Written by: Benjamin Smith | Best Company Editorial Team
Last Updated: February 24th, 2020
Why eat healthy?
Your health is your lifeline. Literally. Your ability to function is directly related to your physical health. Though there are many ways to improve your health, one of the most important is eating healthy foods. This may not be appealing to some, but the results of healthy eating habits make it well worth it.
According to Healthline, if you are willing to commit to eating healthier foods, you will see a number of improvements in your life. You will be better able to maintain a healthy weight, your mood will likely improve, your body will be better equipped to combat disease, you will have more energy, and your overall longevity will be increased.
Now, eating healthy, though a challenging goal, is doable during the majority of the year. What about during the holidays? Thanksgiving and Christmas come with a number of fun traditions, but most people would agree that some of the most significant traditions during the holiday season center on food.
In this article, we will be providing you with some expert tips on healthy eating during the holidays, what foods you should be avoiding, and what healthy foods you should be adding to your diet. Though eating healthy during the holidays seems difficult, we hope to make it a bit easier for you.
Healthy eating tips
Hard things require effort. Eating healthy foods can certainly be one of those hard things. To take some of that burden off of your shoulders, we have turned to a number of experts to compile a list of ways that you can maintain a healthy and balanced diet during the holiday season.
Avoid the holiday think
Dr. Candice Seti, a clinical psychologist, personal trainer, and nutrition coach with The Weight Loss Therapist, feels that there an all-or-nothing attitude that has become common during the holiday season. In essence, it is like considering the last three weeks of December as "the holidays" and deciding you will get back on track starting January 1st. Realistically, two or three large and/or unhealthy meals will have almost no impact in the long-term, but 15 or 20 meals is where things get scary.
Seti suggests avoiding holiday weight gain by "reminding yourself that you have control over ALL of the other non-event meals during the holiday season. Making healthy choices during those meals will ensure that the impact of the big meals is much more minimal."
Make the “best” choices
"It's simple, don't aim for perfection, but aim for the best choice," says Bart Wolbers, Chief Science Writer and Researcher with Alexfergus.com. Wolbers talking about how eating an imbalanced meal during thanksgiving and a couple of them during Christmas is not going to ruin a year's worth of efforts. If people tell you otherwise, they need to get their facts straight.
That being said, don't be worried about stuffing yourself with turkey during your thanksgiving dinner. The key to your success will be opting for a smaller dessert when the time comes. As you plan for Christmas and New Year's, Wolbers suggests, "Eat that wonderful meal with your family, but make healthy choices during your other meals of the day. Don't be afraid of having a few glasses of champagne, but make sure to eat and drink healthy again the next day."
Maintaining moderation in your diet requires discipline. Kristian Morey, RD, LDN, and Clinical Dietitian at Mercy Medical Center, recommends, "Don’t keep candy, cookies, or pies around the house. Enjoy it in moderation here and there, but keeping it always available in your home during the holidays can make that very difficult to do."
Morey knows that many people have holiday traditions of making and giving away sweets to friends and family. To make sure that you don't end up with excess sweets in your home, she suggests only making as much as you are going to give away. If you don't know that you will be able to practice self-control if you do end up with some leftover sweets at home, she suggests choosing a different way to give to those you love and focusing on special experiences with them. She says, "the memories will last longer than the sweets do!"
If you find yourself struggling to maintain balance through eating in moderation, it may be helpful to measure out your portion sizes. To help you figure out appropriate portions for you, this infographic from a recent study conducted by Precision Nutrition should help you visualize what this looks like.
Infographic provided by Precision Nutrition
“All foods can be eaten in moderation. Try to limit saucy, fried foods. Also, limit drinks with calories; they can add up quickly."
— RD Natalie Allen, Instructor of Biomedical Sciences at Missouri State University
"The best way to eat healthy during the holidays is to stick with your normal eating routine (as best you can)!"
This advice from Kimberly Snyder, Celebrity Certified Nutritionist, is one of the keys to your success. Instead of depriving yourself so you can later binge on a huge holiday meal, she recommends starting your day with a nourishing smoothie. This will keep you hydrated, provide your body with nutrients you may not be getting from other meals, and prevent you from overeating indulgent foods later in the day.
When it comes to mealtime during the holidays, it’s understandable to overload your plate with mounds of sweet and savory dishes. We all face the temptation of reaching for multiple helpings. If you find yourself going back to the buffet, Snyder suggests keeping your portion of seconds small and avoiding a third helping, so that you can enjoy the desserts without regret.
Foods to avoid
One of the key success factors when eating healthy is not eating unhealthy foods. During the holidays, we are presented with so many options at celebratory meals. That being said, there are some foods that we would recommend avoiding in order to best care for your health without missing out on the celebrations and fun.
Most of our favorite holidays are often accompanied by a number of beverages. Though drinks seem innocent, be careful how much you drink. Many seasonal drinks are high in calories. According to Caleb Backe, Personal Trainer and Health and Wellness Expert for Maple Holistics, you should watch out for the following:
It's easy to keep going back for "just one more glass," but Backe adds, "not only are they unnecessary calories, but too much will make you lose your inhibitions and head back to the buffet for second and third helpings." Be smart with your drink selection!
Another super important tip is to avoid leftovers as best you can. "Holiday meals often come with days worth of heavy leftovers that just continue the cycle of overindulging," says Snyder. If you don't think you will be able to avoid eating them, give your leftovers to others so you can get right back on track with healthy eating and a normal routine.
