A glass of eggnog. A slice of pecan pie with whipped cream. A few pieces of fudge. A couple glasses of champagne. What can it hurt? And besides, it’s “the holidays.”
Well, when you think about it, “the holidays” lasts at least five weeks, from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day. That’s one-tenth of the year, said Holly Prehn, a registered dietitian who works for UCHealth in the Pulmonary Rehabilitation, Cardiac Rehabilitation, MS Wellness, Integrative Medicine, and Dietary Therapies for Epilepsy clinics.
“It can be tough to stay on track with our eating habits through the holidays, since there are many things that can derail our healthy eating plan,” she said. “For one thing, this season usually brings with it a number of holiday parties, where we are faced with decadent food and high-calorie beverages.
“It also brings more frequent social situations, and many people feel like they better not look like they are on a diet and better have a drink in their hand. For those of us who are people pleasers, situations like Grandma encouraging seconds of her homemade pie or a coworker bringing in fresh-baked cookies can lead to making less healthy choices.”
And there are those once-a-year treats we just can’t ignore, she added.
“Eggnog, pumpkin pie, candied yams, and other seasonal treats are abundant this time of year.”
And holiday stress plays a role, too.
“Add in the fact that it’s been proven that under stress, our food choices shift towards higher-fat, higher-sugar items, and it’s easy to see why we tend to get off track this time of year,” she said.
And on top of all that, there’s the increased consumption of alcohol.
“Alcohol can definitely be a bigger problem this time of year,” she said. “It’s such a standard part of holiday parties, dinners and of course New Year’s Eve festivities.”
While up to one drink a day for women and up to two drinks a day for men is considered moderation, more than that can be detrimental, she added.
“The quantity of alcohol you consume is an important factor, because when drinking goes beyond moderate, it is linked to damage to the liver and to the heart. It also affects inflammation in the body.”
Another important thing to remember is that if you do choose to indulge, be sure to have a safe way to get home, Prehn added, noting that in the U.S., alcohol is implicated in about half of fatal traffic accidents.
Try not to think of the entire season as a reason to indulge, but don’t feel too guilty about having a treat here and there as long as you stay on track the rest of the time, she said.
“It can damage our health to eat whatever we want for 5-6 weeks a year,” Prehn said. “In addition to packing on the weight over the holidays, significant overeating has actually been found to be a trigger for having a heart attack.”
There are strategies people can use to stay on a healthy track this time of year, she said.
“So while there are definitely risks for over-indulging in alcohol or for significant overeating, you can definitely still enjoy the holidays,” she said.
“The main thing I like to recommend to people is to pay attention to and honor their hunger and fullness signals and to eat mindfully. The goal of eating mindfully is to really slow down the pace when you are eating, to focus your attention on what you are eating, and to use all of your senses to enjoy your food.
“When you have that piece of pumpkin pie, notice the colors, the shapes, the textures, the tastes, the aroma, and even the sounds of the experience. It can help you eat less but still feel satisfied and enjoy the foods you choose to eat.”
Tips to help this time of year
- Eat healthfully throughout the day, and have healthy snacks if you get hungry so you don’t walk into a party ravenous. That can be a set-up to overeat.
- Remember you can have the food later. You can make pumpkin pie in August if you want it. It’s not traditional but you don’t have to overindulge now because of the idea that you can’t have it again until next year.
- Try to keep in mind how much you really need to feel satisfied, if you’re not going to pass on the sugar cookies altogether, have one and really enjoy it, rather than snacking on them all day long.
- If you’re tempted to overeat, consider instead asking for the recipe or a take-home container – knowing you can have it again later can help curb the desire to keep eating past the point of fullness. This same option can help people pleasers who feel bad saying no – asking for a recipe is a great compliment to the chef.
- Look into modifying your own recipes. You can often cut down on the sugar, oil, and salt without significantly altering the end product.
- If you’re at a buffet or potluck, look around at your options before grabbing a plate, this way you don’t fill up on a mediocre food and then keep eating when you realize what else is there.
- Go for a walk after your holiday meal rather than just jumping right into desserts. This way, you get the family out for a little physical activity and give your brain time to catch up with how full your stomach really is.
And although the exercise is good for you, will exercise offset the bad diet choices?
“No, but it absolutely doesn’t mean you shouldn’t be exercising,” she said. “Healthy eating and a good exercise routine can complement one another, but just as eating healthy can’t offset being sedentary, having a good exercise routine will not cancel out a bad diet.
“Continuing your exercise routine through the holidays is important,” she added. “It can help you manage the stress of the holidays and combat depression. It can also help promote healthy sleep.”
Sometimes, we can choose to eat well when surrounded by unhealthy choices.
“I would recommend always trying to bring a healthy dish whenever there’s a party or potluck. Chances are you aren’t the only one trying to be healthy through the holidays, so your dish could be quite a hit. But even if not, at least you know there’s one thing you can add to your own plate that helps keep you on track.”