Did you know that the traditional American Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner packs an average of 3000 calories? Now, no one ever said holiday dinners were ‘healthy’, but you might be surprised to learn that merry holiday meals are the cause of many Americans gaining between one and three pounds each year. That might not sound like a lot until you consider that those pounds are gained over a short four-week time span!
Especially difficult is that many of us now coordinate multiple family visits. With each, we’re tempted by double or triple the bounty of dishes—many of which likely contain inconceivable amounts of sugar, fat, and oil.
So, how to watch your waistline? Here are our tips on game planning to make the best possible choices, while still enjoying everyone’s favorite meals of the year.
1. Eat a Good Breakfast
Spontaneity is not your friend when it comes to making healthy eating choices. While some folks might think it makes sense to skip breakfast, thereby saving calories for the day’s big meal, doing so is more likely to make you gorge once that heaping plate is placed in front of you. That’s because when we get hungry, we reach for whatever’s available. And around the holidays, the choices put in front of you are even more tempting than usual.
Instead, start your day with a small but satisfying breakfast, which WebMD experts still support as the most important meal of the day. Even if you’re short on time due to holiday travel plans, try to whip up something that focuses on protein and fiber—such as an egg with a slice of whole-wheat toast, or a bowl of whole-grain cereal with low-fat milk. Doing so will take the edge off of your appetite so that you won't be starving by the time your reach the hors d'oeuvres.
2. Start With a Soup
Kicking off your meal with soup will help you slow down while eating, and research has shown it may even reduce the number of calories you consume at your main meal.
What if there isn’t any soup being served? Stash a few packets of miso or a dehydrated vegetable soup in your bag and simply mix into a microwaved mug of hot water. Doing so is a discreet way to curb your appetite before being served.
3. Police Your Portions
Whether you’re doling out your own portions, or you’re at the mercy of a well-meaning relative who insists on passing out plates piled high with “a little bit of everything,” your most important decision is to take responsibility for what you eat.
Especially difficult over the holidays, when it’s easy to tell ourselves that it’s not our fault if the dishes in front of us are deliciously rich—or that our loved ones might consider it rude if we don’t go back for seconds and visibly stuff ourselves.
But that’s simply not true—no one has any say in what you put in your mouth but you.
Don’t want your eating habits to incite comments from family? There are stealthy ways to eat smart. (And no, we don’t mean feeding leftovers to the dog under the table.) The easiest way to control your calorie intake is to take small portions and eat them slowly, so it looks like you’ve had a full plate throughout the meal. If there’s a lot of pressure to eat pie, there’s no shame in “developed a food allergy” to explain why they’re skipping the breaded goods. After all, going gluten-free is such a trend nowadays, it barely raises any eyebrows.
4. Know Which Veggies to Fill Up On
As tempting as marshmallow-covered yams or creamy mashed potatoes can be, they’re not much better for your waistline than guzzling a boat of gravy.
Instead, attempt to fill up half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables, including brussel sprouts, green beans, carrots, bell peppers, or the always-trustworthy green salad (light on the dressing). Then, allow higher-calorie vegetables, such as corn, potatoes, green peas, and winter squashes, to take up another quarter of your plate.
If you’re hosting a holiday meal, are bringing a dish, or are helping out in the kitchen, help others make healthier choices by seasoning colorful vegetables with herbs, spices, onions and garlic to flavor them with fewer calories. You can also add a healthy twist to classic comfort foods, such as replacing green bean casserole with some grilled green beans flavored with garlic and red pepper flakes.
Hosts take note: We tend to overeat when presented with a wide variety of foods, so if you want to give your guests a medley of dishes, including multiple vegetable-based options can help to keep your loved ones healthier.
5. Eat Mindfully
Ever looked up from your morning paper (or your iPad) and discovered your entire breakfast is gone, and you don’t remember eating it? Not only does allowing yourself to be distracted while eating reduce your enjoyment of your meal, a Harvard study shows that not paying attention as you bring your fork to your mouth may directly be linked to weight gain.
That’s not to say that you shouldn’t enjoy engaging your friends and family in conversation during your meal! However, changing the way that you eat, in addition to what you eat, is a smart way to make sure you don’t become another holiday weight gain statistic.
One of the best ways to do so is called ‘mindful eating,’ which research shows aids weight loss. Mindful eating gives you permission to eat the foods you love, eating them slowly while tasting and enjoying every bite. Here are some of Harvard’s tips:
- Make note of the time on your watch before you take your first bite, and then make sure you take at least 20 minutes to complete what’s on your plate.
- While it might be awkward, try eating with your non-dominant hand; if you’re a righty, hold your fork in your left hand when lifting food to your mouth.
- Don’t mind staying out of the conversation? The article suggests eating silently for five minutes, taking the time to think about what it took to produce that meal as you do so.
- Take small bites and chew well.
- Before taking each bite—or another serving—take a breath and ask yourself, “Am I really hungry?” If you’re unsure, do something else, like reading or going on a short walk.
6. Go Easy On the Alcoholic Beverages
Not only do the calories from alcohol add up quickly, research suggests that drinking alcoholic beverages before a meal can actually result in increased fat storage.
When you drink alcohol, it's broken down into acetate (basically vinegar), which your body will burn before any other calorie you've consumed or stored—including fat or sugar. So, if you drink and then consume more calories than you need (which is likely during holiday meals), the alcohol in your system makes it more likely that your body will store fat from those mashed potatoes and turkey that you ate. That’s because it already got all its energy from the acetate in the holiday punch you drank before eating.
Further, studies show that alcohol temporarily inhibits ‘lipid oxidation’—in other words, when alcohol is in your system, it's harder for your body to burn fat that's already there. Since eating fattening foods is the most metabolically efficient way to put fat on your body—you actually use a small amount of calories when you turn excess carbs and protein into body fat, but excess fat slips right into your potbelly—combining drinks with a high-fat meal is pretty much the easiest way to convince your body to pack on the extra pounds.
7. Finally, Be Realistic About Holiday Your Weight Goals Over the Holidays
Not only is the holiday season a time for celebration, the addition of extra social obligations, busy schedules, and so many temptations means that this isn’t an ideal time of year to strive for losing inches off your waistline.
Instead, focus on weight maintenance and, come January first, you’ll already be ahead of the hordes hitting the gym to work off all those second and third helpings.
And if you do overindulge? Make like Elsa and let it go. Recent brain research shows that punishing yourself for a bad choice makes it more likely that you’ll repeat the poor decision—a pattern that quickly leads to falling off the weight-maintenance wagon.
A better choice is to focus on what you did right, and compliment yourself, since creating a positive feedback loop is one of the best ways to ensure a healthy habit sticks. How so? Saying “Wow, you said no to that third glass of wine, good for you!” will do you more good than, “Geez I shouldn’t have eaten that second piece of pie.” By turning your focus towards your healthy-habit successes, you have a better chance of taking care of yourself tomorrow and in the future.