processor container and blend until the mixture clumps together. Pulse in the walnuts.
- Line an 8 by 8-inch square baking pan with parchment paper, leaving about a 1-inch overhang. Add the fig mixture to the pan and use damp hands to press the mixture flat, about 3/4-inch thick.
- Place the pan in the freezer until the contents have firmed up, about 1 hour. Slice into 9 squares. Keep the bars chilled in the refrigerator or freezer.
Apple Pie Oatmeal
- 1 cup steel-cut oats
- Pinch of salt
- 1/3 cup unsweetened, dairy-free milk
- 2 1/2 cups of water
- 2 medium apples, chopped
- 1 cup grated carrot
- 1 teaspoon allspice
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1/2 cup sliced pecans
- 8 teaspoons maple syrup
- Place the steel-cut oats, a pinch of salt, and 2 1/2 cups water in a medium saucepan. Bring to a slight simmer, immediately turn off the heat, and let the oats soak covered overnight.
- In the morning, stir the milk, apple, carrot, allspice, and vanilla into the oats.
- Heat over medium-low heat until the oats are warmed through, stirring occasionally.
- Place the oats in serving bowls and top with the pecans and a drizzle of maple syrup.
- Reheat leftovers in a saucepan with additional milk.
Mayan Chocolate Pudding
- 1/2 cup pitted dates
- 1/3 cup unsweetened dairy-free milk
- 2 medium ripe bananas
- 1 avocado
- 1/4 cup cocoa powder
- 1 teaspoon vanilla extract
- 1 teaspoon cinnamon
- 1/4 teaspoon cayenne
- 1/8 teaspoon salt
- 1/3 cup chopped unsalted roasted peanuts
- 1 cup sliced strawberries
- Place the dates in a bowl, cover them with warm water, and let them soak for 30 minutes. Drain the dates.
- Place the milk, banana, avocado, drained dates, cocoa powder, vanilla, cinnamon, cayenne, and salt into a blender container and blend until smooth.
- Chill for at least 2 hours before serving.
- Place the pudding in serving bowls and garnish with peanuts and strawberries.
(Nutrition: 1/5 recipe = 227 calories, 5g protein, 12g fat, 32g carbs, 8g fiber)
The holiday season shouldn’t derail you from your normal health and fitness routine! While there is cause for celebration, it shouldn’t cause you to give up and start fresh in the new year. Moderation is key and with the simple strategies in this article, you can stay on track and feel great about yourself this holiday season.