Healthy Holiday Eating

By Laura Creek Newman, RD

The days are short, the air is cold, and the stores are stocked with decorations and chocolates, meaning that the holiday season is here. While it is a celebratory time, many of us have feelings of stress and anxiety over our food choices, our weight, and our health during this time. Perhaps it is the long nights with the accompanying tendency to hibernate; perhaps it is the feeling of a new beginning with a new year. Perhaps it is also a belief that the holiday season is inherently unhealthy, thus we must be extra vigilant. While a commonly repeated fact, this notion is one that’s worth reassessing. Health, as defined by the World Health Organization, is “a state of complete physical, mental and social well-being and not merely the absence of disease or infirmity”1. Unfortunately we often focus only on physical health at this time, sometimes to the detriment of the social and mental well being aspects that are equally important.

It may be helpful to approach this holiday season with some perspective and acceptance:

  1. Holiday foods are generally going to be richer and more abundant than at other times of the year; this is part of what makes it celebratory, anticipated, and special.
  2. We will not have total control over our meal choices or the foods available during this time.
  3. Traditions are important and carry emotional weight, but they are not unchangeable.
  4. The holiday season lasts several weeks, but most of those days are regular days with regular eating routines.
  5. Healthy diets are not defined by a single food or a single meal. Healthy diets are patterns of eating that provide adequate energy, are enjoyable, and support physical health.

With this in mind, we can more critically assess our fears and beliefs around the “unhealthy” holidays. One common belief is that holiday foods are all unhealthy. Truthfully, a lot of holiday meal staples are nutritious choices and the standard fare can offer a lot of balance. The turkey, ham, and meatballs are good sources of protein, salads and veggies pack in our vitamins and minerals, cheeses and yogurt-based dips are a good source of calcium, and roasted root vegetables and whole grain rolls are great sources of fibre. Having less nutritious options as part of the meal doesn’t take away nutrition; baking, chocolates, and eggnog can all be included in nutritious holiday meals. Just like at any meal, eating a variety of types of foods will help us get good nutrition and have lasting energy. And just like with anything else, too much of any one thing is not good.

Holidays are certainly a time of abundance and sharing the culinary wealth, however, if the overall volume of food (particularly leftovers) is a challenge, consider scaling down recipe sizes or the number of dishes offered. This is where tradition usually gets involved – ideas like “we must serve mashed potatoes”, “we always make Christmas cookies”, etc. We can ask ourselves if these traditions are working well for us; what do we like about them and what would we like to change? At times our cultural traditions dictate the number and types of food offered at particular meals. In these scenarios taking the approach of a “taste of everything” may help; preparing enough for everyone to have a taste (or two) of every dish, and at the end everyone will have had a good meal.

Another common fear is “I can’t control myself” at holiday meals. What are the deeper thoughts behind this statement? What is our usual pattern during this season? Do we often arrive at a gathering famished? Are certain foods “off limits”, therefore making them more enticing? What is the self-talk about the food that will be at the event (e.g. “I shouldn’t eat the dessert even though it looks so good”, or “I might as well just stuff myself, then get back on my plan tomorrow”, etc). Taking time to reflect on the factors that affect our actions helps us to prepare to act differently at upcoming events. When we find ourselves thinking that holiday foods are unhealthy, try simple and kind reminders that not every single meal needs to be perfectly balanced to have a nutritious diet, and that celebratory foods are a valuable part of life. Keeping our routine as regular as possible with eating, sleeping, activity, and hydration helps us decide how much and when to eat. For some, the people in their lives trigger some of these negative holiday beliefs. Having some prepared responses for the people who make unwelcome comments about us and our eating choices provides some confidence when going into this type of situation.

Let’s redefine “healthy holidays” to include enjoyment and satisfaction, along with nutritional nourishment. True healthy holidays honour all parts of our human selves. We can remind ourselves that we are allowed to enjoy the season and its bounty while also respecting our bodies’ physical needs. Let’s keep our expectations of ourselves and our bodies realistic, and be kind when things don’t always work out the way we like. As the holiday season happens every year, we have lots of opportunities to adjust and practice some of these strategies for a more peaceful and overall healthy season.