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Tips for Healthy Holiday Eating

Photo cred: Williams and Sonoma

Holidays = food and celebration. We love gathering with friends and family, eating, drinking, and being merry during these long dark winter months. There’s nothing wrong with this, in and of itself. Humans have celebrated with food since time immemorial - in every culture and in every corner of the world.

For many Americans, however, we celebrate twice in two months and we have long-standing traditions around our menus and treats. Our holidays last five weeks - from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day. That's one tenth of a year.

Where do things go sideways for many of us? For some, it's an excuse to "go off the rails" because "it's the holidays."

  • A few glasses of spiked eggnog

  • A slice of pecan pie with ice cream

  • A few pieces of fudge and a couple of cookies

  • A large plate of food (or two)

  • A couple glasses of champagne

Maybe we indulge this way more than once or twice in these two months and come January 1, we can't button our pants, we feel gross, we don't even want to look at a scale, etc. You may have gained five pounds, but the average American gains only one pound over the holidays, but many of us don't release that weight, so our average weight just creeps up as we get older.1. Currently, according to the Centers for Disease Control, 42.4% of adult Americans are obese. This means their BMI is 30+. The percentage of American adults age 20+ who are either overweight or obese is 73.6% (from 2017-18). 2

Thanksgiving dinner deconstructed

If you take a look at the average Thanksgiving dinner, you will notice that it's dominated by carbohydrates. The pies, rolls, two types of potatoes, and stuffing are all carbohydrates. Carbohydrates convert to glucose (sugar), and when you eat a LOT of carbohydrates, your pancreas and liver need to work hard to manage and regulate your blood sugar. It has now spiked due to this carb overload, and now insulin is secreted to bring down your blood sugar. To be perfectly blunt: Insulin is a fat storage hormone. Basically, it's miracle grow for fat.

In addition, the holidays tend to be the time of year when we overeat. There's a LOT of food on this table and many of us feel obliged to eat all of it and eat so much that we can't move, feel like we're in a food coma, and look like we a "food baby" in our belly.

Finally, there may be more alcohol consumed this time of year - Aunt Clara's famous hot buttered rum, or Grandpa John's homemade spiked eggnog. Alcohol and the sweet ingredients in these tasty drinks also convert to glucose.

I don't need to beat a dead horse.

This is why some of us gain weight and don't feel great over the holidays and turn to New Year's Resolutions to address this five week period of indulgences.


Here are my 9 tips and tricks

to healthier holiday eating.

1. Don’t change your normal eating routine on the holiday

Skipping breakfast may seem like a good way to reduce the amount of calories you consume, but is likely to make you eat more food faster when you finally do eat. Make sure to keep your regular meal schedule so your body can trust you to provide it’s normal nourishment.

2. Fill your plate with colors

▪ Aim to cover half of your plate with colorful, festive fruits and vegetables.

▪ Think raw vegetable salads as opposed to jello salad.

▪ This will increase the nutritional value of your meal, help you feel full quickly and decrease the number of empty calories you consume.

Foods and drinks that contain no significant nutrients but are high in calories are said to have “empty calories.” These are mainly foods and drinks that have a high sugar, fat, or alcohol content, but little or no other nutritional value. Empty calories are those that come from added sugars and solid fats, as well as some processed oils. 3

These include:

  • carbohydrate-based desserts, such as pumpkin pie

  • sugary drinks, including punch

  • holiday peanut brittle, fudge, candy canes

  • some full fat products, such as ice-cream

  • processed oils, such as soybean and canola oil found in Cool Whip

  • alcohol

Research from 2012 found that male adults ate an average of 923 empty calories per day. For females, the average intake of empty calories was 624 calories per day.

The added fats and sugars make these empty calories taste good, which can cause people to crave them. Consuming a lot of foods and drinks with empty calories can lead to weight gain and nutritional deficiencies. For example, a person eating lots of empty calories may not get enough vitamins, minerals, protein, essential fatty acids, and fiber because these are not found in empty calorie foods. 3

3. Eat slowly, and savor your food.

Don't be too quick to scarf down your food. “Hoovering” your food impedes your digestion & make digestion more challenging for the GI tract to break down these large


▪ Learn to savor every bite. Try using every few minutes to focus on a different aspect of your meal.

