How to celebrate – and stay healthy – this holiday season
Buckle up, the holidays are coming and you know what the means: endless opportunities to blow the healthy diet you’ve worked on so hard to control your blood sugar, weight, allergies or blood pressure.
Relax. You have enough stress from mid-November through December so why add food to the list?
We did some research and consulted Cape Cod Healthcare’s clinical nutrition manager Courtney Shea for how to watch sugar, salt and calories during the holidays. She had plenty of ideas for eating smart without feeling deprived. The goal for the holidays should be maintenance, she said.
“One thing to remember is that for the most part, we’re not partying every meal, every day. When you look at the big picture, you go to a party on Saturday, but the rest of the week you follow your healthy diet plan. It’s OK to indulge a little.”
The emphasis here is on moderation. You can still eat Grandma’s homemade Buche de Noel if you follow some easy strategies:
- Step away from the food table. Standing on the other side of the room from the food at a party prevents you from mindless snacking on things that may be loaded with salt – a “quick culprit,” according to Shea, a registered dietician. Holiday tables are often loaded with snack foods and creamy delights like artichoke or buffalo chicken dip that are high in salt. You’re likely to see the effects of too much salt quickly – swollen ankles or fingers, or even difficulty breathing for those with congestive heart failure. “Salt is one thing you don’t want to mess around with,” Shea said. “One night is not likely to be a big deal, but during the holidays, that stuff is everywhere.”
- Cook for yourself. Headed to a potluck? Contribute something you know is OK for you to eat. At the buffet, load up on your own delicious cooking and complement with a taste of other things. Shea looks for potluck ideas that are healthy but creative (and good. Pinterest is her favorite source (search “healthy holiday foods”); the American Heart Association is another. One of her standbys: Slice thick pieces of cucumber and hollow out the seeds, creating a small cup. Fill with hummus or crab dip. “The cucumbers are high in fiber and will fill you up so you’re likely to eat less of it,” she said. (Even she’s not all serious nutrition all the time; she likes making Christmas cookies with her son.)
- Eat before you go. “Try to eat something healthy before you go to the party. Have a salad or something at home so you’re not ravenous when you get there and eating everything in sight.”
- Think Mediterranean. Many Middle Eastern or Mediterranean recipes are based on healthy vegetables and olive oil – eggplant dip, for example. Hummus is high in protein and tends to be low in calories. Buy fresh herbs then freeze in oil to add flavor to holiday dishes without relying on tons of salt, Shea suggested.
- Water, water, water. One of the most important things during the holidays: Keeping hydrated. “People often confuse dehydration with hunger,” Shea said. “Have a glass of water first.”
- Drink smart. If you’re drinking alcohol, go for soda and lime as a mixer instead of sugary mixes to save calories and control blood sugar. And for every glass of alcohol, drink a glass of water. That keeps you hydrated and will help pace your alcohol intake.
- Speak up, politely. It’s OK to subtlety ask a hostess about ingredients. And, again, if it’s potluck, bring something you know is safe or gluten-free. In a restaurant, tell the server if you have an allergy. Massachusetts restaurants are required to have at least person who is trained in preparing food that has not been cross contaminated with, say, nuts.
- Move that body. “Don’t lose sight of exercise during the holiday season,” said Shea. “If you’re going out Christmas shopping, do a couple of laps around the mall first.” One of the healthiest things you can do at a party is to dance the night away. Exercise also helps boost your immune system and might help ward off that holiday cold.
- Don’t let the office be your Waterloo. This is a tough one. First the Halloween candy shows up, followed by Thanksgiving leftovers and an avalanche of holiday goodies from co-workers and customers. You could try and get ahead of the season by suggesting that everyone limit treats to one big party, or that instead of bringing in goodies everyone donates to the food pantry. A more realistic strategy is to keep healthy snacks in your desk so you will be less tempted. Go for a walk when someone breaks out the fudge. And don’t take communal food back to your desk – at least, make it a social event. “Food is a comfort for us,” said Shea. “It’s a really hard habit to break.”
- Finally, don’t pass up that once-a-year treat. Eating is part of the season, part of the tradition, said Shea. “If it’s something special that you only get this time of year, then enjoy it.