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6 Nutritionist-Approved Tricks to Prevent Holiday Overeating
Overindulgence is common during the holiday season—throw in stress, sleeplessness and the all-around strangeness of this year, and you’ve got a serious challenge. These pro tips can help.
Holiday eating always comes with challenges—frequently in the form of festively decorated sugar cookies, fruitcakes and sparkling holiday cocktails. And while COVID-19 has probably canceled your big office party this year, along with the parade of potlucks and buffet-style gatherings, holiday weight-gain traps still lurk: multicourse family meals, kitchen counters heaped with treats and a fridge full of eggnog, for starters.
In fact, this year’s holiday season may bring additional difficulties. Higher stress levels, experts say, increase the urge to indulge. “People might turn to food to help them cope with the stress of not being with family this year,” says Jessica Levings, R.D., a nutrition coach and owner of Balanced Pantry, a nutrition services company in Orlando, FL.
Pandemic-disturbed sleep cycles may also exacerbate excessive holiday eating. “Poor sleep habits or disrupted circadian rhythms can change the balance of hunger and fullness hormones circulating in your body,” prompting you to eat more or choose less healthy foods, says Jen Bruning, R.D.N., a spokesperson for the Academy of Nutrition and Dietetics in Chicago.
And, of course, there’s the additional issue of not having extra people around to help eat the leftovers. “If we aren’t able to see grandma because of COVID restrictions, we may end up making all her recipes but with fewer people to share them,” points out Serena Ball, R.D.N., a registered dietitian in St. Louis, MO, and author of the Easy Everyday Mediterranean Diet Cookbook.
Knowing these potential diet pitfalls is the first step; solving them is the next. Start with these tips.
Sweat Your Stress Out
Lots of people feel anxious during the holidays, but this year promises to be a doozy. Instead of heading straight for the chips bag, try heading to a workout instead. Whether it’s a quick sweat session at the gym, working out at home or going for a few 10-minute jogs or walks around the neighborhood throughout the day, “you’ll feel better,” says Levings.
Ironically, socializing—an activity frequently tied to holiday overeating—can also help you reduce stress and mitigate the urge to comfort-binge, when done in the right way. “The best way to socialize without overindulging is to plan outdoor activities that don’t involve eating,” says Bruning. “Sledding, touch football games, walking to see holiday decorations and light displays and holiday-themed 3- or 5k races (virtual, if needed) give a sense of togetherness, relaxation and indulgence of a different kind.” Plus, all that physical activity can help you sleep more deeply and blow off stress, she points out.
If you do have a traditional get-together, bundle up and hold it outdoors, even if it’s cold—it’ll help you burn a few extra calories. “Ideally, people will walk around and keep moving to stay warm,” suggests Ball. “Do provide several warming stations spread out in your yard, like fire pits, outdoor heaters and a table with hot beverages.”
Absentmindedly munching on cookies while wrapping gifts or watching holiday re-runs on TV is an easy trap to fall into. Now more than ever, your daily meals should be planned in advance, says Levings. This cuts down on spontaneous snacking—which generally involves less-than-ideal choices. You can also dodge the temptation to nibble on whatever’s in sight by keeping fruits and vegetables front and center on your kitchen counter and in your fridge. “If healthy foods are on the table or somewhere visible, you’re more likely to grab them for a snack,“ she notes.
Go for Nutrient-Dense Food
Eating whole foods with anti-inflammatory properties can help you keep up your energy, says Ball, which in turn makes it less likely you’ll reach for a sugary treat for a quick pick-me-up. Look for foods high in vitamin C, like citrus fruits and potatoes, which also provide potassium and fiber. Another option: Foods that contain zinc, like peanuts, cashews and almonds, and vitamin D-rich foods, which promote immunity and improve sleep. “Also, canned sardines are often outside our comfort zone, but this low-mercury fish is packed with vitamin D and depression-fighting omega-3 fatty acids,” Ball says. “Sardines also have vitamin B6, which is necessary for serotonin and melatonin production.” An easy way to eat them: Substitute fork-mashed sardines for tuna in sandwiches.
Practice Portion Control
It’s normal to eat more in the dark, cold winter months. But although cold weather causes people to burn incrementally more calories, “the increased calorie needs of working out in the cold are not significant,” says Ball. In other words, you might feel like you deserve a heaping plate of pancakes after your Sunday long run in frigid temps, but the scale doesn’t care if it was 75 degrees or 20. Instead, after a workout in the cold try warming up with a hot beverage first (a cup of coffee; even a bowl of chicken broth), before eating your meal—it might take the edge off cold-driven hunger.
Sometimes, eating is simply a reaction to having nothing else to do. That may be especially true this year, when people find themselves at home without many of the usual holiday activities for entertainment. To avoid temptation, come up with a list or 10-20 things you can do other than eat. “If you feel like you’re eating out of stress or boredom, make yourself do another activity like calling a family member or taking a walk, before reaching for that treat,” says Levings. “Often, when you’re done with that activity you’ll find you’re not even hungry anymore.”
The good news is that the holidays roll through once a year, so as stressful as they can be, they won’t last forever. “The holidays are just one snapshot in the larger picture of your life,” Levings says. “If you have a day where you feel like you ate too many sweets or treats, take an extra walk and remember, tomorrow is a new day.”
Now that you’re armed with strategies to keep holiday overeating in check, it’s time to tackle holiday shopping. Start with these crave-worthy gifts for the fitness lovers in your life.