Holidays are often a time of more frequent family gatherings, parties with friends, rich foods, and indulgence. Even so, it’s important to maintain healthy habits through the holidays, especially if you’re managing a chronic disease such as diabetes or high blood pressure. Below are 8 tips to help you balance healthy choices with enjoyment of the season. Remember, a healthy lifestyle is all about sustainability, balance, and moderation so you can savor your favorite traditions of the season while ensuring wellness for future holidays to come!
- Keep Your Routine
Often people will choose to eat lighter meals or skip snacks ahead of a large holiday meal, but this only primes a person to overeat. Instead, plan ahead for meals and snacks so you continue to eat on a regular schedule, about every 4-5 hours. A satisfying breakfast that includes a lean protein will start your day right by stabilizing blood sugar and giving you energy for the day’s events. Try a scrambled egg with tomatoes, peppers, and 2 tablespoons avocado wrapped in a small whole wheat tortilla; oatmeal or low-fat yogurt with fresh fruit and chopped nuts, add a hard-boiled egg for extra protein; or a piece of whole grain toast with peanut butter, a glass of low-fat milk, and fruit. Eat a small snack if the main meal is more than 5 hours after breakfast to help regulate appetite and prevent overeating.
- Be Selective
Meals at the holidays often include many dishes and a variety of options to get your balance of nutrients. Some of these dishes may be regulars that are served year-round – such as bread, rolls, mashed potatoes, or rice – and others may be special holiday traditions, like stuffing, candied sweet potatoes, or tamales. Rather than eating some of everything, pick the foods that only come out on special occasion and leave the other foods off your plate. If you must have a little of everything, take a small sample (2-3 bites) rather than a full portion. If you’re watching carbohydrates for diabetes management, identify similar foods and pick one or the other. For example, maybe you prefer stuffing instead of a roll, sweet potatoes rather than mashed potatoes, and gravy on your turkey more than gravy on your stuffing. Even if you like it all, it’s important to pick your favorites and limit carbohydrates to those choices. If you can’t choose only 2 or 3 carbohydrate foods, take very small portions or samples.
Holiday meals not only tend to be much larger than everyday meals, they also frequently include dishes prepared with more fat, sugar, and salt than average meals. For this reason, it’s important to keep portions small. Try using a smaller plate, prepare only one plate of food instead of two, serve smaller portions than normal (significantly smaller if taking a little of everything), split a full portion with someone else, avoid piling food on the plate, and eat slowly. It takes the brain about 20 minutes to catch up with the stomach and recognize fullness; so talk with others, chew slowly, sip on water through the meal, and set your fork down between every few bites to help slow down. Remember, you can always have leftovers the next day! If someone else is hosting, ask if you can bring a small container to pack up one portion of leftovers to take home.
- Eat Your Veggies
Vegetables are not usually in abundance at holiday meals, but as with any other time of the year, they are one of the most beneficial foods we can eat! Non-starchy veggies are naturally low in calories, fat, carbohydrate, and sodium, while they are rich in fiber, vitamins, minerals, and antioxidants. With this nutritional make-up they support good blood sugar control, healthy blood pressure, and weight management. By filling half your plate with veggies, you will get a healthy dose of fiber and nutrition that can help to fill you up and prevent overeating. If veggies aren’t a common dish at your holiday gatherings, offer to bring a salad or roasted veggies. Raw veggies and dip can also be a great appetizer!
Calories in alcohol can quickly add up and sabotage your weight loss efforts made in food choices and exercise. One 5-ounce glass of red or white wine has about 120 calories, a 12-ounce light beer ranges from 110-150 calories (many craft beers are higher calorie), and a mixed drink with 8 ounces juice or regular soda and 1.5 ounces distilled spirit (80 proof) packs nearly 200 calories. For comparison, you could eat a half cup of stuffing (178 calories) or mashed potatoes made with milk and butter (120 calories), 1 cup of green bean casserole (142 calories), 2 ounces of pumpkin pie (about a 1 inch sliver – 130 calories), or 3 cups of mixed veggie salad with 1 tablespoon dressing (165 calories) for about the same calories as a single drink. You’d also be getting the nutritional benefit of some vitamins, minerals, and fiber with any of these food choices. Rather than having it all, think about how you most want to nourish and care for your body; then make your choices accordingly. Also consider, for best health it is recommended that women have no more than 1 drink per day and men no more than 2 alcoholic beverages per day. For weight management, try one of these drinks that minimizes calories:
- 1.5 ounces vodka, 6 ounces grapefruit-flavored sparkling water, a splash of 100% grapefruit juice; garnish with a slice of grapefruit and mint.
- 1.5 ounces tequila, 6 ounces mineral water, squeeze of fresh lime juice; garnish with a lime wedge
- 1.5 ounces whiskey or rum and 6 ounces diet coke
- 1.5 ounces scotch on the rocks
- Budweiser Select, Beck’s Premier Light, Anheuser-Busch Light Pale Lager, Michelob Ultra
- Various mocktails:
- Sparkling water, a splash of pomegranate juice, and a few pomegranate arils
- Iced tea with a splash of mineral water for bubbles, a squeeze of fresh lemon or lime, and mint leaf
- Sparkling water, fresh-squeezed orange, and a sprig of fresh rosemary
- Stay Physically Active
Make physical activity a part of your holiday traditions. Rather than watching TV or taking a nap after a big meal, go for a walk, play a friendly game of flag football, toss a frisbee or play catch, go bowling, play active video games (like Wii tennis or Dance, Dance, Revolution), or get competitive with an active group game like charades. You can also take advantage of extra time off work to exercise before family gatherings and parties, take a brisk walk around the mall before shopping, turn on music to add a pep in your step as you do chores, or do a fun activity like ice skating or snow shoeing with the family. Whatever you do, continue to move!
- Try Healthier Versions of Your Favorite Foods
Most recipes can be modified to include less added sugar, fat, and therefore, calories. Use the ideas below to improve the nutritional benefit of your holiday favorites!
- Use whole grain dinner rolls instead of highly processed white rolls
- Swap regular mashed potatoes for half mashed potatoes and cauliflower
- Roast sweet potatoes to bring out the natural sugars rather than loading with brown sugar and marshmallows. (Hint: leave the potato skin on for extra fiber and use half the oil for less calories)
- Add twice as many green beans to your green bean casserole recipe for an extra serving of veggies and less calories.
- Bring a festive green salad or colorful roasted veggies as a nourishing side dish.
- Try this apple crisp recipe rather than apple pie to reduce the fat, sugar, and carbohydrate and increase fiber.
- Bring an alternative to the standard pumpkin pie dessert. These tarts can be topped with a dollop of ‘lite’ vanilla yogurt instead of whipped cream.
- Gather Support
One of the most important factors in successful health behavior change is having a good support network. Talk with your family and friends to let them know you are working on change and share how they can help you. This may mean asking your aunt to make a less-tempting dessert (or only 1 dessert option), inviting your cousins to join you for a walk after the big meal (plan ahead so everyone can have comfortable walking shoes and warm clothes), requesting your mom to only give encouraging words or nothing at all, allowing someone to remind you of your 1 or 2 drink limit, or gathering support and accountability from friends to help you keep up with your goals throughout the season.
Above all, remember that health and wellness is a journey. If your day doesn’t go as planned, you skipped your daily exercise, or you ate and drank more than you wanted to at the party, it does not mean you failed and all is lost. Every day is a new opportunity to make healthy choices. Think ahead, prepare adequately, be patient with yourself, and know the key to health is moderation and balance. Happy holidays!