Suggested Citation: Garko, M.G. (2013, November). Dietary strategies to stay healthy through the holidays. Health and Wellness Monthly. Retrieved (insert month, day, year), from www.letstalknutrition.com.
Dietary Strategies To Stay Healthy Through The Holidays
Michael Garko, Ph.D.
Producer and Host of Let’s Talk Nutrition
The holidays can be a mixed blessing. On the one hand, they are time for family, friends, food, festivities and faith. On the other hand, they are also a time for colds and flu, traveling nightmares, high stress levels, sleep insufficiency, loneliness, emotional distress, depression, unhealthy foods and beverages, overindulging, all of which can undermine our health and the holidays.
Yet, staying healthy throughout the holiday season is an achievable goal, provided it is made a goal and there is a conscious attempt to put into practice diet and lifestyle strategies designed to increase the chances of maintaining and enhancing health.
The December, 2013, issue of Health and Wellness Monthly will focus on proven dietary strategies to live with health through the holidays and enjoy the gifts of family, friends, food, festivities and faith.
Dietary Holiday Strategies
The recommendations which follow are intended to provide readers with what would be the best dietary choices to make and why during the holiday season. The recommendations fall within two categories. One set of dietary strategies focuses on what should be kept in mind and practiced while eating and drinking during the holiday season. The other set emphasizes what foods and beverages to consume or avoid.
It is important to remember that for some people, certain dietary strategies may be more appealing and achievable than others. While this would be a good place to start, it might be too difficult for some to put into practice all of those more likeable and attainable dietary strategies. It might be more prudent to select a set of dietary strategies that fits your lifestyle during the holidays. Furthermore, it would be better not to dismiss out-of-hand those dietary strategies that may appear more difficult to put into practice for one reason or another. Even selecting and practicing one of the more challenging strategies would increase the chances of staying healthy through the holidays.
Practicing Conscious Eating
Generally speaking, “conscious eating” means to engage in mindful eating instead of the mindless consumption of food and beverages. Specifically, conscious eating means becoming informed and creating a plan constituted of the best dietary choices to make and then to put that plan into day-to-day behavioral action. In other words, think about what you are about to eat, before you eat it, especially during the holidays.
Unfortunately, mindless eating is a feature of holiday eating. In contrast to conscious eating, mindless eating more often than not reflects horrible habits of eating such as consuming high caloric, nutritionally void foods and beverages, eating too much, eating too fast and not eating enough, among other unhealthy eating behaviors.
Practicing Portion Control
Make it a special point during the holiday season to practice portion control to help prevent overeating, gaining weight, putting undue metabolic stress on your body and surging blood glucose and insulin levels. Portion control is about serving size and practicing moderation. If you are not accustomed to practicing portion control, it might take several attempts to change the behavior of eating large portions. Nutrition is behavioral and biochemical in nature.
The American Heart Association (2013) at provides information on what constitutes one serving size for particular foods in the categories of grain products, vegetables and fruits, dairy and cheese products and meat and alternatives.
Speed racing is one thing. Speed eating is and entirely different matter. Eating quickly tends to block the release of certain gut hormones (e.g., peptide YY (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide – GLP) that create the feeling of satiety or feeling full (see Kokkinos et al., 2009). It is now recognized that eating too fast leads to the over consumption of food, overweight and obesity. It is important to remember the principle that nutrition is just as behavioral in nature as it is biochemical. It may take several attempts to learn to eat slowly.
Waiting Before Going Back For Seconds
In conjunction with eating slowly, wait a few minutes before going back for seconds to help moderate your intake of food, prevent overeating and creating metabolic stress. It takes a little bit of time for the brain to send the signal or create the feeling that you are satiated or full. Engage in mindful eating during the holidays instead of the mindless consumption of calories.
Using Smaller Plates and Flatware
It is known that people will eat approximately 92% of the food they put on their plates. Common sense would indicate that smaller plates would prohibit the piling on of too much food and, thereby, help with practicing portion control and eating less. Perhaps what seems less intuitive is that using smaller utensils can also help with eating less.
Nevertheless, in a study entitled, “Ice Cream Illusions: Bowls, Spoons, and Self-Served Portions” researchers discovered that when study participants were provided a 34-ounce bowl instead of a 17-ounce bowl they served themselves 31% more ice cream. Furthermore, their servings increased by 14.5% when they were provided a 3-ounce spoon compared to a 2-ounce utensil. When they were given a large spoon and big bowl, they served themselves 56.8% more ice cream but were unaware of the greater ice cream quantities (see Georgia Institute Of Technology, 2006).
Diving Your Plate into Thirds
Visualize your plate as being divided into thirds. One third should be lean protein (e.g., turkey, chicken, fish, etc.) and the other two thirds should be vegetables and fruit, with more vegetables than fruit on the plate. Fat can be included in the meal from such foods as olive oil, lean meat or fish.