▪ Using all the senses will help you not only enjoy your food more thoroughly, but also extend the time it takes to eat.

▪ This will allow your stomach to catch up with your brain’s signals of leptin and ghrelin.

▪ Leptin = “I’m full” hormone. Ghrelin = “I’m hungry” hormone

4. Choose beverages wisely

Many holiday drinks are loaded with sugar, and it's easy to have multiple drinks without thinking.

▪ Limit these special drinks to 1 or 2. Better yet, stick with tea or sparkling water.

▪ This strategy allows you to reserve your calories for the foods you enjoy instead.

5. Drink more water

Drinking lots of water, especially before a meal, will help you feel full faster. Often, people think they’re hungry when they’re actually thirsty.

▪ Drink a huge glass of water when you start to feel that mid-afternoon craving to suppress your appetite and keep you feeling satisfied.

▪ Aim for ½ your body weight in ounces of water per day.

▪ Water is needed to flush toxins out of your body, carry nutrients to your cells, joints, etc. When you aren’t properly hydrated, you can feel tired and sluggish. Some people turn to food when they feel this way, so it’s another way that drinking water can prevent


6. Listen to your body’s signals

Pay close attention to how you feel while eating.

▪ Eating until we are full does not mean eating until we are sick.

On the hunger scale, this = 10.

▪ Choose to slow down and stop eating when you feel you are getting full. This is a 7.

▪ Wait a few minutes to see how you feel before finishing your plate. More than likely, you won’t be going back for seconds.

7. Change your mindset

Ask yourself: how is indulging in sugar and simple carbs going to help me stay healthy and feeling my best?

Think about it this way:

“I can have it, but I don’t want it.” OR “I can have it, but I don’t need it.” OR

“I’m choosing not to have this because it doesn’t work for my body.”

▪ This is beneficial when you are having a tough time avoiding culinary temptations.

▪ Too much of the time we beat ourselves up saying we can’t have something.

▪ Switching that mindset can create powerful changes in how you view food and your relationship to it.

8. Focus on Protein

Similar to fiber, getting enough protein in your diet will make you feel full for longer and satisfied faster than many other foods.

▪ Make sure your holiday meal has a decent amount of protein - 20 - 40 grams is good

▪ Eat your protein first, and then the rest of your meal

9. Survey the table before filling your plate

Start with filling half of your plate with protein & vegetables.

▪ Watch your portions. Just because it’s a holiday doesn’t mean you have to pile your plate with a mountain of food.

▪ Pick the most nutrient-dense foods first. Your body enjoys these the most.

▪ Skip foods you might not enjoy as much or won’t make you feel good.

▪ This can help reduce guilt and avoid overeating.

Other ways you can have a positive impact on the holiday menu -


The best scenario as you get to plan your menu.


Bring a colorful nutrient-dense salad.


Preview the menu ahead of time - call or visit the website

Final thoughts

🥦. You aren’t the only person at this holiday gathering who is making healthy choices about portions, etc.

🍋 Don’t eat foods that disagree with you. If you don’t tolerate a particular food, don’t just eat it and suffer the consequences later. It’s NOT worth it. This stresses out your immune system.

🥑 If someone offers you something that you don’t want, politely decline. A simple, “No thank you.” or “Thanks, but that food/beverage doesn’t work for me right now.” You don’t need to justify your decisions and actions.

🥗 The holidays are more than this particular traditional meal, right? Focus on the people you are gathering with and make the most out of the time with these fabulous people.

🧀 You are the only person who puts food in your mouth.

🧅 Don’t think of food as “good” or “bad” Think about it in terms of effects.

EX: If you think about food as “bad”, that can turn into “I’m a bad person (shame).”

Your diet is like your bank account. Good food choices are good investments - especially during the holidays.


1. Centers for Disease Control obesity statistic

2. Average American weight gain over the holidays

3. Definition of empty calories

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