As much as we look forward to holiday parties and dinners, many of us fear enjoying it too much – and packing on the pounds.
Indeed, the average American consumes approximately 4,500 calories and 229 grams fat from eating a traditional Thanksgiving dinner. And that doesn’t include breakfast, lunch, or late-night snacking on leftovers.
Studies show that the average American gains 1 to 2 pounds during the holiday season. And, those extra pounds tend to become permanent baggage. Year after year, those pounds can add up, and contribute to overweight or obesity later in life.
Although we may not all gain weight over the holidays, there is no question we tend to eat and drink more -- and exercise less. With the hustle and bustle of holiday shopping, parties and festive traditions, healthy eating and exercise are usually the first things to go.
No one wants to be on a strict diet during the holidays. We want to enjoy the bounty of traditional favorite foods. How can you enjoy the holidays without gaining weight? Dietitians say it’s not so hard, with a little planning.
- First, if you’ve been trying to lose weight, when mid-November rolls around, shift your focus from weight loss to weight maintenance. “The holiday season is tough enough to just maintain your weight let alone try to lose weight. So do yourself a favor,” says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, Boston University clinical assistant professor. “Allow yourself a few treats and set your goal on weight maintenance so you can enjoy the holiday foods and wait until the New Year to get back on your weight loss plan.”
- Second, if you are the host of dinners and parties, trim calories wherever you can without compromising tradition or flavor. You’ll help everyone enjoy the bountiful food without packing on the pounds. Keep in mind, experts say, it is much harder to lose weight than it is not to gain it in the first place.
Here are 10 tips to lighten up your holiday meals.
1. Shop Smart for Healthy Holidays
Plan your menu to include plenty of fruits, vegetables, lean meats, seafood, whole grains, and low-fat dairy.
Consult the nutrition label to choose foods rich in nutrients but lower in fat, calories, and sugar.
To shave calories, go easy when adding nuts, cheese, cream sauces, gravy, butter, and whipped cream.
2. Start the Party Light
Most appetizers tend to be loaded with calories. And it is so easy to over eat them before the meal.
Make it easier on your guests by offering light and satisfying appetizers. For tempting yet healthy appetizers, offer shrimp cocktails, whole-grain crackers with reduced-fat cheese, vegetables with a low-fat yogurt dip, or fresh fruit skewers.
3. Harness the Diet Power of Produce
Add more simple vegetable and fruit dishes to your menu instead of heavy dishes with sauces. Your guests will fill up on healthy fiber without lots of extra calories.
For example, green bean almandine with a squeeze of lemon is healthier than traditional green bean casserole. Simple peas or corn are healthier than creamed peas or corn. But if you must have casserole, use low-fat soup, increase the veggies, and top it with a crunchy whole-grain cereal instead of fried onions.
4. Go Frozen in Winter
Fresh is usually the best when fruits and vegetables are in season. But when prices are high in winter, head to the frozen food aisle.
“Frozen fruits and vegetables are usually less expensive and can be more nutritious because they are picked at their peak ripeness and frozen immediately” says American Dietetic Association spokeswoman Sarah Krieger, RD. Buy frozen produce in bags, use only what you need, and save more by not wasting spoiled produce.
Canned foods can also be a healthy option. Read the nutrition labels to find fruits and vegetables with less added sodium and sugar, Krieger says. Reduce the sodium and sugar solutions even more by rinsing the vegetable or fruit under cold water before you cook.
5. Respect Special Requests
As you plan your holiday menu, ask if guests have any food preferences or intolerances. For example, a dear friend may be lactose intolerant. A favorite cousin may have cut red meat from his diet.
You can’t please everyone. But you can include a wide variety of healthy foods. Then, your guests can pick and choose, filling their plate with a satisfying meal no matter their food issue.
6. Shave Calories With Simple Swaps
Create healthier versions of your holiday favorites by shaving calories wherever you can.
“Simple swaps of lower-fat ingredients are easy ways to save calories -- and no one will even notice the difference” says Cheryl Forberg, RD, nutritionist for the television series, The Biggest Loser.
Use chicken stock, fat-free yogurt, light cream cheese, and low-fat milk in place of high-fat ingredients. Substitute non-fat yogurt or applesauce for oil in baked goods.
7. Roast or Grill for Rich Flavor With Fewer Calories
Roasting or grilling meat, seafood, vegetables, and potatoes, is a simple, low-calorie cooking style that brings out the natural sweetness and flavor in foods.
Roasted sweet potatoes with a sprinkle of cinnamon sugar and a spritz of butter spray are delicious substitutes for the traditional calorie-laden casserole.
Grilled pork chops served with a mango salsa are great to replace pork chops slathered in mushroom cream.
8. Serve Healthier Desserts
For dessert, try chocolate-dipped strawberries for a colorful and delicious finale.
If you want to offer pie, choose the healthier pumpkin pie. Make it with non-fat evaporated milk. Top it with fat-free whipped topping.
9. Spritz Your Drinks
Eggnog and other holiday beverages can add a huge number of calories. Offer your guests plenty of low-cal beverages such as diet soda, sparkling water, or a low-calorie punch.
Alcohol releases inhibitions and can increase hunger. So do yourself and guests a favor: Offer simple alcohol choices such as wine and beer without the heavy cocktail mixers.
10. Plan and Scan to Avoid Holiday Weight Gain
“In anticipation that you will be eating and drinking more than usual, try to trim your calories and make sure you fit in fitness everyday so you can enjoy a ‘controlled’ feast without the guilt” says Joan Salge Blake, MS, RD, clinical assistant professor, Boston University and American Dietetic Association spokeswoman.
“Scan the buffet and fill your plate with foods that are simply prepared, without sauces or fried, sit down and take your time to taste and savor every bite,” she says. Resist the urge to go back for more by waiting at least 20 minutes for your brain to register that you are comfortably full. If you are still hungry, eat more vegetables and drink water.
Remember, the holidays are marked with many traditions, but the real meaning is about spending time with family and friends.
If you keep these tips in mind, you'll get through the holidays without gaining a pound. And if you do splurge, don't beat yourself up, the experts say. Just get right back to normal eating and exercising, and try to do a better job at the next party.