This piece was co-authored by Jaime Coffey Martinez, MS, RD.
The 12 days of Christmas are realistically more like 60+ days of diet sabotage. Sure, the traditional holiday season starts at Thanksgiving and culminates at New Years; however, unhealthy holiday foods are really introduced as early as mid October with fall festivals and Halloween candy. Add in office parties, cookie swaps and social engagements and a healthy diet is derailed.
Holiday food indulgences result in an average of a 1-2 pound weight gain for those of normal weight and a 5+ pounds for overweight or obese individuals. The worst part… the weight is compounding year after year. You can break this unhealthy tradition and stop sabotaging your health around the holidays!
Here are 12 tips in honor of the 12 days of Christmas to get you started.
1. Eat REAL Food
As Michael Pollan says, before you eat something, ask yourself if what you are eating is from plant or was it made in a plant? Unfortunately, we consume large amounts packaged, processed food that consist of added sugar, food coloring, additives, preservatives, artificial sweeteners, pesticides, herbicides, hormones, chemicals, antibiotics and inflammatory fats. These unhealthy ingredients oftentimes replace nutrients in the foods we are eating and can have significant negative impacts on our physical and mental health, including our metabolism! This holiday season, limit artificial and added unhealthy ingredients and begin to incorporate more real food into your daily diet.
2. Reduce Refined Carb Food
Holidays and party menus are abundant with foods high in refined carbohydrates such as breads, white rice, stuffing, potatoes, crackers, chips, and snacks. There are many more we can add to this list, but you get the idea! While carbohydrates provide energy focus on getting this energy from eating whole grains, fruits and vegetables instead of highly processed snacks and white flour. These foods high in refined sugar often contain excess calories which can be stored as fat resulting in expanding waistlines. Additionally, foods high in refined carbohydrates can cause large swings in blood sugar levels that can cause fatigue, irritability and increased hunger. This holiday, reduce foods high in refined carbohydrates and fill your plate instead with proteins, whole grains, quality fats, vegetables and fruits.
3. Skip the Sugar
Sugar is abundant in the standard American diet and according to recent studies can be as addicting as cocaine! The average American consumes 150 pounds of sugar a year. Desserts and sugar-laden beverages are obvious sources; however, hidden sugars are added to 70 percent of grocery store foods. Sugar promotes fat storing, weight gain and an increased risk of chronic disease such as diabetes, cardiovascular disease and cancer. Simple ways to reduce your sugar consumption this holiday season include: reducing the amount of sugar in recipes, skipping or limiting desserts, ditching high sugar beverages such as soda and juices and reading the ingredients of packaged foods. To find those hidden sugars, look at the ingredient list and proceed with caution if sugar is near the top of the list.
4. Portion Control
It takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to send a signal to your brain that you are full and many of us have overeaten before the signal finally arrives. Slow down, chew and enjoy your food. Consider using a smaller plate and reduce your portions, specifically starches! Take double vegetables instead!
5. Caution with Alcohol
Alcoholic beverages are empty calories and are often combined with mixers made up of synthetic or added sugars that further increase calories. Alcohol also lowers inhibitions and increases hunger resulting in subsequent poor food choices. Moderation is key and avoid mixers! Try alternating an alcoholic beverage with a non-alcoholic one or water down your drinks with seltzer.
6. Prepare for Parties
One of the worst things you can do is arrive hungry to a party, as you are more likely to overeat and make bad decisions. Scope out your options and try to make the best food choices with what is available. Plan ahead and eat healthy foods prior to arrival and don’t skip meals earlier in the day. Start your day off right with a nutritious breakfast that includes protein, healthy fats and vegetables. A balanced breakfast will prevent the blood sugar spikes connected to the traditional carb filled breakfast.
7. Keep Your Kitchen Clean
Temptation is everywhere but it doesn’t have to be in your home! Clean up your pantry this holiday season by getting rid of high calorie, low nutrition foods. Stock up on healthy snacks such as vegetables, fruits, and nuts and prepare balanced meals that will provide satiety and nutrition.
8. Watch the Sodium
In addition to sugar, salt is abundant in packaged, processed foods and in restaurants.Excessive sodium intake can lead to headaches, water retention, swelling and increased thirst. If you choose to imbibe, you will likely drink more if you are eating salty foods. Thus the reason restaurants serve salted snacks at the bar. Substitute spices for table salt in recipes or try Himalayan Salt as it contains essential minerals, helps regulate blood sugar levels, and the body’s natural sleep cycle.
9. Disaffiliate from the Clean Plate Club
Listen to your body and stop eating when you feel full. Despite what you were told as a child, you don’t have to finish everything on your plate. Avoid seconds if a buffet is available. Just because it is all you can eat, doesn’t mean you are obliged to do so.
Despite your schedule being jam-packed this holiday season, stay active and committed to an exercise program. Aerobic and strength training improves metabolism, increases caloric expenditure and helps with weight management. Physical activity also helps to regulate appetite, increase energy and reduce stress that is generally compounded by the holidays!
Your body needs sleep! Without adequate rest, your immune system is compromised. Getting sick is never fun, but getting sick during the holidays is awful. Just one night of insufficient sleep can help contribute to increased appetite, carb cravings and reduced willpower. Aim for 7-8 hours of sleep every night.
12. Plan for Success
Set realistic health goals during the holidays and hold yourself accountable. Reduce the added stress holidays bring by visualizing success and make a plan. Don’t bite off more than you can chew, both literally and figuratively. Make the holidays about spending time with friends and family instead of food and drinks.
Following these tips will lead to a healthier and happier you this holiday season and for holidays to come!