Making Healthy Food Decisions Around the Holidays
Mashed potatoes and gravy, Grandma’s apple pie, and other holiday favorites can be a joyous part of any celebration. But to feel your best, you know you need to eat in moderation and stay active. How can you avoid temptation when delicious foods and calories abound?
“From Halloween through New Year’s, there’s always a decision to make about food,” says Dr. Marci Gluck, an NIH psychologist who studies obesity and eating behaviors. Tasty treats tend to appear more often at work and festive gatherings, and to come as gifts. They may also tempt you when grocery shopping. “As the holidays approach, it’s important to think ahead and make a plan,” Gluck says.
Consider your health goals for the holiday season, whether it’s avoiding overeating, staying active, connecting with others, reducing stress, or preventing weight gain. You can plan to make time for buying healthy groceries, cooking at home, scheduling regular physical activity, and setting aside a little quiet time for yourself.
Gluck suggests you start by adopting a flexible mindset. “Many people have an attitude of all or nothing: either I’m on a diet or I’m not on a diet,” she says. This “either-or” thinking can lead to negative self-talk, or being hard on yourself for small indulgences, overeating, or weight gain.
“Most people just throw their plan out the window when they think they’ve slipped up, and they ‘fall off the wagon,’” Gluck says. “Celebrations don’t have to derail your lifestyle. You’ll have plenty of opportunities to follow your plan and eat healthy.”
Look for opportunities to make healthy choices and feel good about them. “Small choices really can make big changes,” Gluck says. “Each moment that you put something in your mouth or choose to exercise adds up over time. That can be true for weight loss or weight gain.”
Around the holidays, we often find ourselves with too many food options, for too many days in a row. It can be challenging to decide what to eat and when to say no.
“Eat what you love—in moderation,” suggests Jody Engel, a nutritionist and registered dietitian at NIH. Consider choosing items that are unique to the season, instead of eating foods you can have any time of the year.
When you feel the urge to splurge in unhealthy ways, Engel recommends trying something else first, like drinking a glass of water, eating a piece of fruit, or climbing a few flights of stairs. You might even consider walking around your house or office for 5 minutes or more. Such diversions might be enough to help you resist unhealthy temptations.
You could also try eating mindfully, Engel suggests. Slow down to really taste and enjoy your food. Eating more slowly also allows your body time to signal your brain when you’re full, which takes about 20 minutes. If you eat too much too quickly, it’s easy to gobble up as much as twice what your body needs before your brain even gets the message.
Dr. Susanne Votruba, an NIH obesity and nutrition researcher, says it’s a good idea to identify and avoid any “trigger foods”—foods that may spur you to binge or eat more than usual. Overeating can bring feelings of bloating, reflux, indigestion, and nausea.
“Some people can eat less healthy foods in moderation and be fine, or have ‘cheat days’ where they allow themselves to eat whatever they want for a day and stay on track for the rest of the week,” Votruba says. “Others may have to avoid certain ‘trigger foods’ completely, or they’ll spiral into unhealthy eating patterns for the rest of the week or abandon their plan altogether. Everyone is different.”
Because of these differences, Votruba says, it’s important not to force food on other people. “Even if you don’t have an issue with food, be aware of other people around you, and respect their choices,” she says.
What if you do fall to temptation? “Every day is a new day when it comes to eating,” Votruba says. “If you overeat one day, work to get back on track the next meal or next day.”
While food is a big part of the holidays, remember that there are other paths to staying healthy. “Don’t make the holidays be just about food,” Votruba suggests. “The key is not only what you eat, but how much you’re moving. Even little bits of extra exercise can be very helpful for everyone over the holidays.”
Plan ahead for how you’ll add physical activity to days that might otherwise involve a lot of sitting. Get the whole family involved, Engel suggests. “You have to make an effort to incorporate exercise into days of big eating,” she says. “Otherwise the day will come and go.”
Sign up to walk or run a community race. Enjoy catching up with family or friends on a walk or jog instead of on the couch. In between meals, take a family hike at a nearby park, stroll around your neighborhood, or play a game of flag football.
The emotions of winter celebrations come into this picture, too. “Joy, sadness, and stress are associated with overeating during the holidays,” Gluck says. “People who are emotional eaters may be particularly vulnerable to temptations around the holidays.”
If holiday stress causes you to derail your healthy plans, consider ways to reduce stress and manage emotions. These might include talking to a trusted friend, meditation, physical activity, or just getting outside.
“If you know you have a difficult time during holidays, plan outings once or twice a week with people who make you feel happy,” says Gluck. “If it’s in your best interest, also feel okay about declining invitations without feeling guilty.”
Support your family and friends, too. Encourage them to eat healthy during celebrations and throughout the year. If you’re serving dinner, consider baking, broiling, or grilling food instead of frying. Replace sour cream with Greek yogurt, and mashed potatoes with mashed cauliflower. Make take-home containers available ahead of time, so guests don’t feel they have to eat everything in one sitting.