With the holiday season just around the corner, you may be excited for family gatherings, festive traditions, and favorite seasonal dishes. On the other hand, maybe you’re worried about those dishes’ extra calories–and the potential for bloating and weight gain.
But you can celebrate without sidelining your health. Explore these tips for healthy holiday eating and enjoy the festivities without wrecking your diet.
7 Tips for healthy holiday eating
Watch your portions.
One of the most impactful holiday diet tips you can adopt is limiting your portions.
With the array of parties and delicious culinary options this season, it’s easy to overload our plates and overindulge. But studies show that serving yourself bigger portions encourages overeating, potentially leading to weight gain.
Dana Wright from West Virginia University Extension Service Family and Community Development says one way to combat this is simply using a smaller plate. “Eating is as much a visual experience as a physical one,” she says.
“When we fill our meal plates, our minds are satisfied once we have eaten all our food,” she adds. By eating from a smaller plate, you can “trick” your mind into being satisfied with less.
Wright also suggests filling half your plate with non-starchy vegetables like broccoli, carrots, or simply cooked green beans (not the casserole kind). These veggies are low in calories but high in fiber, which helps keep hunger at bay.
Along with non-starchy veggies, fill up on lean meats and whole grains before moving on to richer dishes like stuffing, casseroles, and desserts–and resist the urge to go back for seconds. This is a surefire way to keep those extra holiday inches off your waistline.
Modify your recipes.
High-calorie homemade goodies are a major contributor to holiday weight gain. But some smart ingredient swaps can significantly cut down on calories without sacrificing taste, Wright says.
Here are a few ideas:
- Use low-sodium, fat-free chicken broth in mashed potatoes and stuffing.
- Season meats and other savory dishes with fresh herbs and spices instead of excess salt.
- Bake, steam, or grill meat and veggies instead of frying.
- Replace heavy cream with low-fat or skim milk.
- Use whole-grains in baked goods like muffins and bread.
- Substitute applesauce, mashed banana, or pumpkin puree for butter in desserts.
- Use a low-calorie sweetener such as stevia or xylitol instead of sugar.
- Make holiday beverages with vanilla, almond, or peppermint extract instead of butter and sugar.
- Use club soda or sparkling water instead of sugary drink mixers.
Avoid “saving room” in advance.
It can be tempting to skip meals before a holiday event to “save room.” But research shows this can backfire, making you eat more.
When we’re starving, our bodies produce more of the “hunger hormone,” ghrelin. Then, once we start eating, it takes longer for ghrelin to decline–which leads to overeating.
Wright recommends starting your day with a nutritious breakfast that’s rich in fiber and protein so you don’t get too ravenous. If your holiday meal is at night, eat some healthy fats for lunch, such as avocado, as well. This will keep you from getting too hungry and overindulging.
Practice mindful eating.
The hectic pace of the season can often lead to eating quickly and mindlessly, or while multitasking. But research shows that distracted dining often results in overeating because we overlook our body’s signals of satiety.
To counter this, practice mindful eating. “Savor the flavorful foods by eating slowly and mindfully, paying close attention to the sensations that each food produces,” Wright says. “[And] take a break between dinner and dessert to give your stomach time to let your brain know if it needs more food.”
Studies have consistently found that those who adopt mindful eating habits are less likely to experience weight gain.
Get plenty of protein.
Holiday dishes are often loaded with carbohydrates. But be sure to include protein in your meals.
Protein not only makes you feel fuller, longer with less intake–but it positively impacts hunger-related hormones. It diminishes ghrelin and enhances peptide YY levels, a hormone associated with feelings of fullness.
Aim for at least 1 ounce of protein at every meal. Healthy sources include:
- Lean meat, such as poultry or fish
- Legumes, such as beans or lentils
- Nuts like almonds, walnuts, or cashews
Manage holiday stress.
The holiday season can be stressful. And when we’re stressed, our levels of cortisol (the primary stress hormone) rise–which research has associated with overeating. Heightened stress can also increase cravings for less healthy, high-sugar, high-fat foods.
This is why it’s always imperative to manage your stress–but especially during the holiday season, when we’re surrounded by temptations.
Find ways to reduce stress that you enjoy, such as:
- Mindfulness meditation
- Deep breathing exercises
Many families’ holiday traditions involve sitting on the couch, watching TV. But sedentary activities can contribute to weight gain–especially when paired with overindulgence.
So get moving with your family this year. Instead of settling into the sofa post-Thanksgiving-dinner, take a walk around the block. This burns off some of those extra calories, provides a break from focusing on food, and gives everyone a chance to connect.
Walking after eating also supports health digestion. For maximum health benefits, studies recommend walking immediately after a meal rather than waiting–even for an hour.
You could also check out local fitness events or seasonal community races for a fun way to stay active.
Try these tips for eating healthy during the holidays and keep your diet in check. But remember: we’re all human, and those festive treats are extremely tempting. Besides, a little indulgence can feel like a much-needed celebration.
The tips above will help you keep closer to your diet plan, and support you in making better choices next time. Progress is all about taking things one step at a time.