It’s the holiday season, a time filled with Christmas lights, holiday parties and lots of delicious food.
The end of the year is fast approaching, and you may feel that there is no time to manage your health on top of the events to organize, gifts to buy and family to see. Perhaps you are one of the 64% of Americans surveyed who plan to delay their health aspirations until the beginning of the new year.
But eating healthy is not only possible, it’s preferred, 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” mentality.
Some tend towards extremes when it comes to holiday eating. On one end is a free-for-all mentality throughout the end of the year and back on track in January. On the other hand, some adopt a strict diet and avoid participating in holiday entertainment altogether.
This all-or-nothing mentality is setting you up for failure, says Kara Collier, a registered dietitian and the co-founder and VP of Health at wellness-tech startup Nutrisense.
Instead, you can frame it with the 80-20 rule, she recommends. This means that you choose nutrient-dense foods 80% of the time, but acknowledge your body’s desire to eat less nutrient-dense foods the other 20% of the time.
“Leave yourself some freedom and some wiggle room built into your plan for meals that are maybe outside of what’s “ideal” so that you’re building flexibility into your plan instead of feeling like a failure. “
2. Prioritize nutrition and real 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 nutritionist dietitian Abra Pappa has a message before you grab one — cookies and candy are not meals. It’s important year-round to eat three meals complete with each macronutrient (protein, fat and complex carbohydrates), but especially to support less nutrient-dense holiday eating, he says. Read USA TODAY’s guide to building the healthiest breakfast and lunch here.
“It seems so simple, but this is one of the biggest changes we can make around eating during the holidays is not sacrificing the need to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Pappa. “If you eat well-balanced meals then we naturally have an easier time balancing sweets.”
3. Honor family traditions
We attach cultural and emotional meaning to food—that’s why our celebratory holidays involve social gatherings centered around food. You can keep an eye out for balance and nutrient-dense options, while also prioritizing comfort food and family traditions.
“Make sure that (you) honor that, and that we don’t abandon them because that thread of connection with food can be a healing time,” says Pappa.
A healthy lifestyle is about more than just physical health, registered dietitians previously told USA TODAY; it also takes into account your mental, emotional and social well-being. Many diet fads demonize food from black, Asian and Latino communities which experts told USA TODAY can lead to feelings of shame and undermine the mental or emotional aspects of a healthy diet. In general – but especially around the holidays – prioritize traditions and culturally significant foods.
4. Value the cooking process
“Intention” doesn’t just start when you’re eating, it starts in the kitchen.
Reflecting on his family’s cooking process, Pappa previously told USA TODAY the importance of starting with fresh ingredients and going the extra mile to make things from scratch. The benefits of home-cooked meals are numerous – it’s time spent cooking with loved ones and it also allows you to control what’s in the food you eat.
“There’s always been this time-honored tradition of valuing the ingredients and valuing the food you started with,” says Pappa. “And I think both from a culinary perspective and a nutritional perspective that makes a huge, huge difference.”
5. Avoid stigmatizing language
Approach eating this holiday with curiosity, compassion and context, registered dietitian Kat Benson previously told USA TODAY. What do you want this food for you in terms of taste, feeling 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 trying to instill healthy habits in children, Britt recommends serving small desserts with a meal instead of after. Help children see their healthy plate as good – vegetables are not just something ugly to pass to get to the good stuff.
“We can prepare ourselves for that binge-eating behavior if we internalize the shame of ‘I ate this candy, so now I’m a bad person,'” Britt previously told USA TODAY.
6. Keep other aspects of your health in check
Aside from the physical, mental, emotional and social impacts of food, it’s important to look after your health holistically during the chaos of the holidays.
This time of year is busy, but try to incorporate a regular walk, run or workout into your week, experts advise. Regular exercise has benefits for both physical and mental health, including fighting seasonal depression.
“You’d be surprised how much just 10 minutes of movement after eating helps,” Collier previously told USA TODAY.
It is also useful to check your sleeping habits. A consistent sleep routine can improve the quality and quantity of sleep, setting you up for success before parties and busy days. Read the tips recommended by USA TODAY experts for improving sleep hygiene here.
How are your stress levels? Are you looking forward to the upcoming family gatherings and gift shopping? We have tips on how to deal with 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 navigate the party snack table
At holiday parties, we sometimes fill up before the side dishes or main course even comes out on the table. With appetizers and snack bowls galore, it’s easy to overeat and develop unhealthy habits. To maintain the lines of moderation, Pappa recommends serving yourself and then walking away from the table.
“When there are tables of food, make yourself a plate and walk away,” says Pappa. “I think a lot of mindless eating happens when we’re leaning against that table all night.”
She also recommends prioritizing traditional holiday foods over snacks you can have year-round, 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 involves glucose monitoring, advises diabetics to carefully weigh the carbohydrates they choose to put on their plate and instead prioritize sources of fiber and protein.
Desserts can be heavy with sugar, so we recommend getting creative with keto and low carb recipes.
“Bring a sugar-free or low-sugar dessert option that you like so you know there’s something,” says Collier.
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 at 866-662-1235 for emotional support or treatment referrals. If you are in crisis or need immediate support, 24/7, text “ALLIANCE” to 741741.
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