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Stanford nutritionist offers tips for eating healthy during the holidays

'Tis the season to eat, drink and be merry. But for many of us, myself included, overindulging at seasonal celebrations often leads to our pants fitting a little too tight come New Year's Day.

This year, I've resolved to take a different approach rather than pay the price for my excesses in 2012. I'm planning to spend extra hours at the gym, and I also asked Stanford nutritionist Jo Ann Hattner, RD, for some tips and tactics on eating healthy during the holidays. Hattner shares her thoughts here.

What poses a greater challenge when it comes to maintaining weight while celebrating the season: the prevalence of such goodies or our behavior during the holidays?

While rich holiday foods and seasonal alcoholic drinks are tempting, behavior is most important. Our behavior is responsible for either making it through the holidays without causing havoc to our health or giving ourselves permission to eat and drink excessively with the thought we will address the consequences later.

I advise focusing on behaviors that allow you to enjoy the holidays, particularly the social aspects of the festivities. Think of the food and drink as something you want to enjoy but also be able to control the indulgences. To do this use simple behaviors such as not eating and talking at the same time, being more aware of the taste of the food and chewing slowly and thoroughly. Also, become aware of when you are just starting to feel full and recognize that this is the time to stop eating.

Rather than feeling restricted at holiday gatherings, many people often relax their healthy eating habits until the New Year and then focus on making healthier choices and losing any gained weight. What are your thoughts on this strategy?

This is a poor health strategy primarily because your body has already had to accommodate the excesses of the holiday eating and that may have had detrimental effects, particularly to your cardiovascular system. In addition, depending on how much you gained during the holidays it can be an overwhelming task to lose the weight. If this is the case, unfortunately, you may still have it on board when the next holiday rolls around.

A common weight management strategy recommended by nutrition experts is to be mindful of what you’re eating. What’s an example of an effective method for doing this during the holidays?

"Mindful eating" is being conscious of what you are eating, focusing on the process of eating and stopping when you start to feel full. "Mindless eating," a term developed and explored by a Stanford alum Brian Wansick, PhD, is when you are eating and you may not realize how much you are eating, what you are eating or why you are even eating.

Take the  example of a co-worker bringing cookies into the workplace. Perhaps you grab three, take them to your desk and munch on them while working at your computer. This is not a mindful approach. Instead, take one cookie, prepare a cup of tea, sit down, relax, and enjoy it without any other distractions. Another situation where mindless eating can occur is the office holiday party where you have other things on your mind. More tips on how to be mindful when you're eating can be found here.

Some seasonal traditions are closely tied to certain less-than-healthy foods. How can people still enjoy these holiday staples without increasing their waistline or compromising their health?

Recent research has suggested that one of the biggest tasks for the body is to process fats after a heavy meal. Peter Grandjean, PhD, with researchers at Baylor University, has suggested as a result of these findings that consistent activity is particularly beneficial for the body with regards to fat processing. So keep your usual exercise patterns during the holidays and when serving your plate go easy on the fat-laden foods: the gravies, creamed vegetables, rolls with butter and pies with whipped cream.

Besides tempting treats what other factors sabotage our eating habits during the holidays?

Stress is the major one. Some of this stress may result from having your usual schedule disrupted. The most common schedule disruptions are that you’re not getting as much physical activity and sleep as you need. Additionally, you may be skipping some of your usual food intake, particularly the fruits and vegetables and whole grains that are normally in your diet. So your gut is telling you that it's stressed as well.

What are some tips for managing these challenges?

Be aware of your activities as well as what you eat or drink so that at the end of the day you can review, make adjustments and plan for the next day. Remember you are in charge!

Previously: Stanford nutritionist offers guidelines for eating healthy on the go and Experts provide tips on healthier holiday eating for kids
Photo by bobthemelbournian

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