Avoiding Going On A Diet
One of the biggest mistakes people make is to start a weight-loss diet during the holiday season, a time when food is in abundance and the opportunities to eat are many. Wait until after the holidays to start any new diet program.
It is easier to manage and maintain a current weight than to lose weight. Common sense dictates that it is better to wait to start a new diet until the holidays are over. Even if you are overweight, the holiday season is not a good time to begin a diet program. It will put you under too much biochemical, emotional and psychological stress. The better and healthier strategy is to maintain your present weight and not to attempt to lose weight.
Maintaining Healthy Eating Habits
You may already practice many of the nutritional recommendations outlined above. If you do, then keep on practicing them this holiday season. If your diet and approach to eating do not include the recommended dietary strategies, then it would be of great benefit to try and include as many of them as you can into your day-to-day nutritional life. Instead of trying to implement all of them at once, you might consider trying one or two at a time.
Water is essential for optimal health. The human body is made-up of at least two-thirds water. It is implicated in nearly every major bodily process (e.g., circulation, digestion, absorption, elimination, etc.) essential for sustaining life and maintaining good health. Therefore, if there is ever a time to drink adequate amounts of water (i.e., 6-8 eight ounce glasses a day), it is during the holidays. There are at least two good reasons to make drinking lots of water an essential strategy for staying healthy during the holiday season.
First, water is also a natural way to help with the detoxifying the body, which really is a holiday strategy in-and-of-itself to stay healthy. During the holiday season there is a tendency to overindulge in alcohol, refined processed foods, sugar and fat laden foods, which are toxic to the cells, tissues, organs and systems of the body. Staying well hydrated will assist the detoxifying systems of the body such as the gastrointestinal system (i.e., liver, gallbladder, colon & entire gastrointestinal tract), respiratory system (i.e., lungs, bronchial tubes, throat, sinuses & nose), urinary system (i.e., kidneys, bladder & urethra), lymphatic system (i.e., lymph channels & nodes) and integumentary system (i.e., skin) to work more effectively in removing those impurities resulting from unhealthy holiday food choices.
Second, drinking lots of water during the holidays can help prevent dehydration. Dehydration can cause headaches, an inability to concentrate, drowsiness, constipation, impatience and irritability, among numerous other effects that can contribute to a poor sense of well-being and spoil the holidays. Dehydration can in at least two ways also contribute to the unwanted holiday gift of weight gain. It can cause fatigue which creates the desire to eat in order to feel energized, which in turn can result in consuming excess calories and weight gain. Furthermore, an insufficient amount of water can impede the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients. This can lead to cravings and hunger pangs, which can result in consuming unnecessary calories to be stored as additional weight in the form of fat.
Eating A Balance of Carbohydrates, Fats and Protein
Throughout the holiday season make a concerted effort to eat a balanced diet consisting of carbohydrates, fats and protein. Diets high or low in one or the other of these macronutrients cause all sorts of health problems and nutritional imbalances and deficiencies. For example, eating a diet high in carbohydrates will trigger insulin release. High insulin levels tend to result in the body storing fat. Eating complex carbohydrates and “good: fats will serve to counterbalance or otherwise offset the carb-insulin get fat effect. Eating a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates and fat results in other potential problems, some of which one of which are low energy levels and feeling lethargic, constipation from an adequate amount of dietary fiber, an overworking of the liver and kidneys and diminished cognitive functioning from lack of proper nourishment (i.e., glucose & essential fatty acids) to the brain, all of which can be disrupt the flow of having a good time during the holidays.
Use common sense during the holidays and follow the old adage of eating a balanced diet. The United States Department of Agriculture (USDA) (2010) created the following guidelines for the consumption of macronutrients:
- 45%-65% of calories derived from carbohydrates
- 20%-35% of calories derived from fats
- 10%-35% of calories derived from protein
More information on the USDA’s recommendations dietary guidelines can be found at
Limiting Intake of Refined, Processed Carbohydrates
Consuming refined processed carbohydrates is what gets people into a lot of dietary and nutritional trouble during the holidays. Carbohydrates in and of themselves are not unhealthy. In fact, carbohydrates are essential to health and wellness. They are the master fuel for the body. Carbohydrates can provide the necessary “good” calories, vitamins, minerals and fiber needed to meet the energy demands of the holiday season and to stay healthy during this time of year. The dietary recommendation is to eat the “good” or complex carbohydrates derived from such foods fruits, vegetables, legumes and whole grains.
The “bad” or unhealthy carbohydrates are found in made from highly processed foods and beverages. Some of the usual and primary suspects of processed foods and drinks are cakes, cookies, crackers, candy and colas to name a few. These refined carbohydrate foods and beverages contain lots of empty, non-nutritional calories and are high on the glycemic index (GI) scale. Eating foods with a high GI index rating will cause a rapid spike in insulin levels. Elevated insulin levels leads to the body storing more fat than it normally would, resulting in weight gain.
