It’s the holiday season, a time full of Christmas lights, holiday parties and lots of delicious food.
The end of the year is quickly creeping up, and it can seem like there’s no time to manage your health beyond events to organize, gifts to buy and family to see. Maybe you’re one of the 64% of Americans surveyed who plan to put off their health aspirations until the start of the new year.
But eating healthy is not only possible, it’s preferable, experts told USA TODAY. Here’s what else to remember 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. Let go of the all-or-nothing mentality
Some people tend to go to extremes when it comes to holiday eating. On the one hand, it’s a free-for-all mindset to get back on track at the end of the year and in January. On the other hand, some are on a strict diet and avoid holiday entertainment altogether.
This all-or-nothing mentality ultimately sets you up for failure, says Cara Collier, a registered dietitian and co-founder and vice president of health at health tech startup Nutrisense.
Instead, you can frame it with the 80-20 rule, she advises. This means choosing nutrient-dense foods 80% of the time, but recognizing your body’s desire to eat less nutrient-dense foods the other 20%.
“Allowing yourself a little leeway and wiggle room for meals in your plan that are maybe outside of ‘ideal’ so you build flexibility into your plan as opposed to feeling like a failure.”
2. Prioritize nutrition and real meals
When hunger strikes and leftovers are displayed on the counter, it can feel tempting to reach for candy or cookies first.
But before you pick it up, licensed dietitian nutritionist Abra Pappa has a message: Cookies and candy are not food. It’s important to eat three full meals year-round that are packed with every macronutrient (protein, fat, and complex carbohydrates), but especially favor less nutrient-dense holiday eating, she says. Read USA TODAY’s guide to creating the healthiest breakfast and lunch here.
“It sounds so simple, but it’s one of the biggest shifts we can make when it comes to eating during the holidays — not sacrificing the need to eat breakfast, lunch and dinner,” says Pappa. “If you eat balanced meals, we naturally balance out sweets more easily.”
3. Respect family traditions
We attribute cultural and emotional significance to food, which is why our holiday celebrations include social gatherings centered around food. You can pursue balance and nutrient-dense options while prioritizing comfort food and family traditions.
“Make sure (you) respect that and that we’re not going to turn them away, because that thread of connection with food can be a healing time,” Pappa says.
A healthy lifestyle is more than just physical health, former registered dietitians told USA TODAY. it also considers your mental, emotional and social well-being. Many fad diets demonize the food of black, Asian and Latino communities, which experts tell USA TODAY can lead to feelings of shame and undermine the mental or emotional aspects of healthy eating. In general, but especially around the holidays, prioritize traditions and culturally significant foods.
4. Evaluate the cooking process
“Intention” doesn’t just start when you sit down to eat, it starts in the kitchen.
Reflecting on his family’s cooking process, Pappa previously told USA TODAY about the importance of starting with fresh ingredients and taking the extra step of making things from scratch. The advantages of home-cooked meals are numerous. it allows you to spend time in the kitchen with your loved ones and control what’s in the food you eat.
“There’s always been this time honored tradition of appreciating the ingredients and appreciating the food you’re starting with,” Pappa says. “And I think from both a culinary and a nutritional perspective that makes a huge, huge difference.”
5. Avoid stigmatization
Approach eating this holiday with curiosity, compassion and context, registered dietitian Kat Benson previously 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 foods as “junk” or “bad.” For parents who want to instill healthy habits in their children, Britt recommends serving a small dessert with meals instead of a meal. It helps children see their whole plate as good. vegetables aren’t just junk with which to achieve good things.
“We can set ourselves up for that naughty behavior if we internalize the shame of ‘I ate this bad candy, so now I’m a bad person,'” Britt previously told USA TODAY.
6. Maintain other aspects of your health
In addition to the physical, mental, emotional and social effects of food, it’s important to take a holistic look at your health 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 physical and mental health benefits, including combating seasonal depression.
“You’d be surprised how much just 10 minutes of movement after a meal can help,” Collier previously told USA TODAY.
It’s also helpful to check your sleep habits. A consistent bedtime routine can improve both the quality and quantity of sleep, setting you up for success before parties and busy days ahead. Read tips from USA TODAY’s experts to improve your sleep hygiene here.
How are your stress levels? 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 navigate a party snack table
At holiday parties, we sometimes fill up on appetizers or main courses before they even come out on the table. With an abundance of appetizers and snacks, it’s easy to overeat and develop unhealthy habits. To maintain moderation guidelines, Papa recommends serving yourself and then leaving the table.
“When there are food tables, make yourself a plate and leave,” says Pappa. “I think a lot of mindless eating happens when we’re leaning against that table all night.”
She also recommends choosing traditional holiday foods over year-round snacks like chips and pretzels.
8. How to manage diabetes during the holidays
People with diabetes are advised to avoid added sugars and refined starches, two food categories that often appear in holiday spreads. Collier, whose work with Nutrisense includes glucose monitoring, advises diabetics to carefully weigh the carbohydrates they choose to put on their plate and prioritize fiber and protein sources instead.
Desserts can be heavy on sugar, so she recommends getting creative with keto and low-carb recipes.
“Bring a sugar-free or low-sugar dessert that you like so you know there’s something in there,” Collier says.
If you or someone you know is struggling with body image or eating issues, contact the National Eating Disorders Alliance’s toll-free therapist helpline: 866-662-1235 for emotional support or treatment referrals. If you are in crisis or need immediate 24/7 support, text “ALLIANCE” to 741741.
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