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A Healthful Approach to the Holidays

How to stay healthy while you're celebrating

Healthy SantaIt's been estimated that the average American gains between one and four pounds over the holiday season (Halloween through New Year's Day) with no significant loss by spring time.

This can add up over the years. For example, if you gain four pounds each holiday without losing that weight, you’ll be 20 pounds overweight in five quick years.

"For some people, it may seem like a contradiction to be able to enjoy the holidays and maintain a healthy weight, but it's not," says Jennifer Ventrelle, MS, RD, a dietitian and lifestyle program director for the Rush University Prevention Center. "By making a few tweaks to some of your traditions and behavior, you can participate fully in the holidays while staying healthy."

Changing your mind

"The first part of your new tradition is a change in mindset," says Ventrelle. "We have to lose the notion that we can worry about our health after the holidays are over. Taking a healthy approach throughout the holidays will not only make you feel good, you'll be able to avoid that yearly accumulation of extra pounds that can really start to cause problems with your long-term health."

Changing your approach

"People seem to forget that its all about the number of calories that you bring into your body balanced with the number that you use," Ventrelle says. "Your new tradition is to both be careful about what you eat and get daily physical activity to burn off those calories."

Choosing lighter alternatives

Look for low calorie alternatives to your traditional dishes. You can choose:

  • Foods flavored with herbs or spices, instead of high-fat flavoring choices like oils, butter, margarine or mayonnaise
  • Steamed, baked or broiled foods, instead of fried foods
  • Vegetables and other foods cooked in broth, instead of sautéed in oil
  • Low-fat or fat-free salad dressings for raw veggies and salads
  • Nonstarchy vegetable dishes with light dressing, instead of mashed potatoes and gravy or other high carbohydrate, high fat dishes
  • Foods made with whole grains (whole wheat breads and crackers, for example)
  • Low- or no-calorie drinks (water, club soda, diet soda, etc.)

"Also, keep in mind that alcohol and sweet drinks, like sodas and juices, have a surprising number of calories per serving," says Ventrelle. 

Avoiding empty calories

Empty calories come from high calorie foods that have little nutritional value, including the following:

  • Candy
  • Soda and other sweet drinks, like sweetened tea and lemonade (except for diet versions, which often have few or no calories)
  • Alcohol

Avoiding hunger

"You should never go to a holiday event hungry," says Ventrelle. "Eat a healthy snack before you go. Choose something with a little fiber and protein, such as a peanut butter sandwich on whole grain bread, a bowl of high fiber cereal or a small serving of peanut butter or cheese with whole grain crackers." 

Staying hydrated

Choose a low-calorie or nonalcoholic drink to stay hydrated. Its also a good idea, when you’re at a party or other holiday function, to choose a low-calorie drink to keep from eating too much.

"A low-calorie drink is the perfect thing to keep your hands and mouth busy," says Ventrelle. "It may also keep your stomach feeling more satisfied, because the brain often doesn’t distinguish between hunger and thirst. You may be feeling hungry when your body’s is thirsty instead." 

Taking your time

Eat slowly and enjoy the company of friends and family. "It takes 20 minutes for your brain to recognize that the stomach is full," says Ventrelle. "If you take your time at a meal, you’re more likely to eat less." 

Being mindful of portion sizes

"Its not what you eat, its how much you eat," says Ventrelle. "You can enjoy your favorite high calorie foods, just in smaller portions. As a host you can make things easier for your guest by having portions already cut. Mini portions let your guests sample a number of options." 

Share the health

"If you're not sure what you'll be able to eat at a holiday event, bring a healthful dish to share. This way you can at least enjoy what you’ve brought," says Ventrelle. Some ideas:

  • Fresh fruit platter
  • Veggie platter with low-fat or fat-free dip
  • Baked chips and salsa
  • Whole grain pita chips and hummus
  • Salad with low-fat or fat-free dressing

Balancing your day

Ventrelle suggests balancing the caloric total for the day of a holiday get-together. "Eat small meals with fewer calories the day of a holiday event," says Ventrelle.

Eating small meals during the day will not only keep you from eating too much at the event, it will also help keep your metabolism going, which naturally burns calories. 

Getting physical

Make sure you balance your calorie intake with some physical activity to make good use of those extra calories.

"I think that walking is one of the easiest ways to increase your physical activity," says Ventrelle. "You can make this a new tradition with you family to take a walk after a meal. It doesn’t require equipment and it’s something you can do with the whole family."