Eating Low-Energy Dense Foods
According to Rolls and Barnett (2002) and their nutritional theory of Volumetrics, the feeling of fullness people experience after eating is more a function of the amount or volume of food consumed than the number of calories or grams of fat, carbohydrate or protein consumed. Rather than the calorie content of what they are eating, it is the volume or amount of food that signals people to either continue or stop eating. Thus, eating low-energy dense foods during the holidays will help create a sense of fullness and, thereby, consuming less food.
Starting With A Salad
As it turns out, salad greens and other vegetables put into salads (e.g., tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli, etc.) are low-energy-dense foods. These foods provide fewer calories for larger portions of food and create a feeling of fullness. Starting a holiday meal (or a non-holiday meal for that matter) with a salad will help with eating less food, while consuming less calories.
Managing Sugar Cravings
Although this holiday strategy is an elaboration on limiting the intake of refined processed carbohydrates, managing sugar cravings deserves special attention. To say that sugar is toxic to the body is an understatement. The documented deleterious effects of sugar are almost too numerous to list. Nevertheless, some of the harmful consequences of consuming too much sugar on holiday health would include:
Suppressed immune system
Elevated blood glucose and insulin levels
Mineral imbalance (i.e., depletion of chromium and copper)
Interference with the absorption of calcium and magnesium
Interference with protein absorption
Increase in systolic blood pressure
Acidic digestive tract
Increase in sodium and water retention
Hyperactivity and anxiety
Increase in cholesterol, triglycerides, homocysteine
Increase in low density lipoproteins (LD)
Decrease in lipoproteins
Trigger food allergies
The B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, chromium, L-glutamine can help to modulate sugar cravings and assist in sugar withdrawals. Also, a diet made-up of complex carbohydrates (e.g., whole grains and vegetables) and protein will help to stabilize blood sugar levels and blunt the craving for sugar.
Limiting Intake of “Lethal” Liquid Calories
Another nutritional trap people fall into during the holidays is to assume that it is better to substitute liquid calories for calories from solid food. Liquid calories are stealth calories in that they add up without you knowing it. Going to a holiday party and just drinking alcohol, soft drinks, juices or other liquids loaded with calories will rack up the calories and make it more difficult for you to manage your weight during the holidays. Moreover, it is important to understand that the bio-chemical mechanisms controlling hunger and thirst are different. As it turns out, liquid calories do not cause the brain to send the signal that you are full. Hence, you will more than likely end up eating anyway and maybe even overeating, leading to the consumption of calories above and beyond the liquid calories you already consumed.
Liquid candy (e.g., soft drinks, juices, etc.) and liquid pleasure (i.e., alcohol) will make you gain weight. Again, it is recommended to remain mindful about what you are consuming in terms of calories during the holidays and know that liquid calories are lethal.
Consuming Alcohol In Moderation
Alcohol is not only lethal in terms of the calories it contains but it is also lethal in its overall nutritional and health impact on the body. For example, its diuretic effect promotes dehydration and the loss of nutrients. According to Haas (1992), “alcohol … uses nutrients that it does not provide for its own metabolism, impairs the metabolism of many others, and reduces liver stores of even more” (p. 952). Alcohol suppresses the immune system; it impairs the digestion and absorption of nutrients from the small intestine, especially the B-vitamins (e.g., B-1, B-2, B-6, B-12, choline & folic acid); it impairs the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (e.g., Vitamins A, D, E & K) by the liver; and it impairs brain function. There are many other deleterious effects of alcohol on the body. Suffice it to say that consuming alcohol in moderation would go a long way in staying healthy during the holidays.
Increasing Intake of Dietary and Supplemental Fiber
Include fiber rich foods (i.e., grains, fruits, vegetables & legumes) or supplemental forms of fiber in your diet to increase the odds of staying healthy during the holidays. There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Each type of fiber has its own unique chemical and physical properties, which provide certain health and gastrointestinal benefits that would be of special importance during the holiday season.
