How to Have a Healthy — But Still Delicious — Holiday Season


Contributor: Jennifer Willoughby , RD 

We’re entering the most wonderful time of the year – and the most delicious. With the cooler temperatures of late fall comes pumpkin-flavored everything, which will continue through winter and the New Year. The holidays also bring peppermint goodies, holiday cookies and desserts, loads of chocolate and more ooey, gooey and warm treats that are difficult to resist.

I think we can all admit that eating around the holidays is hard. Even as a registered dietitian, I want to choose every deliciously decadent item I can get my hands on. And to be honest: I do — to some extent. But overall, it’s important to keep your eyes on the prize during the holiday season, and the ultimate prize is your health.

Weight gain over the holidays

According to recent research from the New England Journal of Medicine, weight increases by 0.2 percent during Thanksgiving and another 0.7 percent (about 1.3 pounds) from Christmas to New Years. This may not seem too bad compared to what most people hypothesize or what they feel like after they eat these giant meals. However, it’s important to note that people typically lose only half that weight after the holidays. The other half remains.

This can contribute to excess weight gain over time, which is especially detrimental for young children and their overall health. Kids have a lot of years left to gain that minimal weight, which added together may not be as minimal as it seems.

The study also found those who normally follow a strict diet throughout the year may gain two times more over the holidays. Hooray for reinforcing the “no diet” trend I aim to teach all my patients — a win for dietitians everywhere!

How to approach holiday eating

So how can we best equip ourselves for the holiday months? It’s best to focus on what we can eat, not what we’re missing out on. There are so many delicious fall and winter recipes — yes, even baked goods — that will satisfy your cravings and won’t leave you feeling sluggish and in a sugar slump. Here are some tips:

Be prepared. Don’t allow the holidays to totally derail your life. It’s important to continue to eat on a regular schedule, and savor the flavor. The holidays are a great time to practice mindful eating. With everything tasting so incredible, you want to actually be able to savor the flavor. Slow down when you eat, and teach your kids to pace themselves, too. Purchase the same nutritious foods that you would throughout the year. The holidays are no reason to completely revamp your pantry. Another way to be prepared is to bring a healthy dish to the family event or potluck. It’s OK to be the person who tries new things and encourages others to do the same.

Be picky. Sadly, we can’t have it all, and with so many unique options around the holidays, we sometimes have to pick and choose. When faced with a difficult food choice, choose eats that are “special” instead of ordinary. Instead of three store-bought cookies that are always in the cabinet, opt for one slice of grandma’s homemade pie. If your family typically prepares stuffing, mashed potatoes, sweet potato casserole, rolls and noodles for Thanksgiving, choose a small scoop of two of those items, rather than all five. Then fill the rest of the plate with turkey, green beans and salad. You can have “fun foods” this time of year – just make sure you’re choosing foods that truly make you and your tummy happy.

Be active. Take the focus off food. Family gatherings can and should have more to them than just what’s being cooked and eaten. Take a family walk or have the whole crew go bowling after a big meal. Family activities are a great distraction from the constant desire to snack. Getting up and moving will not only help the kids get some much recommended exercise, it will also help overall mental health by bringing the family closer together.

Be creative. What’s better than getting the kids in the kitchen to help create holiday-themed treats? These meals don’t have to be high-fat, high-calorie sweets. Instead, have treats and meals incorporate lots of fall veggies or winter spices and flavors.

This post is based on one of a series of articles produced by U.S. News & World Report in association with the medical experts at Cleveland Clinic.