Many of us will probably agree that the holiday season is basically one big diet booby trap. It starts with Halloween candy, moves through the potato-and-pie extravaganza that is Thanksgiving, and ends with the cookie-and-booze fest that is Christmas. It's such a nutritional wreck that a lot of folks just give up entirely on the quest to eat healthy during the holidays. But dietitians agree that there is 100% a way to indulge in your favorite holiday treats without giving up all your nutrition goals for two months straight.
"We can totally realistically eat healthy during the holidays," affirms Shelley A. Rael, an Albuquerque-based registered dietitian. How? First of all, we can stop approaching holiday events where food will be present with anxiety and instead go in with the following easy, doable advice in mind. Keep scrolling for five nutritionist-approved tips for eating healthy during the holidays.
Skipping breakfast and lunch knowing you'll be gorging yourself on extravagant holiday dishes later sounds like a good move, but nutrition experts say it could actually derail you. This habit poses problems for both your blood sugar and your waistline, says Stacy Goldberg, nutrition consultant and founder of Savorfull, who cautions that going entirely without food earlier in the day could cause you to binge on even more later. Her advice? "Avoid over-indulgence by eating a well-balanced meal for breakfast and lunch before heading to your holiday table. You may want to grab a high-protein snack midday, such as whole-wheat crackers and veggies with cheese or hummus or even a protein shake two or three hours before your holiday meal."
With all the food and booze happening, we often forget to drink enough water during the holidays, which could actually cause us to eat and drink more. That's because we often mistake the sensation of thirst for hunger. Not to mention failing to hydrate while drinking alcohol can cause you to drink more than you meant to and suffer a worse hangover. "Avoid dehydration by drinking water throughout the day and refilling your glass during your holiday dinner," Goldberg suggests. "If consuming alcoholic beverages, be sure to limit the sugary mixes and heavy caloric beers. Alternate your alcohol with glasses of water."
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There are so many ways to tweak classic holiday dishes in order to cut down on sugar and empty calories and amp up the nutrients. For example, consider swapping in vitamin A–rich sweet potatoes for white potatoes. Goldberg's favorite healthy recipe is to roast your sweet potatoes in coconut oil for 45 minutes in the oven. Sprinkle them with cinnamon, nutmeg, and Himalayan pink salt, squeeze fresh oranges on top, and for an added crunch, top with lower-sugar granola or roasted pecans. Mashed cauliflower instead of potatoes is another nutritionist favorite.
Want more healthy swaps? "Save on fats, calories, and carbs by making a crust-less pumpkin pie," Goldberg suggests. "Pumpkin is incredibly nutrient-dense, low in carbs, and high in fiber." And instead of whipped cream, add a dollop of high-protein vanilla Greek yogurt.
Eating healthy during the holidays kind of all comes down to color: Your plate should have less brown and white and more rainbow, especially green. Goldberg says to fill up at least half your plate with vegetables (skipping the creamy offerings like green bean casserole) and fresh fruit. Then choose about a fist-size amount of protein and a small number of complex carbs.
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Goldberg recommends getting in your veggies with a festive, nutrient-dense salad made with cooked and chopped butternut squash, kale, fresh cranberries, and feta cheese. Drizzle honey, olive oil, herbs, and seasonings to add extra zing.
When there's a table full of holiday food in front of you, you might find yourself eating certain dishes out of obligation, tradition, or sheer habit, but Rael encourages us to be more mindful about what we put in our bodies. If you aren't 100% sure you really like something, why waste the food or the time on it? "Choose what you love," Rael says.
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On that note, don't put hard limits on yourself just for the sake of "being good" at holiday dinners. Indulging a little bit is okay in the long run. "If you really, really love the fudge, then have the fudge, especially if it is a once-a-year indulgence," says Rael. "Skip the things you can and do eat the other times of the year." Chocolate chip cookies for the holidays? Maybe don't need 'em. Pecan pie? Probably yes.
This post was updated by Sarah Yang.