Healthy Holiday Eating

Unwrap The Gift of Health & Happiness This Holiday Season

It’s here again. The hectic holiday season is upon us with all the rushing around, eating out, shopping, decorating, entertaining, going to parties, and ALL THAT FOOD to tempt you every time you turn around. Throw in the added stress of managing it all and you have the perfect conditions for over-eating, gaining weight, and feeling like crap afterwards.

Some holiday traditions are great to hold on to, but not this one. Just because you’ve always suffered from the consequences of a turkey dinner coma and pumpkin pie overload you don’t have to suffer that way every year. These are just repeated behaviors that become normal through repetition, but these habits will, at some point, develop into serious health issues unless you get control of them. With some focus on what’s truly important (your own health & wellness), some helpful advice on ways to deal with the temptations of holiday bingeing, and positive self-talk to keep yourself on track, you can cruise into the New Year lighter in both mind and body. With some simple steps you can come through the next few weeks looking and feeling your best!

Setting Realistic Goals –

Many people resign themselves to gaining weight over the holidays and then trying, usually unsuccessfully, to lose it in the New Year. This doesn’t have to be the norm. You could certainly fall off the wagon and devour all the lobster dip by yourself, but the trick is not to beat yourself up over it too much. Moments of weakness are simply lapses of judgment that happen to EVERYONE now and then.

Realistically, if you can maintain an 80/20, healthy/not-so-healthy diet then you’re probably doing better than the other 80% of the population. If you overeat a bit occasionally it’s OK… just forgive yourself and move on! Don’t use this as an excuse to continue bingeing through the rest of the holidays. If you can be less hard on yourself, you are far less likely to continue down the path to gaining those extra pounds. Self-talk is the main factor to staying on track with ANY personal growth, so keep yours positive and supportive. Remember, you’re human, and allow yourself to make mistakes. 

The Gift of Being Present –

There is a practice I like to recommend to my clients that are considerably overweight and need to get control of their food consumption. It’s called mindful eating, which is the act of slowing down while you eat and focusing on the actual process of eating itself. It involves chewing slowly and thoughtfully instead of gobbling down food without enjoying the tastes and textures. This usually causes the person to appreciate their food more and most of the time reduces the amount they eat.

Looking at this process from a physical point of view, it allows your stomach to slowly stretch, which is one signal your brain uses to tell you you’re full and to stop eating. If we eat too fast, we override this and always eat far more than we should since your stomach doesn’t have time to send the signal to your brain for you to stop. Also, by eating too fast we stop our “fullness hormone”, leptin, from working, which is another neurological signal our brain uses to tell us we’re full. Over time, this conditions our body to stop producing leptin, and is one of the main reasons people become obese. By slowing down, and chewing thoughtfully your body can do what it is supposed to do… digest efficiently. 

Sugar Addiction –

Sugar and carbs are two of the worst culprits to watch out for when it comes to weight gain and low energy, and holiday treats are usually loaded with these. Cookies, cakes, pies, pastries, chocolates and candies are EVERYWHERE, and the temptation is the downfall of even the most health-conscious individual. When you consume these your blood glucose spikes and about 30 minutes later it crashes leaving you flat and looking for more. Also, sugar causes a neurological cascade of pleasure in your brain making you want more and more. Therein lies the trap of these addicting little morsels.

So, what’s a person to do? Abstinence isn’t always possible, but limitation is. Choose your battles wisely when it comes to these high-sugar, high-carb goodies and only have one or two of your very favorite and most irresistible of these, then move on. It’s harder than it sounds for many, but you’ll thank yourself once you get control of this addiction… and Yes, it is a true addiction.

If you can, opt for natural sweeteners when making treats and desserts, and low-carb as well. Substitute honey or maple syrup for refined sugars. Mashed bananas work well for sweetener in baked goods, as do pureed dates. Gluten-free flours are a good option to replace wheat products, but these can still raise blood glucose levels. Low-carb flours like coconut or almond are a couple ways to avoid this. If you focus on ketogenic or Paleo recipes you’ll find lots of natural healthier options to satisfy your sweet tooth.

Fats, The Good and the Bad –

Fats have always been looked at as causing most of the weight gain people experience, and since fats carry over twice the calories that either protein and carbs do some caution and portion control must be used when eating fattier foods. However, fats actually keep you feeling fuller longer since they take longer to digest than any other food, so will actually cause you to eat less over the run of the day IF you give them time to digest before grabbing for more snacks out of habit.

When it comes to fats, what kind you consume is as important, if not more so, as how much. Real, unprocessed fats are what your body needs, and focusing on getting ample Omega-3 fats into your diet is crucial. Our food system is overloaded with refined polyunsaturated oils such as soybean, canola and others that throw our bodies out of balance. Our bodies are designed to eat saturated fats such as butter, beef, chicken & pork fats, and coconut oil for a healthy immune system, our cardiovascular health, and brain function. We also need Omega-3 fats (also known as EFA’s or essential fatty acids) for the same reasons, which you can get from cold water fish such as salmon and sardines, flaxseed and some nuts such as walnuts. However, with all the polyunsaturated oils in our foods, and even worse, hydrogenated & trans fats, most people are deficient in these essential fats. Think real and unrefined and you’ll avoid most of these other unhealthy oils. 

