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Healthy holiday choices

Author: Mia James

Holiday food temptations are as inevitable during the festive season as sleigh bells, gift giving, and family gatherings. For those of us committed to a healthy diet and lifestyle, the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Eve can be loaded with challenges, as every event seems to revolve around food and drink.

Jasmyn Walker, MS, RD, CSO, LD, a dietitian at Cancer Treatment Centers of America® (CTCA) in Tulsa, Oklahoma, explains that the holiday season is laden with circumstances that challenge the resolve of even the most dedicated health nut. At this time of year, she says, “We’re often more tempted by traditions and social events.”

Whether we’re serving up cherished family recipes or hopping from one social event to the next, the pitfalls are similar: we’ll likely be presented with calorie-rich food and beverages that offer limited nutrition, Walker explains. Common sources of these “empty” calories include desserts, cocktails and nonalcoholic drinks, and processed foods— all of which make it difficult to maintain a healthy weight.

So-called hidden calories, or foods that are more caloric than expected, are another concern during the holidays. A common source of hidden calories is restaurant meals, which can be more calorieheavy than comparable dishes prepared at home. Eating out, says Walker, is something to watch for during the holidays when our busy schedules make it difficult to plan and prepare our own meals.

Healthy holidays matter

Given the focus on rich food during the holidays, it can seem tempting to let yourself stray from your healthy lifestyle— sometimes a little and sometimes a lot. Excuses like “It’s only once a year” and “I’ll start eating well after New Year’s” are tempting to make. The consequences of giving in to holiday indulgence, however, may outweigh the momentary pleasure.

Walker explains that straying from a healthy lifestyle, even temporarily, can result in weight gain, fatigue, fluctuation in blood sugar (a particular concern among diabetics), a weakened immune system, and raised cholesterol and blood pressure. Each of these consequences can lead to serious and sometimes long-term medical issues, including increased risk of infection (weakened immune system), cardiovascular disease (weight gain and raised cholesterol and blood pressure), and a decrease in quality of life. Staying on Track Despite the challenges, keeping your commitment to health during the holidays is not only possible but, with the right strategies, also easier (and tastier) than you may think. And you don’t need to go hungry—with a few tricks you can enjoy filling, delicious holiday meals that support your healthy lifestyle.

In some cases you can prepare yourself for success before you meet your caloric adversary, says Walker. She offers the following tips to prevent giving in to temptation at holiday gatherings:

  • “Never arrive at a gathering hungry.” Fill up on sensible snacks or a meal before you go out so that hunger won’t weaken your resolve.
  • Offer to bring a nutritious dish that you enjoy to ensure that you’ll have a healthy option.
  • Don’t forget to exercise on the day of a gathering; physical activity is a great way to stay on track and support overall health.
  • If you do get hungry during an event, look for nutritious options such as fruits and vegetables and keep portions small.
  • Don’t linger near the food—circulate through the crowd, or “work the room,” as Walker suggests.
  • “Limit sipping,” Walker says, and be aware of potentially high calories in alcoholic and nonalcoholic beverages and sweetened coffees and teas. Water is always a sensible alternative and will also keep you hydrated—an essential component of any healthy diet.

You can give yourself another opportunity to keep your holidays healthy when you cook and bake at home. Even sweets such as cakes, cookies, and pies can be prepared with less fat, fewer calories, and greater nutritional value than traditional recipes. Tips that Walker offers include using two egg whites for each egg called for in a recipe, replacing butter with applesauce, and using whole-wheat flour in place of white flour. She also says that adding nuts or dried fruit to baked goods can provide some nutritional value and that nonfat vanilla yogurt can be an alternative to whipped cream.

Sometimes the cookie wins

Even with real determination to stay healthy during the holidays, you may find yourself indulging in a little something you wouldn’t normally allow on your plate. As mentioned earlier, it’s a challenging season. Keeping this in mind, know that that dessert, second helping at dinner, or extra glass of wine doesn’t mean you’ve strayed from your commitment and goal.

If you do give in to temptation, don’t be discouraged. Get back on track as soon as possible. Walker encourages renewing your commitment to healthy eating immediately. “Focus on making the next meal where you’re going to start anew,” she says, rather than looking to the next week or the New Year for a turnaround. As well, maintaining physical activity, even in small amounts, can help you stick with your commitment.

Knowing that indulgence does happen, Walker says that if you truly want to enjoy something special, do so in moderation. “If you are going to indulge, maybe have half a portion versus the entire piece,” she suggests.

Yes, you can

With the right approach, you can have your holidays and your health. When faced with a food-related decision, consider the options and the strategies discussed here and remember that most decadent foods and ingredients can be replaced with lighter, more nutritious fare. “It seems like there’s always a healthier alternative,” Walker says. If you’re at a loss for a healthy choice, make your own. “Don’t be afraid to experiment with traditional dishes,” she says. You just might create your own healthy tradition!

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