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Stanford University School of Medicine

Healthy holidays: Strategies to help enjoy celebratory foods

Splashes of color, festive shapes and sprinkles make holiday food some of the most exciting nosh we'll have all year. With all of these appealing culinary creations at our fingertips, it's tempting to want to try them all, but what's the best way to do this while staying true to your health and nutrition goals?

To help us learn to enjoy holiday food in a way that nourishes body and soul, I reached out to nutrition expert Christopher Gardner, PhD, and doctor-chef Michelle Hauser, MD, to learn how they approach nutrition over the winter months. Here are some of their tips.

What have you learned about some of the strategies people can use to choose healthier foods over the holidays?

Gardner: One strategy is to avoid creating a false dichotomy between healthy and unhealthy. Some foods are traditionally more celebratory than others, and among those celebratory foods there exists a spectrum of healthfulness. Holidays can and should be an opportunity to celebrate.

Avoiding and depriving yourself completely of the foods that might score highest on taste but low on the health scale can backfire, and detract from enjoying special times. You can choose to approach this mindfully, and absolutely enjoy savoring some of the less healthy fare provided the portions you choose are reasonable, and are balanced overall by larger portions of healthier choices.

Another strategy is to avoid the trap of thinking that indulgence and healthfulness are mutually exclusive. The culinary profession has made great strides lately in using their craft to create unapologetically delicious and craveable foods — that are also healthy for you and the planet. Find a chef (professional or otherwise) that is on that path and indulge in their creations… and thank them with a hug (or pat yourself on the back if you are that creator).

What have you learned about some of the reasons people struggle to eat healthy foods over the holidays?

Hauser: I think that many things likely play into overeating around the holidays, but the most commonly cited culprits that I hear about are changes in routine and being in a celebratory mood. I think that changes in routine can also include rushing around to get all of those last-minute holiday tasks done and celebratory mood also includes lowered inhibitions due to holiday imbibing. Whenever we are busy, rushing around and out of our routines, it becomes more difficult to stick to any plan that we have to eat well because we find ourselves hungry without a lot of good options around and tend to mindlessly nibble on all of the goodies filling our homes, work places and celebrations without taking stock of how much and what we’ve eaten throughout the day.

Similarly, when we’re in a celebratory mood, socializing with friends and family, we don’t pay as much attention and tend to regard what we’re eating as a once-in-awhile treat. I am pro-celebrating and having the occasional treat, but when the holiday season stretches on for months, one party follows another and the in between days are filled with leftover treats, we need to consciously decide which days we want to eat like it’s a celebration and which days we need to have a healthier plan.

Some people overindulge at holiday parties with the plan to double down on exercise later, or skip meals to “save” calories for a big dinner. If you’re trying to eat more healthfully, what are some things you can do?

Hauser: Most people burn 60-100 calories per mile of walking. The average American consumes about 2,000 calories more than usual for a big holiday like Thanksgiving. This means they'd need to walk between 20-35 miles (approximately a marathon) to burn off the extra calories. Most people are not going to do this for one meal, much less an entire holiday season of overeating! It’s better to have a plan for healthy eating in place that makes room for occasional indulgences.

Avoid skipping meals and stay satiated with regular, small meals that include plenty of nutrient-dense, lower calorie foods, like vegetables, fruits, lean proteins (highlighting plant-based options when possible) and whole grains.

When at a celebration avoid 'grazing.' Use small dinner plates and fill half the plate with vegetables and fruits before adding other items. Stay hydrated and wait 20 minutes before going back for seconds to allow your brain time to register your satiety level.

Additionally, drink alcoholic beverages responsibly and try to avoid overindulging — besides the associated health and safety risks of excess alcohol consumption, alcohol limits your ability to make healthy food choices and adds empty calories.

Gardner: The key word above is overindulging. Don’t do it — it leads to bloating, mental fog, gastrointestinal distress. We've probably all done it at one point or another and then realized that there was an almost immediate consequence to pay in terms of impaired vitality; don’t forget to remember that. But please do allow yourself to indulge, enjoy, and experiment — responsibly.

If you do end up going too far, avoid beating yourself up emotionally and psychologically; this is salvageable. You chose 'now' over later, but later soon became 'now.' Laugh at your mistakes, revel in the joy it may have brought to go to the wild side for a while, and then get back on track. Empower yourself by finding the best way to get back in balance, whether it is the next meal or the next day, or when you return from travels.

This is the first piece in a three-part series on healthy eating over the holidays.

Previously: Reimagining nutrition education: Doctor-chefs teach Stanford medical students how to cook and Nutrition expert Christopher Gardner discusses ways to encourage healthy eating.
Photo by photogmateo

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