Holiday Health Advice
There are plenty of articles about how to stay healthy, keep the pounds off, and stick to your diet during the holidays—“Keep a glass of water in your hand and your phone in the other so that you don’t mindlessly munch! Plan an extra workout the day after a party! Stay away from too tempting foods or you’ll overdo it!”
In theory, many of these seem like good ideas. Unfortunately, a lot of these recommendations have little scientific backing and cause people to overthink their holiday health regime. As a Registered Dietitian and lover of holiday festivities, it’s important to me that people enjoy this season while feeling like they can stay true to their personal health goals with relative ease. Below, I’ve answered four questions I hear a lot this time of year—I hope my responses can help you separate fact from fiction and be a little bit healthier this December.
Should I Eat Before a Holiday Party?
Many people think that the best way to curb their calorie intake the day of a big holiday party is to save all of their calories for the party—eat a tiny breakfast, skip lunch, and then you’re free to eat whatever you want at the party.
But heading to a party with a ravenous stomach is dangerous: the hunger hormone ghrelin decreases our body’s ability to control impulses and make rational decisions, which means that instead of choosing a healthy, balanced dinner, you might find yourself elbow deep at the dessert table. Keeping your blood sugar levels stable and your energy levels up throughout the day—which you can do by choosing balanced meals with filling fiber, protein, and healthy fats—will help you make healthier decisions at the party.
Everything in Moderation, Right?
“Everything in moderation!” your colleague proclaims as he reaches for a second Christmas cookie, smiling a little guiltily. I’m not a fan of this phrase for several reasons—one of them being that it seems to be an excuse to give yourself permission to do something that you know is probably not the healthiest. So while it’s just a cookie here, it’s also a slice of pie with lunch, two extra cocktails at happy hour, and a nap instead of your morning spin class that eventually snowballs into an overall pattern of unhealthy behavior.
The concept of moderation, as it applies to food, is also meaningless. Moderation has no meaning in terms of volume or quantity; a study published in the journal Appetite found that subjects defined moderation based on how much they liked a particular food and how much they ate of it in their everyday life. In other words, it’s a subjective concept applied to grant ourselves permission to eat certain foods that do not contribute to improved health and nutrition.
As it applies specifically to holiday eating, I don’t think you should eat everything in moderation. I think you should definitely not eat the foods you hate, healthy or not; you should try to build your plate around healthy foods like vegetables and protein; and you should enjoy the foods you love, mindfully.
What is One Thing I Should Avoid During The Holidays?
If you’re going to cut out one food around the holidays, holiday cocktails might just be your best bet. They tend to be higher in both sugar and fat than normal cocktails or a glass of wine. For example, a glass of eggnog can pack as many as 440 calories and 10 teaspoons of sugar. Plus, liquid calories aren’t nearly as satiating as those in food, so while you might stop at one slice of pie, you’ll keep chugging eggnog all night long without feeling as full.
What makes them doubly dangerous, however, is that alcohol loosens your inhibitions—even if you headed to the party with the best of healthy eating intentions, a few drinks will undoubtedly make it easier to justify those extra servings.
Can I Use Exercise to Balance Out My Holiday Consumption?
If you want to get some exercise before or after a holiday party, go right ahead—exercise is undoubtedly good for you! But don’t depend on it as a way to manage excess caloric intake before or after a night of heavy indulgence. While gyms lead us to believe otherwise, exercise accounts for a pretty small percentage of the calories we burn every day (around 10-30%). Imagine how hard you work in a one hour boot camp to burn, let’s say, 500 calories. Now imagine how easy it is to devour a slice of pecan pie in a matter of minutes.
Furthermore, people notoriously overestimate how many calories they burn when they work out and underestimate the amount of calories they eat, behaviors which ultimately lead to a calorie surplus. Work out if it makes you feel good or if it’s a part of your routine, but don’t count on it to give you an excuse to eat an extra cookie tonight.
This post is a part of our ongoing Ask the Dietitian series where the Munchery Dietitian, Kate Schlag, MPH, RD, answers your questions about health and nutrition. To participate, simply tag Munchery on Twitter, Facebook, or Instagram and post your question with the hashtag #AskKate.