The holiday season — stretching from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day — can be a dietary minefield.
Nowhere is that more apparent than at all the neighborhood parties, friends-and-family happy hours and office gatherings that are sprinkled throughout the holidays. Tables and buffets heaped with chips, dips, cookies, cakes and other snacks tantalize us.
Yet those holiday goodies can be a dangerous temptation. No study has definitively pinpointed the amount of weight that the average American gains during the holidays, but some studies have shown it can be 1 to 2 pounds.
Regardless of how the scales tip in that regard, no one wants to pack on the pounds over the holidays. So to dodge the nutritional equivalent of a lump of coal in your stocking, it’s critical to develop a healthy approach to holiday snacking.
“Creating opportunities to eat healthy foods during the holidays, and limiting candy, sugar-sweetened beverages and fast food, can go a long way toward living a healthier and happier life,” says Dr. John Agwunobi, chief health and nutrition officer at nutrition company Herbalife.
Here are seven tips for making it through the holidays without suffering a snack attack.
1. Don’t starve yourself.
During the day, don’t skip meals, sports dietitian Amy Goodson says. Eat small meals and snacks ahead of a holiday celebration so that you’re not famished once you’re there, she suggests.
Those healthy meals and snacks also will prevent you from noshing throughout the day on not-so-healthy treats scattered around the office, according to Goodson.
2. Nibble ahead of time.
To avoid overindulging at a holiday function, eat a high-fiber, pre-event snack, like a handful of almonds and berries or some low-fat cheese and whole-wheat crackers.
“Holiday parties often have foods high in salt, sugar and calories,” says Agwunobi, a former official at the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. “When you arrive, check out the food options before you begin eating, and make a mental note of what and how much you will eat.”
3. Savor the snacks.
Don’t plow through the snack setup at a holiday gathering. Rather, practice mindful eating, Agwunobi recommends.
“Slow down to really taste and enjoy your food. Eating slowly gives your body time to signal your brain that you’re full, which takes about 20 minutes,” he says. “If you eat too much too quickly, it’s easy to gobble up as much as twice what your body needs before your brain even gets the message.”
4. Keep an eye on the portions.
To reduce portion sizes, choose a small plate instead of a large plate, experts say. And don’t linger next to the spread of food.
“Don’t let your eyes be bigger than your stomach. Try not to compete with the person next to you to see who can pile the most stuff onto their plate,” lifestyle consultant and fitness trainer Marcello Pedalino says. “Portion control is paramount during the holidays.”
If you’re working your way through a buffet, for instance, Pedalino suggests starting with a small salad, and nothing else. At the same time, pour a glass of water. Chew slowly, then drink some water and head back to the buffet for the second round, opting for a piece of chicken, beef or fish along with a side of veggies. Once again, eat slowly, then finish the glass of water.
Once you’ve chowed down, sip on another glass of water “while enjoying the company and conversation around you,” Pedalino says.
Let 10 minutes pass before pondering another bite of food.
“If you are being honest with yourself, you’ll realize that you’re not hungry anymore and don’t even want or need to eat dessert,” Pedalino says.
5. Don’t deprive yourself.
If you’re attending several holiday get-togethers in one day, Pedalino says it’s OK to grab dessert at one or two of them. Just don’t go overboard.
“If your regular daily nutrition is on point, a few desserts over the holidays won’t hurt. Moderation is key,” he says. “Just keep in mind that the extra calories add up fast.”
6. Set a good example.
Plenty of your colleagues will be bringing sugary, salty and fatty stuff to the office throughout the holidays. You can flip the script by arriving at work with a fruit or veggie tray, Goodson says.
7. Be careful with the booze.
What’s more festive than a holiday toast with wine, beer, champagne or cocktails? What’s not so festive, though, is that booze contains mostly empty calories.
“The real problem, however, is that alcohol does not make you full like food does, so you keep drinking those extra calories,” Goodson says. “So make your first goal to drink water when you get to a party. Then have a drink or two throughout the evening and alternate water in between.”
Registered dietitian nutritionist Carolina Guizar raises a glass to brut, or dry, Champagne — the real deal from France — as a 4-ounce glass contains roughly 60 calories and very little sugar.
“If you can find a Champagne from a small producer, you are likely supporting a family who has honed their craft over generations,” Guizar says. “Sure, it’s pricey, but this gives you more reason to sip and really enjoy.”
Keith-Thomas Ayoob, a nutritionist and dietitian who’s an associate clinical professor emeritus at the Albert Einstein College of Medicine, says that whether it’s an adult beverage or a sugary soda, you should limit yourself to one calorie-loaded drink per day. After you’ve imbibed, stick to water, seltzer water or diet soda, he says.
“Others may get smashed on booze,” Ayoob says, “but you’ll wake up tomorrow feeling better and without the weight gain from the unneeded calories.”