By Lisa Browdy
As important as it is to keep an active exercise plan going through the holidays, the other prong of a healthy holiday season is being mindful of the quality and quantity of the food we eat. It's not about deprivation (which often leads to bingeing anyway), but about choosing the things you really love, and making sure you are really enjoying them.
When you only get something once a year, it is natural to go overboard with it. At my house we celebrate Hanukkah, which has it's own unhealthy treats. To commemorate the miracle of the oil that burned for eight days, we eat starchy foods that are cooked in oil -- can you get less healthy than that? Sufganiyot (jelly donuts) and latkes (potato pancakes) are our tempting holiday noshes. The donuts I can take or leave, but those warm, oniony, crispy potato pancakes were so tempting that for years I would annually put on several "latke pounds," justifying that the extra padding would keep me warm through the winter months.
I have since learned to face the Latke Temptation (as well as the treats at the other holiday parties I attend) with the Quality over Quantity Rule. Twenty latkes really don't taste that much better than two or three, when you think about it. To really savor every bite of those two or three latkes rather than gulping down 20 is infinitely healthier and perhaps even more fun.
If you have a special holiday treat you look forward to each year – Aunt Sue's pumpkin pies, or Grandma's French toast on Christmas morning – then by all means have some! The holidays, like the rest of life, are to be enjoyed! There are other things, though, that are pretty easily avoided, as long as you have a plan.
Trap 1: Appetizers
Appetizers are meant to be appetizing (hence the name), but they are more often than not little fat-sodium-and-calorie bombs. They attack you at your weakest (i.e. hungriest) and are only rarely special enough to justify the indulgence. Imagine that they came in a box from Costco, even if they didn't.
"On the day of the party, make sure you fill up with some protein and fiber first," suggests personal trainer and nutrition coach Tommaso Sanna. "Fiber keeps you fuller and protein takes more energy to break down." So help yourself to crudités and a few nuts, and save space for the actual meal.
Trap 2: The Buffet
Whether you are eating at a holiday buffet or serving yourself at a family-style meal, most of the time you will have control over what goes on your plate, and you will always have control over what goes in your mouth. Tommaso advises his clients to divide their plate into four imaginary sections, and put the better-for-you choices (veggies, lean protein, whole grains) in three of the quarters. Then the remaining quarter can be whatever that less healthy stuff they adore can go.
Trap 3: Alcohol
Though holiday cheer often comes in bottled form, there are a lot of good reasons to keep your belly away from the bar. Issues of liver damage and unfortunate behaviors aside, booze does your figure no favors – beer belly, anyone? The trickiest part of drinking, in my experience, is that it encourages me to eat more in quantity and less of quality. Beer needs something salty and fried to go with it, am I right? And wine just begs for fatty cheese and meats to accompany all those lovely grapey flavors. If anyone knows of an alcoholic beverage that pairs well with steamed veggies, do please tell me what it is.
If you're going to try to stay on the straight and narrow, eating-wise, you're going to need to keep your wits about you. So keep the drinking to a minimum, unless you're talking about water. Staying hydrated is always healthy, and water won't make you hate yourself in the morning.
Trap 4: Your Office
It's been years since I've worked in an office, but I remember well how each December the salty, fatty, sugary snacks that would fill the counter and fridge in the break room. Those darn gift baskets never seem to be full of healthy choices (unless it's Harry and David's pears). Managing the constant flow of hyperpalatable treats will require some re-programming. Remind yourself that most of these foods will taste good but they won't make you feel good. I counsel my clients to "crowd out" these unhealthy choices by making sure they fill up with nutritious foods. Be sure to have a really good, filling lunch with some protein so that you don't demolish the treats at 3:00. This is not the time of year to have a little ramen soup or a lean cuisine for lunch. You'll be stronger with the proper fortification. And look at it this way, when you're at work you haven't been drinking. Probably.
My friend Tina Tuszynski, a personal trainer in Elmhurst, suggests that you bring healthy snacks to the office when the other indulgences are calling your name, and to try to limit the amount of treats that you have at home. Here's another great idea: "Keep a food log during the holiday season so you can really get a handle on what you're consuming," she says. Be completely thorough and honest when charting the amount of each food and drink item consumed."
Moderation and mindfulness are good things to keep in mind all year 'round, but especially in the holiday season. Stop, breathe and be kind to yourself if things are going in the wrong direction. It is as important to give to and care for yourself while doing the same for those we love. To have more years of vibrant health is the best gift we will ever get, or give.