Eating healthy is sometimes pretty difficult, but it gets extra hard during the holiday season, when candy and snacks seem to present themselves at every turn, and rich, gut-busting meals happen with greater frequency than in the other ten months of the year.
How do we celebrate with our friends and family by indulging in our favorite dishes without going too far? This tips for moderation and flexibility will let you have your cake and eat it (mindfully), too, so you can enjoy the season while feel good about yourself.
Start eating clean and healthy before the holidays arrive. “Eat lots of veggies and lean protein, leaving sugar and grains on the sidelines whenever you can,” advises San Francisco chef Kathy Fang. “As the holidays approach, abide to this diet and save indulging for parties. If you are not eating out for an event or party, eat healthy. This strategy is rewarding when you do treat yourself, and provides more energy for burning calories.” Fang says this will include 50 percent fresh organic veggies that contain lots of fiber and nutrients (such as kale, cauliflower, spinach, and Swiss chard), 25 percent lean protein (such as tofu, chicken, fish, turkey, buffalo meat, or pork), and 25 percent healthy grains, fruits, and dairy (such as quinoa, oatmeal, apples, bananas, berries, yogurt, or cheese).
Drink lots of water! “Thirst is often mistaken for hunger, making you overeat. Plus, if alcohol is involved, it will keep you from getting too buzzed and stave off hangovers,” says Abby Phon, an integrative holistic health and wellness coach. “A glass of water before you partake in appetizers and between glasses of wine is a good start.”
Engage in conversation. That spread of appetizers might make a good crutch for social awkwardness as a party begins, but the more you talk, the less you eat. “I like to always start with a cocktail and sip it throughout the evening. Sipping every once in a while makes you feel like you are consuming something,” says Fang.
Having a glass in hand also makes it harder to balance a plate of food while standing. “Scope out what’s being offered and choose what appeals to you before diving into everything. Eat only items that you really want,” continues Fang.
There’s a potential cure for those extra holiday pounds that actually requires very little planning and effort: When dining, use smaller plates and cups. “Researchers at the University of Chicago have repeatedly found that our consumption is very much related to the size of our dishware. The larger the plate or cup, the larger our portions. If someone is worried about satiety, or the lack thereof, researchers discovered that we achieve the same level of satisfaction when eating from smaller plates as we do larger plates,” says Neal Malik, a dietician and personal trainer as well as Assistant Professor at School of Natural Health Arts & Sciences at Bastyr University in California.
And what about going back for seconds? “Researchers are discovering that this does not happen as frequently as we might expect. But, if someone is concerned that they may end up feeling deprived and returning to the holiday buffet, then it’s best to wait 15-20 minutes before heading back for more. This allows our brains time to realize whether or not we have had enough to eat,” says Malik.
The average food craving lasts about 15 minutes. Practice being mindful of those cravings at other times—not just at the holiday party. “Acknowledge the craving, then go distract yourself for 15 minutes. If you log your food before you eat in an app like MyFitnessPal, you’re going to slow down the process of mindless eating. I don’t believe there should be any foods that are strictly off limits,” says Dr. Kelly Baez, owner of FitShrink, a weight-loss coaching practice. If you’re at the party and want to try the fruitcake, then go ahead and have a slice. If it’s not incredible, ask yourself, “is this how I want to spend my calories?”
“Add frozen grapes, blueberries or other fruit to drinks to fill up without so much alcohol and so many empty sugars,” suggests Biggest Loser chef and best-selling author Devin Alexander. “I love filling champagne flutes with frozen grapes, then pouring in the champagne. You’ll still look and feel social, but you won’t overload on the calories even if you opt for a second drink,” says Alexander.
“Most of us love a glass of wine over dinner at family gatherings, or a cold beer at work parties. It’s part of our culture and makes us feel connected to others,” says ESPN SportsCenter anchor and creator of the 30 Day No Alcohol Challenge, James Swanwick.
But alcohol contains a lot of calories. “A glass of 4 percent beer, two double gin and tonics or two large glasses of wine equals around one burger or a slice of pizza. Drinking four glasses of 5 percent cider is around 1,000 calories. Plus you eat more when drunk,” says Swanwick. “Maybe take a 30-day break from alcohol over the holiday season. Back in 2010, I took a 30-day break and lost an incredible 13 pounds of fat around my stomach—just from no alcohol,” says Swanwick. “So what do you order instead? Water, ice, and a piece of lime. Tastes terrific, no one will notice that you’re not drinking, and your bill will be a lot less!”
Only eat what’s special for that holiday, or unique to your destination. “For example, let’s say for Thanksgiving there’s a delicious looking stuffing on the table that you want to try along with other types of breads and rolls,” says Debi Silber, a health, weight loss, fitness, personal development expert, speaker and author. “Since a roll may be something you’d have on any given night out, skip what’s ordinary to allow for a taste of that special stuffing.” If you’re traveling somewhere known for a certain food, drink or dessert, skip what you’d ordinarily have at home to allow for the special treat.
“I see nothing wrong with having a little bit of everything you like, but don’t get out of control and have double portions of everything. A great rule of thumb with portion sizes is: Your thumb is equivalent to 2 tablespoons, 1 ounce or 30ml; the palm of your hand is equivalent to 3 ounces of meat, fish or poultry or 3 tablespoons of nuts; the size of your fist is equivalent to 1 cup or 2 servings of cooked vegetables and pasta,” says Monique Bartlett, author of Kick Start For Weight Loss: 3 Massive Mistakes Professional Women Make That Keep Them Overweight, Exhausted and Stuck on the Diet Treadmill. Most people do not realize what an actual portion size is, so this is a good guide to follow.
“As for exercise, a packed schedule and snowy streets can make your usual run or bike ride challenging, but in my experience, asking, ‘Who wants to take a walk?’ usually gets an enthusiastic response from a houseful of guests who may, like you, be experiencing a bit of cabin fever,” says Vionic Shoe’s Innovation Lab member Dr. Andrew Weil. Dr. Weil says to start out with a short trip around the block, giving older relatives a chance to return home, then keep going with friends and relatives who crave a longer outdoor excursion. These walks can be a great time to both get some exercise and connect with people we have not seen for too long.
Aly Walansky is a lifestyles writer based in New York City. Her greatest loves include her shih tsu, soap operas, and extra dirty martinis. Follow her on Twitter:@AlyWalansky.
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