Avoid foods you don’t actually like, but you feel obligated to eat, like Aunt Sally’s fruit cake. (And we ALL have that "Aunt Sally"). Kristian Morey, RD, LDN, and Clinical Dietitian at Mercy Medical Center, adds, "You do not have to try everyone’s dish at Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner, especially if they don’t align with your health goals or tastes." Don't be afraid to say no; just get the food that you actually want to eat.
Energy-dense foods are those that are deficient in nutrients including vitamins, minerals, and fiber. Kaitlin Cushman, a nutritionist focusing on children's health from Healthy Height knows that convincing your kids to eat non-energy-dense foods is no simple task, as these include the classic turkey, assorted vegetables, and other healthy side dishes. She suggests that portion control for the following foods will become crucial in order to maintain somewhat of a balanced meal:
- Deep-fried turkey or other fried foods
- Bread-heavy stuffing
- Baked goods (i.e. cookies, pie, cake)
- Heavily sauced items like casseroles, creamed corn, and mashed potatoes with gravy
- Canned cranberry sauce
- White bread, dinner rolls, etc.
One of the most common mistakes that people make is filling up on filler foods. Most casseroles, baked goods, and even vegetables are loaded with fats, sugar, and refined carbs. These are considered filler foods as they accompany the key elements of the meal. Lisa Richards, an author and nutritionist from The Candida Diet, has said, "Avoid 'healthy' foods that have been cooked in sugar and fat. There are many filler foods, mostly side dishes, that only add excess empty calories. Rather than filling up with these foods choose the more nutrient dense options."
Healthy foods to eat
The key to eating healthy is providing your body with the nutrients that it needs in the right proportions. That means that you should be eating healthy foods every day. Did you know that there are many people who are eating little to no fruits and vegetables on a daily basis? Precision Nutrition found that over the past five years, people have started eating fewer fruits and vegetables each day.
Image provided by Precision Nutrition
We know that it can be hard to know what foods will help your body the most. We have done the homework for you! We asked health and wellness experts about their top five fruits, vegetables, proteins, and whole grains that will help our bodies stay well nourished. Here is what we found:
“Whether it’s a large group brunch event or a traditional family dinner, opt to fill up with fruit or veggies before tackling the rest of the meal. For breakfast, this may mean a small fruit bowl first and dinner could be starting with a small salad or some roasted veggies. Either way, you will fill up some space in your stomach to help curb your hunger sooner. And you’ll also get a bunch of good nutrients in your system – something that’s often missing from our holiday favorites!”
Top five fruits
Expert tip from Trebing
How to eat more apples: "Apples are incredibly versatile. From apple slices to stewed apples and of course traditional apple pie or baked apples, there’s a multitude of recipes for apples." — Renata Trebing, Health and Wellness Expert from nourishwithrenata.com
“There’s a reason why Popeye loved his spinach, and I’m with him – I can’t get enough of this stuff. I put it in smoothies as it resembles the taste of a banana alongside other fruit like mangos. Anywhere I order a salad or when I make one at home, I ask for the base to be spinach as opposed to iceberg. You can toss spinach into pasta and also layer it in a sandwich. I recommend upping spinach intake to all my athletes as its calcium content is great for injury prevention.”
— Matt Kite, Director of Education and Personal Training Coach for D1 Training
Top five veggies
Expert tip from Trebing
"Carrots are high in beta carotene, which not only gives it the orange hue, but is also a powerful antioxidant. Some studies show that beta carotene may help fight cancer cells too. Carrots sticks are great raw snacks but you can also make carrot cake, roast or braise carrots too." — Trebing
“Just like avocados, Salmon is packed with healthy fast – omega 3 fatty acids – and super delicious. It also has plenty of protein to keep you full and help with muscle growth. I bake salmon in the oven and will eat it with a squeeze of lemon or some tzatziki sauce – a healthy condiment that’s made with yogurt, giving you even more protein and health benefits. But, you can also break it up and toss it in a salad."
Top five proteins
- Lean red meat
- Beans and lentils
- Protein powders
Expert tip from Trebing
"Chicken is a great source of protein and is one of the most versatile protein sources too. You can literally use chicken as a meat to grill, roast it in the oven, simmer it in stock, use ground chicken for chili, or have canned chicken on salads." — Trebing
“Quinoa has become a popular gluten free grain option, but most people do not know it is actually a seed. It is thought of as a grain because it is often prepared and consumed similarly to other whole grains. Quinoa has the highest protein content in this category containing 8-10g grams of protein per cup compared to white rice at about 4-5 grams per cup. Quinoa is also unique plant protein in this category because the protein is a complete protein containing all the essential amino acids."
— Randy Evans, MS, RD, LD, Consultant for Fresh n' Lean
Top five whole grains
- Whole-Wheat Bread
- Brown Rice
Expert tip from Trebing
"Brown rice is actually really nutritious. It contains high amounts of manganese, selenium, and phosphorous, as well as being higher in fiber than white rice. Brown rice is a great accompaniment for any Asian meal or even to make paella, rice cakes, or as an addition to soup." — Trebing
That's right, even a blog post like this has a bonus round! Here is one more expert tip to help you stay healthy all year.
"We all do better with a little support and accountability, and the holiday time is no different," says Seti. She also recommends finding a friend or family member with similar health goals and making a plan together. Share your goals for each meal, agree to remind each other, or simply choose to check in with each other each day and give a daily report. Whatever you plan, having someone committed to the same goals will help with motivation and commitment.