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10 tips to avoid letting healthy habits slip during the holidays

Here’s why you should stay healthy over the holidays — plus 9 nutritionist-approved ways to survive the season.
Image: Mother with little daughter eating dinner in restaurant
At a holiday meal, it might make sense to eat a little more or have a larger helping of dessert, but at other meals, a different approach might serve you better.martin-dm / Getty Images

The holidays roll around once a year so it’s understandable that you’d want to enjoy the festive fare and put off healthier habits — just for now. After all, why should you deny yourself the pleasure of that once-a-year holiday-themed sugar cookie or sausage stuffing or spiked eggnog?

I’m all for enjoying any holiday goodies you fancy without guilt or giving it a second thought. However, the marathon food fest that occurs between Thanksgiving and December 31st can take a toll on your physical and emotional health. Overeating, eating poorly, and drinking more than the healthy booze limits can impact your mood and your sleep, and that can really put a damper on your holiday spirit! Plus, eating and drinking to excess often triggers guilt, stress and anxiety, which needless to say, isn’t good for your wellbeing. Navigating the holiday season healthfully is tricky for everyone. Here’s how to get through the season joyfully while remaining healthy-ish.

1. Have an abundant mindset

The allure of holiday food is often more about the fear of missing out than the food itself. It’s that once a year, get it now or wait ‘til next year mentality that can override other food sensibilities. This is especially true if you’ve been on an overly restrictive diet that eliminates your favorite foods or fun, but less healthful menu items.

Think about it this way: If you’re eyeing a pair of shoes and the store only has one pair left in your size, it makes you want them that much more. But if you know you can order them online any time you’d like, you’re in a better position to compare them to other shoes and decide if and when you’d like to make the purchase. The same is true with food. If you really want stuffing in July or a sugar cookie in September, you can find those foods. You may have to go a little out of your way to get or make them, but it’s totally doable. With an abundant mindset, you can be more selective at holiday meals.

2. Be picky

Some holiday foods are mind-blowingly delicious and others are just so-so. When you become more mindful and aware of these distinctions, it puts you in a better position to be more intentional and deliberate with holiday foods. Sure, fruitcake is primarily available this time of year, but if it doesn’t do much for you, there’s no point in eating it. Prioritize the foods you truly enjoy and eat them in portions that feel good to you.

3. Eat slowly

Savoring your food can go a long way toward increasing your satisfaction, lowering your overall intake and even reducing bloating and indigestion that can occur when you’re eating too quickly and not chewing thoroughly. We live in a fast-paced world so it’s seemingly normal to wolf down a meal, but your body wants you to slow down!

It takes about 20 minutes for your brain to receive signals from your appetite-regulating hormones so if you aren’t spending at least this amount of time savoring a meal, you won’t get those signals when you’ve had enough to eat. Several studies have linked fast eating with weight gain and bigger weight fluctuations and this habit is also associated with a higher risk of type 2 diabetes.

But setting aside the health concerns, slowing down can lead to better enjoyment of your meal. Whether you’re having holiday fare or an ordinary meal, stay present and take time to appreciate every aspect of it. How does it smell? What’s the experience biting into it? How does it taste in your mouth? What else can you appreciate about the moment? Maybe it’s the music, the party setting or a beautiful wreath. The holidays are about much more than food and the process of being more mindful helps you fully appreciate the entire experience.

4. Connect to how food makes you feel

Your body is constantly sending you physical signals, but over time, you may learn to ignore or override them. Start to tune into these signals, which include sensations of hunger and fullness as well as things, like reflux, bloating and gas.

If you’re wondering how to discover your body’s signals, here are some ideas. About halfway through a meal, you might ask yourself how much you’re enjoying your meal and assess how you’re filling up. When you have a few bites left, you might evaluate how you’re feeling and if you want to eat a few bites more. You might examine how different portion sizes make you feel. For instance, how does a large helping of an extra-rich casserole impact your digestive system? What about a smaller portion? Do you feel sluggish after eating or does a meal revive your energy?

