Health Matters 11/22: Healthy Eating During the Holidays

By Alyssa Luning, R.D.

Eating well and staying healthy during the holidays can be challenging.

A sugar cookie here, a slice of fruitcake there, a mug of hot chocolate sipped by a warm fire.

These delights of the season bring comfort and joy – until January when you’re shopping for new clothes.

During the holiday season, it’s easy to exceed your daily energy or calorie needs, putting you at risk for gaining weight. This weight gain can put extra pressure on your knees and add number to your blood pressure.

However, with a little advance planning and these helpful tips, you can enjoy the treats the holidays bring while also maintaining a healthy diet.

Offer to bring a healthy dish to the party. The American Heart Association suggests eating at least five servings of fruits and vegetables a day. Yet for many people, that goal is hard to achieve on a normal day let alone during the holidays. But you can help yourself and others by contributing a healthy side dish like a festive salad with spinach, walnuts, and apples or a veggie platter stocked with your favorite hummus and guacamole. Try roasting vegetables like butternut squash, zucchini, carrots, Brussels sprouts, cauliflower, and broccoli tossed in chopped garlic and thyme. You’ll be the hit of the party.

Be polite, but firm. Your Aunt Sheri says she’ll be disappointed if you don’t taste her famous double chocolate peanut butter fudge, while your Uncle George insists that you enjoy his sweet plum wine. Saying no to well-meaning family members and friends can be difficult, but you’ll feel better in the long run if you do. Express to them how great the food smells, how beautiful it looks, and if they insist, ask if you can take what they’re offering home to enjoy later.

Take a break before taking seconds. Give yourself at least 20 minutes to eat your meal. It takes about that much time for your stomach to tell your brain that it’s full. Eat slowly. Focus on chewing your food, which optimizes digestion. Enjoy the smells, tastes, and textures. Make conversation. Drink water. After all that time passes, you may realize you don’t want a second helping after all.

Eat pre-party. If you know there will be a few hours filled with wine and spinach dip until dinner, don’t arrive with an empty stomach. Pre-game with foods rich in water and fiber, such as carrots, apples, cucumbers, grapes, and pears. If you’re on the run, be sure to grab something healthy like a fruit and nut bar before you leave home.

Choose your indulgences wisely. Pick treats that are unique to the season. You can get cheesecake on a Tuesday in the mall, cookies at work, and ice cream on a long Tuesday night. Boring! This is the time to enjoy these “limited time only” flavors like pumpkin, apple and pecan pie. Select fruit and nut or whole grain options when available. Offer to bring a nutrient dense alternative, such as a crust-less pumpkin tart, a warm apple crisp made with dates and pecans, poached apples and pears, or even sliced fruit with homemade whipped cream.

Lighten up. Your environment contributes a lot to how you eat. If trying to decrease portion sizes, use a small plate, ramekin or mug. If dining out, use the buddy system and offer to split a meal or sweet treat with a friend.

Limit alcohol intake. Alcoholic beverages tend to be calorie dense and nutrient void, making them a perfect potion for over-indulgence. For people who do imbibe, the American Heart Association recommends no more than one to two drinks per day for men and one drink for women. A drink is one 12 oz. beer, 4 oz. of wine or 1.5 oz. of 80-proof spirits. Treat alcohol as you would a dessert, and avoid drinking alcohol on an empty stomach.

Eat as close to your usual meal times as possible. Yes, it may be a holiday to you, but it’s just another day to your body and metabolic system. If you’re a breakfast, lunch, and dinner kind of person, stick to it. Don’t skip a meal just so you can eat more later. This can lead to overindulging.

Keep your distance. Don’t stand near the buffet – unless you’re near the veggie tray. If you tend to graze when not hungry, try popping a mint, drinking a seltzer, or eating vegetables to keep your mouth busy. Alternatively, consider socializing away from the food—by the fireplace, or better yet, outside.

Don’t be shy when at a restaurant. There’s nothing wrong with asking your server to substitute a salad for fries or requesting that the chef put the sauce on the side. Reviewing the menu in advance can help you make healthy choices. If you choose a meal that is served in a very large portion, ask for a box and put half aside to enjoy later.

Most of all, remember the holidays are about connecting with people you love and care
about. When you connect with others over joy, laughter and good cheer, it is easier to take the  focus away from food and place it on creating lasting memories.

To find a physician with Penn Medicine Princeton Health call 1-888-742-7496 or visit

Alyssa Luning, R.D., is a registered dietitian with Penn Medicine Princeton Medical Center.