Every holiday enjoys its own specialty foods, which are often high in calories and fat. The time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s is unique in that it’s a multi-week stretch filled with rich delicacies. One day of eating like crazy at a summer barbecue might not add pounds to your frame, but several days a week for the entire month of December sure will.
Striking a balance between eating healthy and enjoying some indulgent treats sounds just about impossible, but it’s more doable than you think. Dr. Caroline Cederquist, a bariatric physician who specializes in weight management and co-founder of BistroMD, spoke to us about how to make healthful eating a part of the holidays. She said it’s most beneficial to “just do a little bit of thinking ahead and planning.”
Coming up with an exact game plan can be intimidating, so we asked Cederquist to share her best tips for a range of scenarios. Follow these suggestions and you really can have your cake, or cookie, or creamy casserole, and eat it too.
1. Eat before heading to a party
Between work events and bashes with your friends, the parties just keep on coming during December. Most of these aren’t sit down dinners, but cocktail events with passed hors d’oeuvres or an appetizer table. While these nibbles taste great, they don’t provide any sort of nutritional benefit. “It makes much more sense to go ahead and have some lean protein before you go,” Cederquist said. Good choices include eggs, fish, and poultry. Vegetarians might want to go for some tofu or beans.
Most people make the mistake of trying to turn the snacks at holiday parties into a meal. “You end up entering the party over-hungry, so while there are foods you enjoy and would like to have, you’re so hungry that you eat much more than you planned to,” Cederquist explained. The better bet is to eat a light dinner before you meet up with your friends or colleagues. “You can take a couple of hors d’ouevres, but you’re not trying to make your whole dinner of it because it wasn’t meant to be dinner,” she added.
Some people go the extreme route of not eating for the entire day, reasoning they can’t possibly consume more than 24 hours worth of calories at one event. This might be true, but weight isn’t the only variable at play. A 2007 study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition found subjects who ate just one meal per day lost a bit of weight, but were significantly more hungry, experienced an increase in blood pressure, and also saw an increase in cholesterol. A similar study from 2011 found this type of eating can also throw off your immune system, which could spell trouble at the height of flu season.
2. Build a smarter plate at the buffet
Holiday buffets are the real calorie killers because the more we see, the more we want to try. “We evolved during periodic food shortages, so having variety really does tend to trigger eating,” Cederquist explained. And there’s plenty of science that explains the link between evolution and eating. In her TED talk about why dieting is so difficult, neuroscientist Sandra Aamodt explained, “When food was scarce, our ancestors’ survival depended on conserving energy, and regaining weight would have protected them against the next shortage.” Though few of us will ever encounter these long stretches without nourishment, our bodies and brains never got the memo. This means when we see food, we want to dig in.
Once again, protein is your friend. Nearly every holiday meal features some sort of protein, so make that roast turkey or shrimp cocktail the focal point of your meal and fill in with reasonable portions of sides. “If you want to have a taste, have a tablespoonful because you might find there are four different carb dishes you want to try,” Cederquist said. “If you took a serving of all of them, then you would have too much.”
Though many of these rich, buttery dishes will hit the spot, you’re likely to taste a few that are really just alright. When this happens, toss it in the trash. “Get it off your plate,” Cederquist warned. “If it’s on your plate, you’ll keep working on it.”
For some, relatives are a bigger problem than the food. Certain family members pride themselves on the dishes they cook, so they take it personally if you don’t grab a serving. Cederquist recommended taking a small amount, complimenting the cook, then being firm that you can’t possibly eat anymore. “The key is to praise it, then let it go,” she said.
3. Enjoy alcohol in moderation
Cocktail parties are called cocktail parties for a reason. The temptation with these events is to down alcoholic beverages in quick succession. Doing this can leave you unexpectedly intoxicated and also spur more eating. “It really ends up making you hungrier,” Cederquist said. “It stimulates your appetite.” And don’t forget, alcohol itself contains a lot of calories. A 5-ounce glass of wine contains about 125 calories, according to the USDA, and most bartenders pour a significantly larger portion than this. Several glasses is like adding another meal to your day.
Once again, Cederquist recommended eating beforehand, deciding how many drinks you want to have, then sticking to it. “You can say to yourself, ‘I’m going to have one glass or two glasses of wine,’ or whatever it is, but there’s a plan to it,” she said. If you are going to have multiple drinks, slow yourself down and rehydrate with plenty of water.
The one cocktail that you really have to watch out for is eggnog. “A wine spritzer or any of the lighter cocktails are just going to be a better choice than something that’s cream-based,” Cederquist said. If you can’t say no to the creamy beverage, make it count as both your cocktail and dessert for the day.
4. Choose indulgences wisely
This time of year is pretty much synonymous with dessert. The butterier and chocolatier, the better. Don’t try to tell yourself you can’t try any of these treats because you’ll just find yourself obsessing over them. Again, having a plan is the best method. Cederquist used the example of a chocolate fudge cake, saying you should hold out for this one treat instead of loading up on other things you don’t really care about. “I find we get tripped up by things we weren’t planning to have,” she said.
When you find yourself faced with a massive dessert table, do a once-over before you start filling your plate. Set a limit on how many things you’re going to try, and then make your selections. Cederquist said you should ask yourself, “Does it look worth the calories? Does it look like something I will really enjoy?” If not, skip it and move on.
As for cookie swaps, fight the urge to get one of every type of treat. Cederquist explained, “12 cookies that are exactly the same are a little less tempting than 12 completely different cookies.” The other key is to share with others both in the spirit of holiday giving and as a strategy to make sure you don’t eat the entire platter yourself.
5. Be a good host
So what if you’re hosting a holiday party or dinner? You’re obviously in control of the food, but you don’t want to force your guests to eat undressed lettuce. “Healthy things don’t have to be stringent, diet-food related,” Cederquist said. “If somebody comes to my house for a party, I’m not going to give them rice cakes.”
Instead of torturing yourself about exact calories, just offer a decent protein, some vegetables, and a few fun sides. Even a cake or pie is perfectly acceptable. “We might have a richer dessert, but we’re not going to have 10 rich desserts or 10 rich sides,” Cederquist said. “Being the best host is probably the one who also ends up making their guests feel good.”
6. Don’t let food control you
Lastly, try to remember what the holidays really mean. Religious beliefs obviously vary, but the holidays are really about spending time with loved ones. “If we remember that we’re being with people and it’s not about the food, it becomes a lot easier to enjoy those people and not get hung up on the food,” Cederquist said.
And remember, there’s not need to go crazy just because of the date. “The bottom line is, if you want peppermint bark in July, you can get it,” Cederquist said. Because most seasonal treats are so easy to find online, there’s no need to eat like you’ll never see them again. “The whole thing about healthy eating is it doesn’t mean that you never eat what you want or you always give up fun things and are always suffering,” she said. “It’s that you make reasonable choices and, sometimes, you choose to have really wonderful things. And you can have them again.”