It’s the holiday season, a time full of Christmas lights, holiday parties and plenty of delicious food.
The end of the year creeps up quickly, and it may feel like there’s no time to manage your health on top of the events to organize, presents to buy and family to see. Maybe you’re one of the 64% of surveyed Americans who plan to delay their health aspirations until the start of the new year.
But eating healthy is not just possible, it’s preferred, experts told USA TODAY. Here’s what else to keep in mind this year.
How to eat healthy during the holidays
Health is about much more than the food you put in your mouth, but healthy habits can certainly start at mealtime. If you want to stay healthy this holiday season but don’t know where to start, try out these tips from registered dietitians.
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1. Release the “all or nothing” mindset
Some tend toward the extremes when it comes to holiday eating. On one end is a free-for-all mindset throughout the end of the year and getting back on track in January. On the other end, some employ a strict diet and avoid partaking in holiday fun altogether.
This “all or nothing” mindset ultimately sets you up for failure, says Kara Collier, a registered dietitian and the co-founder and VP of Health at wellness-tech startup Nutrisense.
Instead, you can frame it with the 80-20 rule, she recommends. This means choosing nutrient-rich foods 80% of the time but recognizing your body’s desire to eat less nutrient-dense foods the other 20% of the time.
“Allowing yourself a little bit of freedom and wiggle room built into your plan for meals that are maybe outside of what is ‘ideal’ so that you’re building flexibility into your plan as opposed to feeling like a failure.”
2. Prioritize nourishment and real meals
When the hunger hits and you’ve got leftover treats displayed on the counter, it can feel tempting to reach for candy or cookies first.
But licensed dietitian nutritionist Abra Pappa has a message before you grab one – cookies and candy are not meals. It’s important all year round to eat three full meals filled with each macronutrient (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 that’s one of the biggest shifts we can make around eating during the holidays is not sacrificing the necessity of eating breakfast, lunch and dinner,” Pappa says. “If you’re eating well-balanced meals then we naturally have an easier time balancing out the sweets.”
3. Honor family traditions
We ascribe cultural and emotional meaning to food – it’s why our celebratory holidays involve social gatherings centered around food. You can keep an eye out for balance and nutrient-dense options while also prioritizing comfort food and family traditions.
“Make sure (you) honor that, and that we’re not dismissing them because that thread of connection to food can be a healing time,” Pappa says.
A healthy lifestyle is about more than just physical health, registered dietitians previously told USA TODAY; it also takes into account your mental, emotional and social well-being. Many diet fads demonize food from Black, Asian and Latinx communities which experts told USA TODAY 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 traditions and culturally significant foods.
4. Value the cooking process
“Intention” doesn’t just start when you sit down to eat, it begins in the kitchen.
Remarking on her family’s cooking process, Pappa previously told USA TODAY the importance of starting with fresh ingredients and taking the extra step to make things from scratch. The benefits of home-cooked meals are numerous – it’s time spent in the kitchen with loved ones and also lets you control what’s in the food you’re eating.
“There’s always been this honored tradition of valuing the ingredients and valuing the food that you’re starting with,” Pappa says. “And I think both from a culinary perspective and a nutrition perspective that makes a huge, huge difference.”
5. Avoid stigmatizing language
Approach eating this holiday with curiosity, compassion and context, registered dietitian Kat Benson previously 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 advises against labeling food as “junk” or “bad.” For parents looking to instill healthy habits in kids, Britt recommends serving small desserts with a meal instead of after it. It helps kids see their whole plate as good – veggies aren’t just something gross 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 previously told USA TODAY.
6. Keep other aspects of your health in check
Aside from the physical, mental, emotional and social impacts of food, it’s important to look at your health holistically during holiday chaos.
This time of year is busy, but try to incorporate a regular walk, run or workout into your week, experts advise. Regular exercise has physical and mental health benefits, including combatting seasonal depression.
“You’d be surprised at how much just 10 minutes of movement after eating helps,” Collier previously told USA TODAY.
It’s also helpful to check up on your sleep habits. A consistent bedtime routine can improve both quality and quantity of sleep, setting you up for success before parties and busy days. Read USA TODAY’s expert-recommended tips for improving sleep hygiene here.
How are your stress levels? Are you anxious about upcoming family gatherings and buying presents? 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 sometimes fill up before the side dishes or main course even comes out on the table. With appetizers and snack bowls galore, it’s 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 tables of food, make yourself a plate and step away,” Pappa says. “I think a lot of mindless eating happens when we’re leaning against that table all night long.”
She also recommends prioritizing traditional holiday foods over snacks you can have all year, like chips and pretzels.
8. How to manage diabetes around the holidays
People with diabetes are encouraged to avoid added sugar and refined starches, two categories of food that appear frequently 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 fiber and protein sources.
Desserts can be heavy with 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 that you know there’s something there,” Collier says.
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, contact The National Alliance for Eating Disorders’ free therapist-run helpline at 866-662-1235 for emotional support or treatment referrals. If you are in crisis or need immediate, 24/7 support, text “ALLIANCE” to 741741.
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