Some of the holiday health benefits of soluble fiber would be as follows:
- Helps regulate blood sugar/glucose and insulin levels by slowing down digestion in the stomach and small intestine, thereby, delaying the conversion of other carbohydrates into glucose which in turn delays the release and absorption of sugar and stabilizes blood glucose levels
- Helps increase the uptake of vitamins and minerals and other nutrients by slowing down the digestion in the stomach and small intestine and, thereby, allowing more time for food nutrients to remain in the digestive process and become absorbed
- Reduces blood cholesterol levels by dissolving in water and creating a thick gel which slows digestion and binds with cholesterol and bile salts preventing them from becoming absorbed
- Increases the feeling of satiety or fullness, thereby, helping to prevent overeating and weight gain
Some of the holiday health benefits of insoluble fiber would be as follows:
- Promotes regular bowel movements
- Helps to move bulk through the intestine
- Facilitates or speeds up the transit time in the colon by adding bulk to the stool allowing for a faster passage through the intestine, removing toxic waste material in less time and allowing for fermentation to take place along the entire length of the colon including the end
It is recommended that at least 35 grams of fiber be consumed daily. It is recommended further that a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes be eaten daily during the holidays so as to incorporate the two different types of fiber into one’s diet. In order to achieve the greatest health benefits from fiber, soluble and insoluble fiber need to be eaten daily in a ratio of 50:50. The following foods are good sources of insoluble fiber:
- Cereals made from bran or shredded wheat
- Crunchy vegetables
- Rye flour
- Wheat bran
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole wheat products
Good sources of soluble fiber include:
- Citrus fruits
- Dried beans
- Oat bran
- Raw cabbage
- Rye flour
Many people do not eat enough fiber rich foods to reach the goal of 35 grams of fiber a day. Therefore, using fiber supplements is a useful way to include fiber in the diet. Be sure to drink plenty of water when eating fiber to prevent constipation and improve digestion and elimination.
Taking Nutritional Supplements
It is important to take nutritional supplements during the holidays so that you can provide your body with the nutrients its needs to stay healthy or otherwise be at optimal nutritional status. At a minimum, it is recommended that you take a good multiple vitamin and mineral formula. Use the multiple as the foundation of your supplement protocol. Among other benefits, a multiple vitamin and mineral supplement will help restore those nutrients depleted by sugar (e.g., chromium & copper) and stress (e.g., Vitamin A, E & C, the B vitamins, zinc, selenium, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, sulfur & molybdenum) and assist in keeping the body at an optimal nutritional level.
The multiple vitamin and mineral can be augmented with a greens supplement. This will assist in keeping the body in an alkaline state and providing the body with those phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, enzymes and other nutrients found in energizing green foods.
Augment the multiple vitamin and mineral formula with probiotics, digestive enzymes and a fiber supplement to help create a healthy digestive system. You are not just what you eat. You are also what you absorb. An unhealthy digestive system prohibits the proper absorption of nutrients to maintain an optimal nutritional status.
It is also recommended to take a potent antioxidant formula, immune formula and Omega 3 fish oil to keep the nutritional status of the body at an optimal level.
Not Showing Up Hungry
Avoid falling into the trap of starving yourself, especially on those days when you will be attending some sort of holiday festivity. It is better to eat at least three and preferably four to five small meals during the day. This will keep your metabolic rate up (thereby burning calories), create a feeling of satiety/fullness and help moderate blood glucose and insulin levels. Skipping meals is a sure way to trigger an increase in appetite leading to binge eating and feeling lethargic or as if you do not have any energy. In short, it is nutritionally smarter to eat less and more often throughout the day. If by chance you get hungry between meals, try eating raw fruits, berries and vegetables, along with some nuts. Also, meal replacement bars are an excellent way of eating small meals throughout the day. They are relatively low in calories and contain a good balance of macronutrients (i.e., protein, carbohydrates & fats) and micronutrients (i.e., vitamins & minerals).
Staying healthy throughout the holiday season is an achievable, provided it is made a goal and there is a conscious attempt to put into practice dietary strategies such as the ones discussed above to maintain and enhance health, especially during times of stress such as the holidays.
There is no single dietary strategy that will guarantee good health throughout the holiday season. Nevertheless, all of the discussed dietary strategies can in combination increase the chances of staying healthy during the holidays. Some of the strategies may be easier than others to adopt. Some may even be part of your daily health regimen already. The objective would be to put into practice as many as possible on a consistent basis throughout the holiday season. Even if there are days when you may falter, do not abandon your goal of achieving holiday health and keep putting into daily practice dietary strategies you believe will help keep you healthy throughout the holiday season.
The holiday season is a time for family, friends, food, festivities and faith. Stay healthy and allow yourself the opportunity to enjoy all of these wonderful holiday gifts.
American Heart Association (2013). What is a serving? Retrieved October 1, 2013, from http://heart.org/HEARTORG/Caregiver/Replenish/WhatisaServing/What-is-a-Serving_UCM_301838_Article.jsp.
Georgia Institute Of Technology (2006, August 3). Smaller bowls and spoons key to eating less. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 5, 2013, from http://www.sciencedaily.com /releases/2006/08/060803082602.htm
Rolls, B & Barnett, R.A. (2002). Volumetrics weight control plan. New York: Harpertorch.
United States Department of Agriculture (2010). Dietary guidelines for Americans, 2010. Retrieved October 1, 2013, from http://www.cnpp.usda.gov/DGAs2010-policydocument.htm