Tips for Healthy Holiday Eating

This is a roundup of advice that originally appeared in the Tufts Health & Nutrition Letter, published each month by the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy. To get more expert guidance on healthy cooking, eating, and living, subscribe here.

The period from Thanksgiving through New Year’s can be a disaster for your best intentions of watching what you eat and staying active.

From rich traditional fare to behavioral cues to overeat to hosts who don’t plan for dietary restrictions, the holidays are a sort of “perfect storm” for weight gain, digestive issues, and other diet-related health problems.

“The defining characteristic of traditional holiday items like stuffing, traditional gravy and pie is that they’re all extremely high in calories and low in fiber,” says Susan Roberts, director of the Energy Metabolism Laboratory at the USDA Human Nutrition Research Center on Aging (HNRCA) at Tufts University, and author of The “I” Diet. “In other words, they’re the perfect mix of nutritional factors to make you have to eat huge amounts of these foods before you feel content and full.”

Holiday spreads also tend to include a variety of desserts. Refined white flour, added sugars (including “natural” sugars like honey, agave, and maple syrup), and saturated fats are the foundation of our favorite treats, but excess intake is also a recipe for increased risk of diabetes, heart disease, and obesity.

Even just looking at a beautiful spread amplifies the effect. “The sight and smell of abundance triggers real metabolic signals of hunger and expands our stomach so that we need to eat more to feel full,” Roberts says.

Tufts research has found that overeating “situationally” – such as during the holidays – is an important predictor of weight regain after weight loss during other times of the year, Roberts says, adding that many people seem to put on all their excess weight during this time.

The good news is, with a bit of forethought, you can go forth and partake in the festivities without making your body pay the price.

“The best way to prevent post-holiday remorse is to develop strategies ahead of time to avoid overconsumption of unhealthy food and beverages,” says Alice Lichtenstein, director of the HNRCA Cardiovascular Nutrition Laboratory, and professor at the Friedman School of Nutrition Science and Policy at Tufts. “This doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself of holiday favorites; it just means you have to be aware of how much and how frequently.”

Here are some ways you can take control of your holiday eating, from Lichtenstein and other nutrition experts at Tufts.

Be Strategic

Be selective. You don’t have to try everything. Take an overview of everything and focus on just what you absolutely adore or what brings back happy memories. Use a small plate or cocktail napkin to control portion sizes.

Have a plan. Allot yourself a maximum amount you plan to eat each day and stick to it. Store favorite items out of sight to help resist temptation. Consider (contactless) delivery of some of that glut of holiday goodies to family or neighbors, especially those who are not able to connect with others this year, or freeze extras.

Savor the flavors. Give yourself permission to enjoy the pleasures of the holiday season. Savor each (modest) bite and smile as the flavors bring back memories of holidays past and create positive thoughts for holidays to come.