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Healthy Holiday Eating: Navigating Nutritional Challenges and Temptations

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Healthy Holiday Eating: Navigating Nutritional Challenges and Temptations

The holiday season is well underway, bringing excitement, cheer, and oh-so-much food. While the appetizers galore, buffet-style family dinners, and decadent deserts taste delicious, many people are tempted to overindulge, find guilt after overeating, or restrict themselves to wishing away the holidays. Food has become a societal cornerstone, woven into families, friends, and cultural celebrations. Although it can feel complex and seemingly impossible to maintain healthy holiday eating, here are strategies to help you navigate this holiday season and maintain healthy habits. 


Understanding the Nutritional Challenges of the Holidays 

The holidays change routines, including lifestyle and nutritional habits. Exposure and access to rich, high-portion, and caloric-dense food is plentiful during the holiday season. This can often lead to overindulgence, especially in foods you may not typically eat. The significance of this is that it is not a single-day occurrence; the holidays run from November through New Year celebrations. The ongoing consumption of high-caloric foods can shift a person's health, primarily their weight. Literature states that, on average, an American gains 1 to 2 pounds per year, with the primary time frame being the last quarter of the year. 

One aspect contributing to holiday eating is the psychological factors around eating. In general, food is often used as a way to cope. With holiday stress, anxiety, depression, and other mental and emotional aspects, this time of the year makes social, cultural, and family gatherings more challenging for some who lean into this coping mechanism. Finding a balance between enjoying the festivities and maintaining a healthy boundary with your dietary choices can be difficult. Having a foundation of healthy eating habits and understanding what is nourishing for your body will help set the foundation for your diet. Once you know your dos and don’ts, embracing holiday eating becomes more about enjoying within reason and leaving behind what does not serve your long-term well-being.

Setting Realistic Goals and Expectations 

Maintaining a healthy diet during the holidays can still occur with some flexibility in mind. You will inevitably veer off your regular diet during the holiday. Still, it’s essential to maintain some boundaries that will help support both your physical and mental health in the long run. Realistic goals would be to not set yourself up for failure- if you want to lose weight, do not make this the time to start. If you know you’ll be traveling, have healthy snack options and a nutritious meal beforehand. 

You may be tempted to go the all-or-nothing routine, but that oftentimes leads to unenjoyment at gatherings or an abundance of calories. Instead, nurture your body through mindful eating. This allows you to take mental notes about which foods make you feel good and which deplete you while also helping you recognize when you feel full. Mindful eating during the holidays focuses on listening to your body for these cues, which will reinforce decisions that align with feeling your best. 

Navigating Holiday Parties and Gatherings

The abundance of holiday events may tempt you to indulge in sweets and step outside your health regimen. Making an agreement with yourself to stay within the bounds of foods that help you thrive and deciding what treats you will indulge in before attending a party is helpful. This allows you to mentally prepare and create an expectation that will enable you to enjoy but limit the overindulgence. Some helpful tips include eating a meal ahead of time, at your regular scheduled meal times, using a smaller plate at the party, choosing one or two carbohydrate-rich options rather than having them all, and being the one who brings a health option that you can eat guilt-free.

Much more than food, there can be social pressure to consume alcohol over the holidays. If you do not drink alcohol, a simple “no, thank you should suffice,” but frequently, people feel pressured just by being in the company of others who are consuming it. Managing social eating pressures can go much smoother when you are the host. If given the option and you can, hosting allows you to set the stage for the food and beverages offered. Whether it is food or drink, bringing or offering a health-conscious option that aligns with your preference can make gatherings and parties more enjoyable. 

Healthy Holiday Recipes and Substitutions 

Holiday meals can be both delicious and nutritious. Making meals from scratch with whole-food ingredients is the most nutrient-dense way option. This could look like homemade dips with veggies, healthy fats in sweet potato casseroles, or homemade sourdough rolls for holiday dinner. You can still enjoy many of your favorite holiday foods by making nutritious substitutions for festive dishes by swapping out undesirable ingredients for something that sits well with your metabolism, food sensitivities, or overall health. Regarding desserts, there are various ways to make the dish healthier while still holding onto the flavor. 

Some simple swaps include decreasing total fat and calories by using a ¼ cup less of the butter or oil than the recipe calls for, reducing the salt in the dish, exchanging the white sugar for stevia, honey, or dates, and increasing the fiber content when possible. Condiments and alcohol can quickly add up during holiday feasts, so being mindful of the sauces you are adding to dishes and how much alcohol you are consuming can help you reduce excessive calories. If you're assigned to bring a dish to a party this year, here are some healthy recipe options. One of my favorites is trading traditional mashed potatoes for a creamy, flavorful cauliflower mash!

Maintaining Physical Activity and Hydration 

Health maintenance during the holidays includes regular physical activity and adequate hydration. One study found that 45% of people take a break from their exercise routine during the holiday season. When time becomes fleeting and action-packed, exercise is one of the first habits to go on the back burner. While this is lower on the totem pole, it is highly encouraged that you maintain physical activity in your holiday routine. Physical activity is an excellent way to mitigate the indulgences of the holidays. Studies have revealed that walking for as little as two minutes after a meal can significantly help with blood sugar regulation and overall cardiometabolic health. While it may be tempting to succumb to the couch potato mentality, doing a few labs about the house first may actually benefit you more than you think.  

One health hack that can minimize the quantity of food you eat over the holidays is to drink plenty of water. The average goal for hydration is half your body weight in ounces of water per day. Staying hydrated could decrease hunger and make that dessert table look less tempting. Hydration and healthy eating can go hand in hand since added calories can also come in beverages. Aiming to have water as your primary beverage during the holidays can significantly reduce your calories. A few tips to make water a primary hydration source are: always bring your refillable water bottle to parties, add fruit like limes or lemons to enhance the flavor if needed or opt for naturally flavored sparkling water. Maintaining physical activity will also support healthy hydration and vice versa. 

Dealing with Setbacks and Staying Motivated

Mindset is vital when managing nutrition setbacks and staying motivated over the holidays. Being mindful of holiday stressors and the chaos that can become the holidays while staying on track can be challenging. It’s essential to have realistic goals during this time that don’t leave you in a place of feeling guilty or shameful over any setback that ensues. Resilience, or the ability to bounce back once the holidays are over, is something you can look forward to and set your mind on. Having a healthy focus at the start of the holiday while creating some dietary wiggle room will leave you feeling calm and confident in your decisions. 


Healthy Holiday Eating: Key Takeaways

The hustle and bustle of the holiday season can change your eating habits and cause setbacks, but it does not need to break the momentum you have for your health. Going into the holidays with a healthy mindset and plan can help bypass many nutritional hurdles. Whether bringing healthy food options to parties, offering to host an alcohol-free gathering, implementing short walks after meals, or drinking extra water, nutrition navigation over the holidays can be created with intention. It may not look exactly how you planned, but embracing healthy holiday eating with specific boundaries and some flexibility may be an enjoyable holiday on pace to pick up a lifestyle you had going into the season. 

The information provided is not intended to be a substitute for professional medical advice. Always consult with your doctor or other qualified healthcare provider before taking any dietary supplement or making any changes to your diet or exercise routine.
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