It’s the holiday season, a time full of Christmas lights, holiday parties and plenty of delicious food.
The end of the year approaches quickly, and it may feel like there is no time to manage your health as well as organize events, buy gifts and see family. You may be one of the 64% of Americans surveyed who plan to delay their health aspirations until the start of the new year.
But eating healthy is not only possible, it’s better, experts told USA TODAY. Here’s another thing to keep in mind this year.
How to eat healthy during the holidays
Health is much more than the food you put in your mouth, but healthy habits definitely start at mealtime. If you want to stay healthy this holiday season but don’t know where to start, try these tips from registered dietitians.
Healthy holiday side dishes:These are options that you will want to minimize
1. Let go of the “all or nothing” mentality.
Some tend towards extremes when it comes to holiday eating. On the one hand there is a free-for-all for the end of the year and getting back on track in January. On the other hand, some use a strict diet and avoid participating in all the holiday fun.
This “all or nothing” mindset ultimately sets you up for failure, says Kara Collier, a registered dietitian and co-founder and VP of Health at health tech startup Nutrisense.
Instead, you can frame it with the 80-20 rule, she suggests. This means choosing nutrient rich foods 80% of the time but recognizing that your body wants to eat less nutritious foods the other 20% of the time.
“To give yourself a bit of freedom and have room in your meal plan for meals that may be outside of what is ‘ideal’ so that you are adding flexibility to your plan rather than feeling like a failure.”
2. Prioritize nutrition and real meals
When hunger strikes and you have leftover beets displayed on the counter, it may feel like you’re going to reach for candy or cookies first.
But licensed nutritionist Abra Pappa has a message before you grab one—cookies and candy are not meals. It’s important year-round to eat three whole meals filled with all macronutrients (protein, fat and complex carbohydrates) but especially to support less nutrient-dense holiday eating, she says. Read USA TODAY’s guide to building the healthiest breakfast and lunch here.
“It sounds so simple, but one of the biggest changes we can make when it comes to eating during the holidays is the need to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Pappa. “If you’re eating balanced meals, of course we’ll have an easier time balancing out the sweets.”
3. Honor family traditions
We attach cultural and emotional meaning to food – that’s why our holiday celebrations involve social gatherings centered around food. You can look out for balanced and nutrient-dense options while prioritizing comfort food and family traditions.
“Make sure (you) respect that, and that we’re not interrupting them because that connection with food can be a healing time,” says Pappa.
A healthy lifestyle is about more than just physical health, registered dietitians told USA TODAY; it also takes your mental, emotional and social well-being into account. Diet fads demonize many foods from Black, Asian and Latino communities that USA TODAY experts said can lead to feelings of shame and harm the mental or emotional aspects of a healthy diet. In general – but especially around the holidays – prioritize culturally significant traditions and foods.
4. Appreciate the cooking process
“Mind” doesn’t just start when you sit down to eat, it starts in the kitchen.
Commenting on her family’s cooking process, Pappa previously told USA TODAY the importance of starting with fresh ingredients and taking the extra step of making things from scratch. Home-cooked meals have many benefits – time is spent in the kitchen with loved ones and it allows you to control what is in the food you are eating.
“There’s always been this honorable tradition of valuing the ingredients and valuing the food you’re starting with,” says Pappa. “And I think from both a culinary and nutritional standpoint that makes a huge difference.”
5. Avoid stigmatizing language
Approach eating this holiday with curiosity, compassion and context, registered dietitian Kat Benson told USA TODAY. What do you want this food to do for you in terms of taste, feel and nutrition? How do you want it to serve you in the context of your day?
Registered dietitian Rose Britt also recommends not labeling food as “junk” or “bad.” For parents trying to instill healthy habits in children, Britt recommends serving small desserts with a meal rather than after it. It helps kids see that their whole plate is good – it’s not just great vegetables to get through to get to the good stuff.
“We can set ourselves up for that binging behavior if we internalize the shame of ‘I ate this bad candy so now I’m a bad person,'” Britt told USA TODAY.
6. Keep other aspects of your health under control
Apart from the physical, mental, emotional and social consequences of food, it is important to look at your health holistically during the holidays.
This time of year is busy, but try to incorporate a regular walk, run or workout into your week, experts recommend. Regular exercise has physical and mental health benefits, including combating seasonal depression.
“You’d be surprised how much just 10 minutes of movement after eating helps,” Collier previously told USA TODAY.
It is also helpful to check your sleeping habits. A consistent bedtime routine can improve the quality and quantity of sleep, allowing you to thrive before parties and busy days. Read USA TODAY’s recommended tips for improving sleep hygiene here.
How are your stress levels? Are you worried about upcoming family gatherings and buying gifts? We’ve got tips on how to deal with awkward questions at the dinner table, what to do if your family hates your partner and how to manage chronic stress, which experts say should be taken seriously.
7. How to navigate the party snack table
At holiday parties, we’re filling up sometimes before the side dishes or the main course even come out on the table. With many appetizers and snack bowls, it is easy to overeat and develop unhealthy habits. To keep within the guidelines of moderation, Pappa recommends serving yourself and then moving away from the table.
“When there are dining tables, make yourself a plate and step away,” says Pappa. “I think a lot of mindless eating happens when we’re leaning against that table all night.”
She also recommends prioritizing traditional holiday foods over year-round snacks, such as chips and pretzels.
8. how to manage diabetes around the holidays
People with diabetes are advised to avoid added sugar and refined starches, two food categories often seen in holiday spreads. Collier, whose work with Nutrisense involves glucose monitoring, advises diabetics to carefully weigh the carbs they choose to put on their plate and instead prioritize sources of fiber and protein.
Desserts can be heavy on sugar, so she recommends getting creative with keto and low-carb recipes.
“Bring a sugar-free or low-sugar dessert option that you enjoy so you know there’s something in it,” says Collier.
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, contact a toll-free therapist-run helpline at the National Eating Disorders Alliance at 866-662-1235 for emotional support or treatment referrals. If you are in crisis or need immediate support, 24/7, Text “ALLIANCE” to 741741.
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