Down-size Your Plate –

This is one of the oldest diet tricks in the book, but it really does work for those who need to get control of the amount of food they eat. Instead of taking a 9-inch (or larger) plate for dinner, choose a 7 or 8-inch one. One small step for eating less… a giant leap in gaining control of your food consumption.

For finger foods, use a small 6-inch appetizer plate and try to limit yourself to whatever comfortably fits on that plate. Making a tower of treats won’t help you eat less, so don’t pile things mile-high to fit on the plate. Keep this in mind… many one or two bite appetizers are about 60 calories each, so five of these equals 300 calories, which is about half of what dinner should be.

Saving It Up –

You’re going out for the evening and you know the food will be awesome, so you don’t have much to eat all day, choosing instead to save your appetite for the buffet. When you get there, you have a glass of wine on an empty stomach (which hits you like brick), and you then proceed to devour plate after plate because everything tastes so good. Been there? You’re not alone…

Avoid this recipe for disaster by eating normally throughout the day and have a small nutrient-dense snack before you head out. This will give the alcohol something to slow down its absorption and reduce your appetite so you’re not ravenous.

Carry Emergency Rations –

We’ve all been there. You’re out shopping and running around and lose track of time. Your belly reminds you though and starts to growl like a bear. To shut it up you grab for the first thing you see, which is usually easily available junk food since that stuff is EVERYWHERE.

Avoid this trap by carrying emergency rations in the form of healthy snacks. Maybe some fruit like apples or clementines; veggies like carrots, celery sticks, or broccoli florets; mixed nuts with dried fruit; or a quality energy bar. By packing a snack-pack whenever you’re out and about you will reduce the chances of eating junk and empty calories.

Choose Wisely –

No matter how much you try to avoid it, you WILL be tempted by mounds of whipped potatoes and Mom’s famous dressing. Instead of filling half your plate with these and that juicy turkey first (leaving little room for anything else), choose instead to fill half your plate with veggies first. Take a “reasonable” scoop of potatoes and dressing and then finish off your plate with protein. Cutting back on carbs, which both potatoes and dressing are, will help keep them from sticking to your ribs (and other unwanted places).

Be strategic when confronted by a finger-food buffet. It’s no sense filling up on things just because they’re there. Pick things you really like and leave the others alone. Whenever possible, choose raw veggies, marinated veggies like olives and pickles, fruit, and lean meats from appetizer trays. And again… use a small plate and don’t overload it. Sample small portions of the foods you want to try, then go back for a “bit” more of your favorites, using moderation as your mantra. 

The Alcohol Conundrum –

As with nearly everything, moderation is the key when it comes to alcohol, and within that, it depends on what kind you’re drinking.

Wines, and especially red wine, provide antioxidants and resveratrol and are good for most people at around one glass per day. Dark beers provide some B vitamins and enzymes, but are carb-heavy and carry about 150 calories per 12 ounce glass. Spirits and hard liquor are harder on you as they tax your liver to remove the alcohol which is actually a neurotoxin in your body. So less is best on these.

Along with alcohol providing additional and what are known as “optional” calories, it also reduces inhibitions, which in most cases cause you to eat more, something we usually don’t need help with.

If you want to reduce your alcohol consumption you can switch out some of your drink for sparkling juices or cider, or even add kombucha as an alcoholic drink replacement. Kombucha provides valuable probiotic bacteria and beneficial organisms to help with your digestion, increasingly important if you are eating things your body finds harder to break down. You can also simply have a glass of water in place of every second drink, which will help to flush your system and hydrate you, making “the morning after” much easier to face.

Organize to Avoid Stress –

As a long-time Chef and caterer, I am never without a well-detailed plan and organized lists to keep me on track as the event gets closer. It is the key to being successful and avoiding pitfalls, and I advise this for anyone planning an event of any size, even smaller dinners that you want to be extra special.

Prepare a schedule or timeline to organize your shopping and prep. Much of your cooking can probably be done a couple of days ahead, and maybe even weeks before and carefully frozen to be reheated. Anything you can do ahead without compromising the quality of the food saves you time and rushing around on the day of the event. Also, you may be able to take advantage of special pricing to save you money as well.

“Wrapping It All Up”…

The holidays can be stressful enough without adding more to your plate (literally). Following these tips will certainly help a lot, but simply remember to do your best and you’ll do fine. Relax and allow yourself to enjoy some of the goodies that usually only come around this time of year. Trying to maintain an extremely strict diet in the face of so much temptation will probably drive you a bit crazy, and chances are you’ll take somebody else with you along the way. No one is perfect, but by using some willpower, focusing on portion control, and avoiding the worst of the sugary/starchy foods you’ll still be merry and bright when it is all over for another year…

Have a “Super, Natural” Day!
Kevin