As you decipher what your body is saying to you, practice responding to the signs you pick up on. The facts you discover can help inform another eating occasion so if a meal makes you feel overly full or wreaks havoc on your digestion, you might approach your next eating occasion differently. But don’t go overboard here! It’s unrealistic to expect that you will only eat in response to hunger, that you’ll always stop at the point of feeling content, and that you’ll only eat foods that make you feel your physical best. Again, the idea is to bring more awareness to eating so you can make choices. At a holiday meal, it might make sense to eat a little more or have a larger helping of dessert, but at other meals, a different approach might serve you better.

5. Prioritize produce

Prioritizing fruits and vegetables isn’t about sticking to low-cal fare in between holiday splurges. It’s about the happiness-boosting benefits they provide. Studies continue to point to the fact that these fiber-packed, antioxidant-rich plants may lead to meaningful gains in happiness and life satisfaction. In one study that looked at the eating habits of more than 12,000 adults, those who ate the most — defined as eight servings a day — experienced improvements in life satisfaction. If eight servings sounds like a lot, consider that as few as four servings per day were linked to higher happiness scores. Another study found that people eating three to four servings of fruit and veggies reported less stress compared to those eating just a serving. And other research shows that your happiness fluctuates depending on your daily portions of these foods.

The holidays are stressful enough. Filling half your plate with veggies at lunch and dinner and eating a couple of pieces of fruit each day might help mellow you out and lift your holiday spirits.

6. Stick with alcohol limits

A glass of wine or a festive cocktail can be an enjoyable way to celebrate the season, but making a habit of going above the alcohol limits can have a negative impact on your mood. Before you head to a holiday party, try to set an intention of one or two drinks (the limits for women and men). If this isn’t realistic for you, try to pace your drinking by sipping water alongside your cocktail or alternating a glass of H20 between each alcoholic drink.

You probably don’t need me to tell you that a nasty hangover can make you feel like a scrooge so do your best to avoid this scenario. In addition to staying hydrated, don’t drink on an empty stomach and if your holiday party rages well into the night, continue to nibble throughout the event. These strategies — along with stopping when you’ve reached your limit — will help keep your spirits up.

7. Assess your self-care practices

Staying healthy over the holidays isn’t just about the foods you eat. Managing your stress levels and getting enough rest are critical to your overall wellbeing. When you feel depleted, you’re more likely to catch a cold, your body is more prone to storing fat, your work suffers and it’s harder to feel in control of your food choices.

Take a look at the self-care practices that you regularly participate in and determine whether you’re caring for yourself well or whether there may be an opportunity to do better. You’ll enjoy the holidays more if you don’t run yourself ragged.

8. Set boundaries

It’s so easy to say yes to another event, a second or third glass of prosecco or a few cookies from the cookie platter. Check in with yourself regularly and ask yourself if another event, cocktail or helping of food is at the expense of your own wellbeing. If overstuffing yourself leaves you feeling awful or if a certain type of food doesn’t sit well with you, it’s not offensive to say "no, thank you".

Setting food aside, you may also want to apply this thinking to your social schedule. If you’re overscheduled to the point of overwhelm, it’s likely that your health is suffering. RSVPing "no" to a party might open up some space to stay more consistent with physical activity or participate in other healthy practices that may have fallen by the wayside.

9. Ditch all or nothing thinking

Skipping spin because you’re heading to your fourth event of the week? It’s totally normal to feel like you don’t have time to exercise or cook healthfully or participate in any number of self-care practices that keep you in tip top shape. But the truth is, there’s a huge space in between having all the time and energy and having none of it so find that magic in the middle. Sure, you might not have the time to devote to your usual spin class, but maybe you have time to take a 15-minute walk during your lunch break. A week’s worth of meal prep might be out, but you might find some shortcuts, like pre-washed veggies, to help you reach a happier veggie target. If the holidays throw a curveball in your usual yoga or meditation practice, a one-minute meditation practice or some deep breathing is better than none at all. Studies repeatedly show that some attempt at staying healthy is better than ditching it altogether so instead of letting everything slide, do whatever you can whenever you can and aim to be healthier (or healthy-ish) this season.


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