Eating Healthy During the Holidays

Holiday Meal

By Anna Welcome, MD

Most studies have suggested that the average American gained about 5 pounds from Thanksgiving Day to New Year’s Day. In fact, most people expect to gain some weight during this time. However, you can make a decision to successfully manage your weight during the holidays. This will require some planning and having a realistic mindset.  The holiday season is definitely a case of “failing to plan is planning to fail.”

Efforts to control your weight during the holidays will require you to incorporate healthy eating, adequate physical activity and having a good mindset/behaviors.  The sooner you start planning for the holidays, the better off things will go.  Here we start with some general guidelines and then cover guidelines for each specific holiday.

General guidelines for holiday weight control:

  1. Set realistic goals. Focus on maintaining weight instead of focusing on losing. Setting achievable goals helps people to be successful and avoid disappointment. This, in turn, helps to sustain motivation.

  2. Identify prior problems in past holidays and formulate improved plans for this year. After these holidays are over, make improved plans for next year and future holidays. Think about what has caused you to struggle in past years and trying to come up with better strategies this year. 
  3. Try to keep the focus on family, friends and making memories, NOT the food.
  4. Make specific plans for each holiday.  See the section below for specifics.
  5. Try to practice mindful eating.  This helps to increase the enjoyment of the foods you eat without increasing the quantity.
  6. Monitor yourself by tracking your food intake, activity and weight. Studies have shown that monitoring your food intake and weight is the most successful strategy in managing your weight during the holidays.  Monitoring helps you to remain mindful and to make “real-time” adjustments to your behaviors.  Losing 2 pounds of weight gain after a party is mentally easier to deal with than trying to lose 10 pounds after January 1. 
  7. Be careful with alcohol intake. Set a “budget” for each event.  Alternate alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages. Alcohol is particularly dangerous for weight management.  In addition to the calories of the beverages, alcohol has effects on our metabolism as well as our judgment.  Alcohol impairs our inhibitions and we are more likely to given and overindulge with food.
  8.  Learn to say “no thanks.” There are many ways to deal with “food pushers.”  A good method is to say “I am here for the company/fun, not for the food.”
  9. Stop eating when you are 75% full.  Wait 20 minutes before considering second helpings as you are likely to be 100% 20 minutes later.
  10. Make time for physical activity.
  11. Make sure to get adequate sleep. Lack of sleep can affect our metabolism as well as make it more likely that you will give in to indulgences (similar to the effect of alcohol).
  12. Moving forward: Get back on track right away.  Make a plan to restart your usual eating right away.
  13. If you are seeing a weight loss specialist, make an appointment for right after the holidays to get right back on track. 

Halloween:

  1. Buy the amount of candy needed for “trick or treaters” only.  Do not buy extra “just in case.”
  2. Try to buy candy that you do not like to eat.  Try to remember that the candy is not for you.
  3. Wait to buy candy only 1-2 days before Halloween.  This will help prevent you from eating any of the candy before Halloween. 
  4. After the holiday, throw out the rest of the candy.
  5. Avoid bringing extra candy to work with you.  Your coworkers do not want/need it and it is a temptation to yourself.
  6. This year, consider buying other non-candy treats such as stickers, bouncy balls or fake tattoos to hand out instead of candy.  

Thanksgiving:

In General

  1. Eat breakfast and lunch or snack before Thanksgiving dinner.  Avoid being too hungry. 
  2. Plan for an indulgence or two.  Depriving yourself often leads to overeating later.
  3. Eat small portions of less healthy food (3–4 bites should be satisfying).  
  4. Wait 20+ minutes before having second helpings.  
  5. Make a plan for alcohol, set a limit.  
  6. Remember that Thanksgiving is 1 day only.  Be careful with leftovers. 

If you are Hosting:

  1. Make traditional foods healthier.  Plan a healthy menu.  
  2. Limit how much food you make to reduce leftovers.  Leftovers are a strong temptation for most people.  Avoid making things harder for yourself.
  3. Send leftovers home with others. Throw away any leftovers of any “trigger foods”. 

If you are a Guest:

  1. Bring a healthy side dish to share and eat as the main dish if no other healthy options available.  
  2. Limit leftovers taken home.  Avoid taking home anything that might be a “trigger food”.

Holiday Parties and New Year’s Eve:

  1. Eat a light healthy meal before the party (or have a meal replacement shake).  Try not to arrive at the party in a state of hunger.
  2. Make a plan for alcohol, set a limit.  Alternate alcoholic with non-alcoholic beverages.  Remember that alcohol reduces our good judgment.
  3. Survey the food table when you arrive and decide what (or if) you will eat BEFORE you get a plate.  Try to socialize away from the food table.  Fill up on veggies and other healthy foods first.  Consider bringing a healthy dish to share.  Avoid leftovers.

Holiday Treats and Baking: 

  1. Consider making non-food holiday gifts (candles, sewing, crafting) instead of baking for friends, coworkers, family.  You may be doing them (and yourself) a favor.
  2. For adults who like to bake cookies with the children in their family, consider making salt dough ornaments instead.  The only difference is that you do not eat the final product. 
  3. If you do bake, make less. Make a limited amount just before holiday, throw away what you do not give away, and limit bringing treats to work.  This will limit your exposure to these “trigger foods.” 

Christmas, Hanukkah, Kwanzaa:

  1. Wait until just before the holiday to buy, make or eat holiday foods.  Make only enough for the day to avoid excess leftovers.  Throw away or give away leftovers immediately after holiday.  Leftovers are a strong temptation for most of us.  Avoid making things harder for yourself.
  2. Bring a dish to share if you are a guest. This will give you something healthy to eat as a main dish if no other healthy options are available.
  3. Plan for indulgences.  
  4. Eat small portions of less healthy food.  Wait 20+ minutes before having second helpings.  
  5. Remember that the holiday is 1 day only.  Be careful with any leftovers.
  6. Make a plan for alcohol and set a limit.  
  7. Focus on group activities that do not involve food such as volunteering, caroling, games, walking, viewing holiday lights and making crafts.
  8. Try to focus on friends and family.

Dealing with Leftovers:

  1. Not wasting food is generally a good principal BUT consider whether it is more costly to throw out the unused food OR to eat the leftover holiday food.  
  2. Eating leftover holiday food may end up costing you MORE in terms of your health, self-esteem, cost of medical care and the time, effort and cost of losing weight.  
  3. Next year, consider making less food in order to limit leftovers.

Eating healthy during the holiday season can be done if you plan ahead and are willing to make a few thoughtful changes.  Depriving yourself entirely is not necessary, if you stay mindful.  Changing the focus from holiday foods back to the fun of the holiday season, being with family and friends as well as making new memories is both rewarding and healthy.

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