Tis the holiday season, a time full of Christmas lights, holiday parties and an abundance of delicious food.
The end of the year is quickly creeping up and it can seem like there isn’t time to manage your health in addition to events to organize, gifts to buy and family to see. You may be one of the 64% of Americans surveyed who plan to delay their health aspirations until the start of the new year.
But a healthy diet is not only possible, but desirable, experts told USA TODAY. Here’s what else to keep in mind this year.
How to eat healthy during the holidays
Health is much more than the food you put in your mouth, but healthy habits can certainly start at mealtime. If you want to stay healthy this holiday season but don’t know where to start, try these tips from registered dietitians.
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1. Release the all-or-nothing mindset
Some go to extremes when it comes to holiday eating. On the one hand is the “free for all” mindset during the end of the year and getting back on track in January. On the other hand, some follow a strict diet and avoid participating in the holiday party altogether.
This all-or-nothing mindset ultimately sets you up for failure, says Cara Collier, a registered dietitian and co-founder and vice president of health at wellness-tech startup Nutrisense.
Instead, you can frame it with the 80-20 rule, she recommends. This means choosing nutrient-dense foods 80% of the time, but recognizing your body’s desire to eat nutrient-dense foods the other 20% of the time.
Allow yourself some leeway and wiggle room built into your meal plan for meals that may be outside of what’s ideal, so you’re building flexibility into your plan instead of feeling like a failure.
2. Prioritize nutrition and proper meals
When hunger strikes and you have leftover treats on the counter, it can be tempting to reach for candy or cookies first.
But licensed dietitian nutritionist Abra Pappa has a message before you grab one cookie and candy is not a meal. It’s important to eat three full meals filled with every macronutrient (protein, fat, and complex carbohydrates) year-round, but especially support a holiday diet with fewer nutrients, she says. Read USA TODAY’s guide to making the healthiest breakfast and lunch here.
It sounds so simple, but one of the biggest changes we can make about eating during the holidays is not sacrificing the need to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner, Pope says. If you eat well-balanced meals, then of course it’s easier for us to balance out sweets.
3. Respect family traditions
We attach cultural and emotional meaning to food, which is why our holidays include social gatherings centered around food. You can be mindful of balance and nutrient-dense options while also prioritizing comfort foods and family traditions.
“Make sure you respect that, and it doesn’t push them away because that thread of connection with food can be a healing time,” Pope says.
A healthy lifestyle is more than just physical health, registered dietitians told USA TODAY; it also takes into account your mental, emotional and social well-being. Many food fads demonize foods from black, Asian and Hispanic communities, which experts told USA TODAY can lead to feelings of shame and harm the mental or emotional aspects of healthy eating. In general, but especially around the holidays, prioritize tradition and culturally significant food.
4. Appreciate the cooking process
Intention doesn’t just start when you sit down to eat, it starts in the kitchen.
Reflecting on her family’s cooking process, Papa previously told USA TODAY how important it is to start with fresh ingredients and take the extra step of making things from scratch. The benefits of home-cooked meals are numerous as you spend time in the kitchen with your loved ones and it also allows you to control what is in the food you eat.
There’s always been that cherished tradition of valuing ingredients and valuing the food you start with, Pope says. And I think from both a culinary perspective and a nutritional perspective it makes a huge, huge difference.
5. Avoid stigmatizing the language
Approach eating this holiday with curiosity, compassion and context, registered dietitian Kat Benson told USA TODAY. What do you want this food to do for you in terms of taste, feel and nutrition? How do you want it to serve you in the context of your day?
Registered dietitian Rose Britt also advises against labeling food as junk or bad. For parents who want to instill healthy habits in children, Britt recommends serving small desserts with a meal instead of after it. It helps kids see the whole plate because good vegetables aren’t just something gross to get to the good stuff.
“We can set ourselves up for that behavior if we internalize the shame that I ate this bad candy, so now I’m a bad person,” Britt previously told USA TODAY.
6. Keep other aspects of your health under control
Beyond the physical, mental, emotional and social impact of food, it’s important to look at your health holistically during the holiday chaos.
This time of year is busy, but try to fit a regular walk, run or exercise into your week, experts advise. Regular exercise has physical and mental health benefits, including combating seasonal depression.
You’d be surprised how much just 10 minutes of movement after eating can help, Collier told USA TODAY.
It is also useful to check your sleeping habits. A consistent bedtime routine can improve both the quality and quantity of sleep, setting you up for success before parties and busy days. Read USA TODAY’s expert tips for improving sleep hygiene here.
What is your stress level? Are you worried about upcoming family gatherings and gift shopping? We’ve got tips on how to handle awkward questions at the dinner table, what to do if your family hates your partner, and how to manage chronic stress, which experts say should be taken seriously.
7. How to move around the snack table
At holiday parties, we sometimes fill up before the side dishes or the main course even hits the table. With an abundance of appetizers and snack bowls, it’s easy to overeat and develop unhealthy habits. To adhere to the guidelines of moderation, the Pope recommends serving yourself and then walking away from the table.
When there are tables of food, make yourself a plate and step back, Pope says. I think a lot of mindless eating happens when you’re leaning against that desk all night.
He also recommends giving preference to traditional holiday foods over year-round snacks like chips and pretzels.
8. How to manage diabetes around the holidays
People with diabetes are encouraged to avoid added sugar and refined starches, two food categories that often appear in holiday spreads. Collier, whose work with Nutrisense includes glucose monitoring, advises diabetics to carefully measure the carbohydrates they choose to put on their plate and prioritize fiber and protein sources instead.
Desserts can be heavy on the sugar, so she recommends getting creative with keto and low-carb recipes.
Bring a sugar-free or low-sugar dessert option you enjoy so you know there’s something, Collier says.
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating concerns, contact the National Eating Disorders Alliance’s toll-free therapist helpline at866-662-1235for emotional support or referral for treatment.If you are in crisis or need 24/7 emergency support,text “ALLIANCE” to 741741.
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