Fall is in full swing, which means beautiful weather, warm drinks, and pumpkin everything. It also means that the holiday season is within sight. With those holiday celebrations upon us, everyone is starting to think about delicious food, gatherings, and special treats.
Though it’s a favorite time of year for many, being around so much food — particularly the heavier, calorie-laden and sugar-filled holiday dishes — can cause us to stray from our healthier habits and experience the effects of an unhealthy diet, such as weight gain, sugar hangovers, and bloating.
Your body goes through several biological changes when the seasons shift, especially moving into fall and winter, and it’s important to nourish yourself properly to allow for those changes and keep yourself in good shape. Your circadian rhythm alters, your mood may shift, and your metabolism slows down.
“As humans, we are evolutionarily wired to consume more and conserve energy during the colder months,” says Christaney Townsend, registered dietitian at PALM Health. In primal times, this was because food was scarce in the winter.
Now, though, we have plenty of food at our disposal, and it just so happens that some of the most food-oriented holidays fall during the autumn and winter months. Thus, we naturally start to consume more than we really need to, and because of the holidays, much of that consumption can easily become unhealthy foods.
The key, however, is balance. You can still enjoy your favorite holiday treats in moderation while maintaining an overall healthy diet and habits.
Christaney Townsend shares several tips when it comes to indulging wisely while also making nutritious choices so you can maintain your weight and your overall health this holiday season.
1. Avoid skipping meals. It can be tempting on the day of a party or a holiday feast to want to “save your calories” for the big dinner so that you can eat everything you want. The truth is that it doesn’t actually work that way. If you skip meals all day and gorge later, it’ll cause an extreme irregularity in your blood sugar: while you’re “fasting,” your blood sugar can dip too low; then when you eat your big holiday feast, it’ll cause a sudden spike in your blood sugar. This may cause headaches and fatigue and leave you feeling ill due to your body’s inability to handle the sudden influx of glucose.
The best thing you can do is to eat three balanced meals per day, even on holidays. This way, your blood sugar will stay stabilized throughout the day and you’ll naturally eat a regular, healthy-sized portion at your celebration because you won’t have been hungry all day.
2. Eat mindfully. Food is one of the best parts of the holiday season, so take the time to enjoy it! Mindful eating is a practice that focuses on your awareness and experience of the food you eat. The goal of this is to break the habit of emotional eating and really tune your mind into your body. This practice allows you to be present as you eat and understand how your food makes your body feel.
Try to enjoy your special holiday meals by being mindful of your food. Eliminate distractions like television, and pay attention to each bite — how it tastes, how it smells. This will allow you to notice more quickly when you are full, which can help you avoid overeating and also help you get the most out of these meals that only come around once a year.
Read more about helpful mindful eating practices you can incorporate into your daily life here.
3. Fit in your favorites. Remember, the key is balance. You don’t have to let the holidays go by without allowing yourself to enjoy your favorite treats. “I tell my patients to think of it as an ‘80/20’ or ‘85/15’ rule,” says Christaney Townsend. “Follow your wholesome diet 80-85% of the time during the holidays, but make a little bit of space for your favorite treats.”
Rigidity may leave you feeling resentful and frustrated, especially at parties and celebrations where others are also indulging. So, don’t deny yourself a small reward. And when you’re enjoying that treat, enjoy it mindfully so that you truly feel fulfilled by it!
4. Pause before seconds. It’s hard not to scarf down the best holiday dishes and go straight back for seconds. But as you probably know, eating several helpings of those heavier foods will often leave you feeling lethargic, bloated, and unwell.
Before you go back for seconds, remember that it takes a full twenty minutes for your body to recognize that it’s full. Once you have finished your first plate, relax for twenty minutes while you’re socializing with your family and friends, and if you still feel hungry after that, then grab a little more food. You may be surprised at how full you feel when you give your body a chance to catch up.
5. Balance your plate. Another way to make sure you’re staying on track with your nutrition during the holidays is to watch how you’re loading up your plate. You may be tempted to pile on those delicious, carb-filled dishes and sweets, but this can drive those blood sugar irregularities that leave you feeling not-so-great and contribute to weight gain.
When you’re making up your plate, shoot for filling half of it with a veggie-based dish, and try to get one protein source, one fiber source, one healthy fat source, and one carb source. The proteins and fibers, especially, will help fill you up properly without spiking your blood sugar, so that later, you can enjoy your carbs and sweets in moderation.
6. Cook with some healthy ingredient swaps. You may not be able to get around making or eating some of the more unhealthy holiday dishes, but there are steps you can take to make those dishes a bit more nutritious (and delicious).
For example, try using plain Greek yogurt instead of sour cream. The yogurt is a great probiotic source and doesn’t contain all the saturated fats in sour cream, and it tastes very similar. “Another one of my favorite tricks is to sneak shredded zucchini or shredded carrots into some dishes,” says Christaney Townsend, “You probably won’t even notice them.”
You can also try making your holiday desserts gluten-free with almond or oat flour, and use alternative sweetening options like honey or maple syrup instead of sugar.
7. Plan ahead for the season. The best way to keep your nutrition healthy during the holidays is to plan your meals ahead of time. If meal-prepping is realistic for you, it can be a great tool to control your portion sizes for lunches and dinners over the next few months and beyond.
If you’re going to a holiday party where you know there will likely only be unhealthy options, bring along a dish of your own. It may be helpful to have a healthy option there that you know you like and that you can control. Similarly, don’t go to those events hungry — you may be tempted to over-indulge in unhealthy options.
These seven tidbits of advice from our registered dietitian are all things you can do on your own, but if you think you may benefit from additional support, PALM has a Healthy Holidays package available to you throughout the holiday season.
With this package, you get two 60-minute nutritional counseling sessions and six 15-minute nutritional check-ins with Christaney spaced out at your convenience, during which you will have the opportunity to discuss what is working, what isn’t working, and what other support you may need with your diet.
This time of year doesn’t have to come with the dread of weight gain and sugar hangovers. But you also don’t have to miss out on your favorite parts of the season to stay healthy. If you approach your nutrition during the holidays with moderation, balance, and attention, you can keep yourself on track for success.