It’s that time of year when it seems everything revolves around food. Thanksgiving dinners, savory crispy latkes sizzling for Hanukkah, Christmas parties, baking, Kwanzaa feasts: this season is full of culinary temptation. Add to that less time, more stress and more spending, and the holidays become an easy time to forget about our health.
Studies in the past 10 years have shown that the average weight Americans gain over the holidays is really only about one to two pounds, but the problem is that these are stubborn pounds that we don’t seem to lose. Unfortunately instead they accumulate year after year. It is also estimated that individuals who are already overweight will gain a seasonal three to five pounds. Year after year these relatively small gains can alter metabolism, challenge the heart and make it harder to lose extra weight as we age.
So when the season of giving becomes the season of eating, try nurturing yourself this holiday season. A few tips follow.
Don’t skip meals, especially breakfast. Your breakfast can set the pace for the rest of the day (and your mood and blood sugars). Skipping it to save calories for later is a big mistake. Allowing yourself to get overly hungry during the day leads to overeating and real physiological cravings for high fat and high sugar foods. If time is short in the morning, try easy protein and fiber combinations such as plain Greek yogurt, a pear and two tablespoons of granola or ground flaxseeds. Or prepare a quick oatmeal packet (preferably plain), swirled with two teaspoons of almond butter, banana slices and a precooked hard-boiled egg on the side.
Maintain your regular workout routine, and try to increase it. Keeping a regular routine during the holidays can be tough, but making it high on your list of priorities can actually help you relax in other ways. Continuing to exercise gives you time to focus on yourself, alleviates stress and balances extra calories. Adding just 10 to 15 minutes of extra movement at some point in your day (i.e. a brisk walk, pushups, sit ups or jumping jacks in the office, standing during phone calls) can rev up your blood flow, muscles and calorie burn.
Navigate the holiday party or table with a plan. Try not to arrive famished. Start with two glasses of water and some vegetables before you choose your plate. If you are asked to bring a dish to contribute, why not make something healthy that you feel good about eating? Baked delicata squash slices with a crumble of feta cheese and a sprinkle of pomegranate seeds make a festive and delicious party side. Steamed edamame, hummus with vegetables to dip, smoked bluefish with whole grain crackers, and shrimp cocktail all make munching delicious and nutritious.
Portion your plate, giving vegetables the lion’s share. Fill up half your plate with what I call unadorned nonstarchy vegetables, such as green salads, steamed vegetables and other sides that aren’t loaded down with sugar, butter or creamy sauces. For the rest of the meal, remember that it is much easier to control how much you eat when you eat mindfully. Mindfulness includes noticing the colors, smells and textures of your foods, chewing slowly and avoiding distractions like television or computers and smart phones while eating. Studies on mindful eating practices have shown that this one change can help people lose weight, control diabetes, lower cortisol levels (a marker of stress), and prevent prostate cancer recurrence. Another often heard but seldom used tip that is perfect for holiday settings: if you really want seconds, make yourself wait 20 full minutes before indulging.
Pre-plan meals and snacks. Start to freeze some extra soups, chili and favorite crockpot meals now, so when things get busy around the last few weeks in December (and we come home tired and hungry) easy dinners are ready in minutes. Turkey and bean chili is easy to freeze, as is lentil soup and healthy lasagna (we have a delicious vegetable-packed lasagna recipe in the downloadable cookbook on our website). Butternut squash soup, frozen in the amount appropriate for your family, makes a quick and easy meal with leftover roast chicken or turkey and a green salad. Portion meals in freezer-safe glass containers for better flavor. On Sundays make an extra-large green salad, cook or drain beans, hard boil eggs and grill or roast chicken to use during the week. Coming home to an easy and nutrition-packed dinner is one of the best presents you can give yourself.
Finally, watch the drinks. Liquid calories can really add up and we don’t seem to register the calories from liquids the same way we do foods. Try to alternate alcoholic drinks with a full glass of water. Choose light beer or wine over mixed drinks and avoid spiked eggnog and punch. And alcohol is not the only culprit. Sodas, fruit drinks, juice, coffee drinks and regular eggnog all add up to many extra calories — too many.
Wishing you happy, healthful holidays.
Prudence Athearn Levy is a registered and licensed dietitian living and working in Edgartown. She is the co-owner of Vineyard Nutrition (vineyardnutrition.com).