It’s in our face all the time during the holidays: food. And not just any food. Whether it’s your grandmother’s proud hummingbird cake, your husband’s specially brined and deep-fried turkey or your aunt’s rich chocolate bourbon pecan pie, the holidays serve up decadent treats guaranteed to make our bellies happy – until it’s time to zip up that waistband come January.
According to research, most of us gain only about a pound or so around Thanksgiving and Christmas. However – and as unfair as it might seem – those of us with a higher body mass index tend to put on more weight around the holidays, at least a couple of pounds.
That still doesn’t sound like much – which is why it can be easy for us to allow those pounds to stick around year after year, making our holiday weight gain more significant over time.
“Food is such a part of our culture around the holidays,” said Nicole Moore, a registered dietitian at Augusta University Health. “And we all struggle with trying to make healthy choices this time of year. But yes, we can make the holidays a little healthier, not gain the weight and – here’s the great part – not have to go through the trouble of getting it off in the long run.”
How to enjoy a healthier holiday
As a start, throw the word “diet” out the window.
“We’ve all been there,” said Moore. “Restrictions and starving yourself, especially over the holidays, just make you really hungry, and you end up overeating.”
Instead, try mindful eating. The holidays are a great time to linger over the family meal and really think about what you’re tasting. Your first few bites are where you get the most pleasure out of food, says Moore, so take your time to enjoy the aroma of your meal and savor those bites. Eating mindfully will allow you to dine well on smaller portions (try using a smaller plate, it helps!), but still sample special holiday dishes.
Mindful eating also involves making good choices as you navigate the buffet or pass food around the table. Why fill yourself up on chips or mashed potatoes that you can eat any time of the year? Instead, make your guilty pleasures those foods that your family and friends prepare especially for the holidays.
Moore also suggests these other five steps to making the most of your holiday dining:
- Drink well. Sugary beverages add large amounts of calories with little to no nutrition. Save those calories for something more meaningful by swapping out your standard soda or punch for water. Sound boring? Fruit- and herb-infused waters are everywhere now, and it’s easy to make your own by combining orange, blueberry and basil or cinnamon, vanilla bean and pear to a few liters of flat or sparkling water.
- Say goodbye to stress. With all the hustle and bustle of this season, it’s easy to run to the drive-through when it’s another busy night and you have no idea what to make for dinner. It’s worth it to take even just 30 minutes (the time it would take you to go to a drive-through) and make a plan for your meals, whether it’s relying on your slow cooker or marinating a quick-grilled steak.
- Snack the smart way. Keeping your energy up is also important this time of year. The healthiest snacks – which also keep you satisfied until mealtime – combine a little protein and fiber. Consider almonds and a mozzarella cheese stick, peanut butter and an apple, yogurt and blueberries, or hummus and veggies.
- Spice it up. Did you know that our daily salt intake should only be a single teaspoon? Most of us eat too much salt, putting us at risk for high blood pressure and heart disease. Instead, try to cook some holiday recipes that use spices to add flavor. If you’re dining elsewhere, it’s a good rule to avoid casseroles, especially those made with canned soups: These pack a wallop of sodium.
- Head into the new year with good health. “The good news is, you don’t have to just use these tips during the holidays,” said Moore. “These are all great ways to start thinking about eating healthier in the new year.”