The holiday season can lead to increased exposure to cut-out sugar cookies, sugar-laden pumpkin pie, decadent chocolate boxes, and wine. If that weren’t enough, people’s schedules are typically filled with holiday parties where they serve trays of overindulgent foods that light up the pleasure center of your brain and translate to less than desirable health outcomes. Here’s the thing: It is entirely possible to enjoy the holidays without excessively indulging in high glycemic foods and alcohol but that also does not mean depriving yourself of all of the delicious foods and beverages that you love. So, cut yourself some slack this season! Here’s my advice for sailing through the holidays while both enjoying yourself and setting yourself up for successful healthy eating.
Responses below on behalf of Functional Medicine Registered Dietitian and Founder of My Food is Health, Brigid Titgemeier.
Your Guide to Healthy Eating Over the Holidays
Tip 1: Surrender to What is Not in Your Control
When you’re at family gatherings or events, it can be especially difficult to have control over the quality of the food you eat. The chicken may not be organic, the almond milk may have some sugar in it, the dressing will likely not have an extra virgin olive oil base—and that’s OK. It’s more important to enjoy the experience and the people around you than stress over whether your beef satay is organic. If you have food sensitivities or allergies, that’s a different story! You’ll have to pay closer attention to what’s on the buffet. But even in that case, it is possible to enjoy yourself. Just don’t stress if it’s not organic! Healthy eating is simple.
Tip 2: Drink One Glass of Water In Between Every Glass of Alcohol
Drinking too much alcohol will not just spike your blood sugar levels but it can also lead to eating foods you wouldn’t otherwise eat at a holiday party and feeling unmotivated to eat well the day after. In addition to that, alcohol interferes with quality sleep. Research shows that inadequate sleep alters your hormone levels, driving you to eat more high glycemic foods the next day. The recommendation is for men to drink two glasses of alcohol per day and women to drink one. When drinking alcohol, avoid other beverages that will further spike blood sugar such as soda, and opt for club soda. Aim for drinking one glass of seltzer water with a lime in between every glass of alcohol to help you stay hydrated.
Tip 3: Find More Nutritious Substitutions
There are simple substitutions that you can make to recipes to make them better for you. Just because your traditional family pie recipe has been made with 65g of added sugar per slice for the last 30 years does not mean you can’t modify the recipe. In my experience, every time our family modifies recipes that have been passed down for three generations, everyone enjoys them just as much and they usually feel better after the meal.
If you have non-negotiables in your diet due to health reasons like food sensitivities, diabetes, or IBS, then you will want to make further substitutions. There is also a method if you are trying to avoid gluten, dairy, added sugars, refined carbohydrates, etc. then plan a few recipes that cater to your dietary needs that other people may enjoy trying as well. If you know you are going to feel horrible after eating too much gluten or dairy, then transition some of your recipes to gluten-free and dairy-free! I also created a free recipe guide that you can download here. Here are some of my top swaps:
Tip 4: Follow My Optimal Plate Method
My key recommendation is to control your blood sugar levels as often as possible and integrate optimal anti-inflammatory choices into all of your meals. Use this structure on the day of your holiday parties. This will prevent you from skipping meals to try to “save calories”. Leading up to the holiday meals and during the holiday meals, follow my Optimal Plate Method.
Try to also use this as a flexible guide when you are at holiday parties. This includes an abundance of phytonutrient-rich non-starchy vegetables, protein, and healthy fats, in addition to an optional serving of starchy carbohydrates. Fill half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables like green beans, salad, or roasted brussels sprouts. This will make you feel more full. Add protein from turkey, chicken, lamb, and tofu/beans. Incorporate healthy fats that will likely already be cooked into the dishes to decrease spikes in glucose levels. Then layer in starchy carbohydrates like mashed potatoes, butternut squash, or stuffing as a quarter of your plate. And then add one of your favorite desserts, if you feel like it.