Honey-glazed ham, mashed potatoes and gravy, mincemeat pie and other holiday favourites can be a joyous part of any celebration. But to feel your best, you know you need to eat in moderation and stay active. If you’re trying to stick to a healthy diet, the weeks leading up to the holidays can inspire anxiety. Add the calorie-laden parties and office cookie exchanges, not to mention the fast food you grab or even the meals you skip due to travelling, shopping and running errands – and your willpower can really be put to the test.
How can you avoid temptation when deliciousness is all around? With some planning there are sensible ways to navigate this calorie-fraught territory.
Joy McCarthy is a certified holistic nutritionist, best-selling author and founder of the popular healthy living blog JoyousHealth.com and wellness clinic Joyous Health. She offers these tips:
1. Before a party, eat a healthy snack to curb your appetite.
It’s the same reason why they tell you not to go to the grocery store hungry. When we’re hungry, we tend to make poor food choices, explains McCarthy. “If you’re going to a cocktail party assuming that you’ll snack on the party food to fill up, then you’re destined to overeat and indulge in unhealthy food. This will likely make you bloated and feel like you’ve gained 5 pounds in one evening,” she says.
Low blood sugar from hunger increases cortisol levels, which leads to cravings for fatty, sugary and salty foods. Instead of saving yourself for the big meal, nibble on healthy snacks like fruit, nuts and raw veggies throughout the day to avoid being so famished at the gathering that you just start eating everything in sight. “Eat a healthy fulfilling meal and snack wisely, but only if you’re actually hungry,” says McCarthy.
2. Drink a glass of plain water between every alcoholic drink.
Since avoiding alcohol altogether may be hard during this time of merriment, rotating between an alcoholic beverage and a glass of plain water can help you cut down on the amount of extra calories you might be drinking. “Alcohol is a super-effective way to gain weight because it’s basically sugar. Sugar converts to fat and alcohol slows down your metabolism,” says McCarthy. Water will not only keep you hydrated, but will also help fill you up and leave less room to squeeze in any extra and unnecessary food calories throughout the night.
3. Stick to an exercise routine throughout the holidays.
Fitting in physical activity over the holidays may seem an impossible task when your days are jam-packed with festivities, shopping or meeting family obligations. Keeping to your exercise regimen, however, will help you keep your weight in check, and may even encourage you to make healthier food choices. “This will keep your mood up, and you’ll be less likely to indulge in unhealthy comfort eating,” says McCarthy.
On the days that you can’t fit exercise into your schedule, do try to build activity into your daily life. Take the stairs, go for morning strolls with your family, or plan active outings like skating or skiing.
Sarah Remmer is a registered dietitian, family nutrition educator and writer/blogger. She advises:
4. Eat a good breakfast.
Eating a healthy breakfast sets the tone for the entire day. Skipping breakfast can leave you dragging through your morning and more likely to overeat later because you’re starving. Your best bet? Start with something containing lean protein, complex carbohydrates and some healthy fat to give you energy and keep you satisfied until your next meal. “Eating a good breakfast that is high in protein and fibre will help keep you full longer and your blood sugar more stable, allowing you to be more mindful about your food and drink decisions later in the day,” says Remmer.
5. Indulge in foods you love and savour every bite.
Instead of piling your plate a mile high with things that don’t really entice your taste buds, pick only the foods that give you true enjoyment. “Be a picky eater when it comes to indulgent foods. I don't eat for the sake of eating or because someone has offered me something,” says Remmer. “I choose only the foods that I love and enjoy every bite. When I choose my most beloved holiday foods and drinks, I don't tend to mindlessly consume them. Instead, I savour every bite and end up eating less of it.”
Theresa Moloney is a nutritional therapist and fitness trainer. She suggests these tactics:
6. Get enough sleep.
The holidays can wreak havoc on your sleep schedule. If you're skimping on sleep in order to get your to-do list done, chances are your appetite will be increased when you're awake, so you'll end up eating more than you would if you were well-rested, explains Moloney. “People typically overindulge because they’re overtired. They’ve got their regular obligations, but then they’ve got other obligations on top of that like getting ready for the holidays, buying presents and going to parties. It can be quite stressful. When we’re tired, we opt for sugary, simple carbohydrates like an extra glass of wine or extra dessert for quick energy and comfort, which translates to weight gain.”
The solution? Getting a consistent 6 to 8 hours of shut-eye every night helps control your appetite and regulate your hormones, promotes recovery from workouts and prevents daily fatigue – plus it keeps you from dozing off when making conversation at social gatherings.
7. Throw a healthy-themed potluck dinner.
If you’re entertaining a large crowd, make it a potluck dinner – it's half the work and twice the fun. Delegate some of the dishes and inspire your guests to bring healthier versions of holiday favourites using really good ingredients that cut back on calories and fat without skimping on taste, recommends Moloney.
The last word: “naughty” vs “nice” foods
According to Remmer, labelling a food “naughty” actually contributes to self-sabotaging behaviour. “Every food should be permitted,” she says. “If you label foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad,’ the bad tend to become more sought after and desired, and this is where overeating tends to happen.”
Instead, she recommends being choosy with your indulgences and mindful of how much you serve yourself. “I find that choosing a smaller plate helps to keep portions under control, and I always cover half of my plate with veggies and fruit. That way, I’m free to choose whichever delicious holiday foods I want, but won't eat as much of it. Portion size and true enjoyment matter more than avoiding foods altogether,” says Remmer.
Try building even a few of these strategies into your daily routine over the holidays – and these small steps may develop into full-fledged habits.
Another option: If your workplace health and benefits plan includes a wellness program, check out any healthy eating workshops and other nutrition resources being offered.