How to Survive Holiday Eating
Tips to help eat healthier at holiday meals and gatherings.
When people think of the holiday season, they often picture presents, carolers, and hot chocolate near a warm, crackling fire. Other images that easily come to mind are candy canes, eggnog, seasonal pies, and large holiday meals.
This is because the time from late November until the end of December is known for its festive foods and desserts. While there is no harm imagining the sweet and savory foods of the holidays, actually indulging in all of these treats can present a problem. Like it or not, the month of December has the potential to be particularly hard on the waistline and heart.
There are several key steps that can reduce the risk of unhealthy eating or overeating during the holidays, and help to encourage good eating behaviors.
Dr. Mindy Dopler Nelson, Assistant Professor of Clinical Laboratory and Nutritional Sciences at UMass Lowell, has offered the following tips to navigate the treacherous seas of holiday eating. Dopler Nelson is a member of the American Dietetics Association, The Obesity Society, Society of Behavioral Medicine, and Association for Women in Science.
1. Veggies and Fruits
Veggies are one food group that is notoriously non-existent during holiday meals. Make sure to enjoy generous servings of whatever vegetables are offered, and if preparing veggies, do so in the healthiest way possible.
"One nice way to make mashed potatoes is…using a vegetarian or chicken broth instead of butter or milk, to add some nice flavor to it, and lots of pepper, and some parsley to give it some color," said Dopler Nelson.
A good suggestion is to offer to bring a dish to a meal that you know how to prepare in a healthy manner. That way, you don't have to guess whether the mashed potatoes were made using skim milk, or with butter and heavy cream.
The methods by which meats are prepared determine in large part how healthy they are. Baking or roasting items is almost guaranteed to be a healthier option than sautéing or frying.
Even though fried foods appeal to many people's taste buds, they significantly increase the fat and calorie content.
Desserts are not completely off limits during the holidays if you can pick ones that are more nutritious.
"Make the serving a sliver, not a slab," Dopler Nelson said of choosing unhealthy desserts.
Any dessert that focuses on fruits or vegetable is a safe pick. For pies, apple and pumpkin are much healthier than nut or pudding-based alternatives. Avoid custards, sugar-heavy desserts, and options like cheesecake.
"Another dessert option that I'd love for people to think about is something as simple as a baked apple," said Dopler Nelson.
Because antioxidants and vitamins often are found in colorful foods, if your plate is more colorful, generally it is also healthier.
"If you focus in a lot on color (that) are minimally processed, you'll end up with foods that have a lot of bulk without a lot of calories," said Dopler Nelson.
What are some good items with color? Fresh vegetables like spinach, swiss chard, carrots, butternut squash, and sweet potatoes, and fruits will all offer a colorful plate.
"Roasting vegetables with minimal oil and displaying them on a platter adds to the appeal of color while offering a healthy option," said Dopler Nelson.
Watch out for fat-filled Alfredo, Hollandaise, and cheese-based sauces. These sauces often lurk in seemingly harmless vegetable dishes or casseroles, and turn once-healthy veggies into high fat and cholesterol foods.
"Those are the things that may appear to be healthy, because it may be asparagus, broccoli, or a nice innocent potato, but now all of a sudden it's smothered in a sauce that a quarter cup of may be 360 calories," said Dopler Nelson.
"If you see what I call a glistening on a food--like an oil slick really…--when it shines, that's usually an indication that it's very very high in fat."
Sauces for meals can be made healthier by substituting lower fat or evaporated milks when a recipe calls for heavy cream.
Generally, greater alcohol consumption goes hand in hand with over eating or habit eating.
"Their judgment is impaired, which can affect (their) choices," said Dopler Nelson. "So the more someone drinks the more they will probably nibble on the typical bar accompaniments, whether it's the peanuts, the pretzels…the M&Ms--things they may not normally be thinking about--and doing it in such a mindless way that they lose track of how much of it they consume."
In terms of managing alcohol consumption itself during the holidays, Dopler Nelson advises to alternate between alcoholic beverages and water or seltzer.
"If you put it in a champagne flute or wine glass, no one is the wiser," Dopler Nelson said of drinking water or seltzer at holiday gatherings.
7. General Tips
Use a smaller plate and don't be afraid to take items home instead of overeating.
"Leave white space between the foods and the edges," Dopler Nelson said about plate use. "This isn't about stacking your foods high and wide."
Dopler Nelson also recommends picking one food that defines the holidays for you, savoring that one food in moderation, and then supplementing with healthy items.
Lastly, it is generally a good idea to eat something healthy before heading to a holiday gathering.
"Not eating during the day or arriving starving is setting a person up for overindulgences rather than arriving with a moderate appetite and a higher level of control, said Dopler Nelson.
Dopler Nelson also said people should remember that our bodies don't forgive unhealthy eating just because we are eating at a festive or holiday gathering.
"I think what's important is to think of the holiday as emphasizing one day, and not turning into a whole month of indulgences," said Dopler Nelson.