Healthy Eating for the Holidays

The holidays are upon us and whether you are a social butterfly or an introvert who avoids all the hoopla, you are still just as likely to be bombarded with holiday temptations day after day for the next month. Maintaining a healthy diet and lifestyle while enjoying the holiday season is possible but it does take some strategic planning. Taking these 6 steps will help keep you on track during the holidays and beyond.

1.  Don’t rely on willpower. Understand and leverage your physiology.

We are often left feeling like losers when we run out of steam and can no longer exert our “self-control” over the unending temptations that surround us this time of year.  This is where many of us give up, dive “off the wagon” and give in to eating behaviors that don’t serve us well.  Managing your environment is important and the holiday season is a time when we often find ourselves in situations that can be hazardous to our diet, but sticking to a healthy eating plan doesn’t have to burn through all your willpower.

One of the most important things you can do to avoid using willpower is to prevent frequent cravings and unnecessary snacking by fueling your body for its daily activities.  Experiment with macro-nutrient ratios (carbohydrate, protein and fat) to find your “sweet spot” for blood sugar stability.  I always recommend that my clients include a balance of complex carbohydrate, proteins and “good” fats at each meal and snack. You should be able to go at least 4 hours without hunger or cravings when you eat a balanced meal.  Also, know your body’s queues for hunger by paying attention to what your body’s signals are telling you.  When cravings come just a couple of hours after eating, it is often due to fluctuating blood sugar levels, specifically low blood sugar.  Avoiding refined carbohydrates, including sugar laden snacks and treats, can keep you off the blood sugar roller coaster. Planning healthy and balanced meals is central to accomplishing this.

2.  Plan healthy menus and stick to them.

Planning is a large part of the outcome in achieving any goal. Don’t neglect this power. Set nutrition goals for the day and choose “treats” wisely.    Start the day off right by eating a balanced breakfast including protein and complex carbohydrates such as vegetables.  The holidays can be an overly busy time, so seek out make ahead breakfast recipes and ideas that require little or no time to prepare and eat in the morning.  If you start your day with balanced blood sugars and energy, you will be more likely to have stable blood sugars throughout the day.  Don’t skip this important foundational step into your day!

Avoid skipping any meals to “bank” calories for later.  Again, this is setting yourself up for uncontrolled hunger and overeating of less healthy food options.  Packing a healthy lunch or eating smaller portions from a healthy lunch menu are better options.  When eating out, plan to get your vegetables in by having a dinner salad with your meal or ordering an entrée salad that includes a lean protein source.

Other winning strategies I recommend include…Have a light meal before a party.  Eat healthy party foods first.  Bring a healthy vegetable laden dish to a potluck. Count the number of miniature appetizers—they add up!  And…. Don’t eat it unless you love it.

3.  Hydrate.

Hydration is important to all your body’s cellular and system functions.  Dehydration can make you feel tired, sluggish, constipated, and even mask itself as hunger.  If want to optimize your energy levels and avoid these problems, plan to hydrate with non-caloric and/or low-calorie beverages regularly during the holidays.  The formula that I recommend to my clients is to calculate half of your body weight (in pounds) and multiply by 1 ounce.  Drink this amount of non-diuretic, non-caloric and low-calorie liquids daily.

Great strategies include…Keeping a large refillable water bottle with you throughout the day to remind you to hydrate.   Drink a large glass of lemon water first thing in the morning to get a jump on hydration, support detoxification and boost your metabolism.  Most importantly, if you decide to indulge in alcoholic beverages, plan to drink one glass of water for every alcoholic beverage you drink.  Consider a low-calorie “mocktail” like Club soda or sparkling water with a splash of cranberry juice when celebrating.  You will still feel as though you are having a festive drink without the negative effects.

4.  Sleep 8 hours a night.

Prioritize sleep, for hunger hormone balance.  If you haven’t heard about the hormones Leptin and Ghrelin, take note.  Not getting enough sleep can leave you tired, grumpy and less productive but did you know that it can cause imbalances in these two hormones that govern appetite and hunger.  Leptin is a hormone made by fat cells that decreases your appetite.  When you don’t get enough sleep, you end up with too little leptin, which makes your brain think you are hungry and slows your metabolism making your store fat.  Ghrelin is a hormone that increases appetite and tells your brain when you need to eat, when to stop burning calories and when store energy as fat. Levels of ghrelin remain high with lack of adequate sleep, resulting in increased hunger and fat storage.  There you have it…sleep is critical in the battle of the bulge.

During the holidays, it may be a challenge but I recommend that you try to get to bed at the same time every night.  To promote quality sleep these strategies can be helpful… Dim household lights and avoid screen time a couple of hours before bed.  Take a relaxing bath with Epsom salts and lavender.  If you are out late for a party, get to bed as soon as you can after arriving home.  Avoid alcohol if sleep is a challenge as it disrupts blood sugars and sleep.

5.  Manage Stress.

Stress can wreak more havoc on your health than a “bad” diet.  I know, I am a dietitian and I just said that! The holiday season can bring additional demands on time, finances, and relationships, including existing family relationships as well as the stress of loved ones lost.

Cultivate self-awareness by setting a time daily to assess and address your personal needs. Pray or meditate and focus on what is most important to you about the holidays and make that your top priority.  In the same way set aside a few minutes a day for self-care activities such as deep breathing, MELT® Method or simple stretching.

Determine to not allow less important demands crowd out what is most important to you. Stick to your exercise routine by keeping it on your calendar or squeeze in short bouts of activity throughout the day.  Plan for relaxation and fun daily with family or friends and allow yourself to be present and enjoy that time.  Eat out or have events catered to allow yourself time to enjoy the people around you.  Choose what brings you joy.

6.  Plan and strategize your “cheats” and “treats”.

No, it doesn’t defeat the purpose of cheating.  It does, however, put you in control and makes cheating enjoyable without the regret hangover.

If you know your holiday party schedule, you may already have insight into the food being served.  If not, you can plan based on standard party fair and set some guidelines ahead of time.  If a buffet is being served, you can usually expect basics such as vegetable and fruit trays to be present along with various hors d’oeuvres and sweets treats.  If possible, have a small balanced meal or snack before you get to the party.  Once you are at the party, I recommend you start out by filling half of your plate with vegetables and fruit options and select sweet treats last when there is little room left on the plate.  Make one round at the buffet and grab a “mocktail” and sit and enjoy the party while you eat.

If you are at a dinner party, I recommend the same.  Fill half of your dinner plate with vegetables and choose small portions of everything you love that can fit on your plate.  When it comes time for dessert, have a small piece of your favorite and savor every bite.  Remind yourself that you will have opportunities to have these things again on another day and time.  Scarcity mindset may tempt you to overeat, so plan to enjoy other pleasurable activities that take you away from food.

These 6 steps are just a few of many ways you can create a healthier environment for yourself this holiday season.  If you are not doing any of these now, don’t wait for the new year to start creating healthy habits.  Start, now by choosing a few steps that resonate with you and put them into practice so that you can enjoy a healthy and happy holiday season!