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Sunday, December 7, 2014

Holiday Eating Survival Guide

The holiday season is the most difficult time of year for my patients to stick to the healthy diet guidelines I've recommended for them. So they're always relieved when I explain that what we eat most of the time is more important than what we eat just once in a while. There are some exceptions, like people with severe food allergies and those who struggle with food addiction, but most of the time I don't discourage an occasional indulgence as long as some basic rules are in place. Follow these ten tips to eat well and stay healthy this holiday season.

#1  Skip the candy.
Candy canes and other holiday candy may be festive but they're made mostly of sugar (or other sweeteners) and chemical additives. So avoid candy and snacking all together. Save your indulgences for bigger and better things, like a starchy side dish or your favorite dessert. Sweets and starches are best eaten at the end of a meal, never on an empty stomach, because protein and fat slow down the absorption of sugar into the body.

#2  Eat your vegetables.
Meals should always contain a sizable portion of vegetables, and holiday meals are no exception. I recommend that half of each meal come from non-starchy vegetables. If you're headed to a party where you are unlikely to encounter any, compensate by having a whole meal of non-starchy vegetables, like a big salad, for lunch that day. 

#3  Make it yourself.
If you're doing the entertaining, make as much as you can from scratch. Cooking your own food is almost always healthier than eating packaged foods, prepared dishes, and restaurant meals. It can also be a lot of work, so enlist the help of your family and friends and make it a social occasion as well. If you don't know where to begin, start with this easy Cranberry Raspberry Sauce you can make days in advance.

#4  Bring a healthy dish.
If you're invited to bring a dish to share at a party, make something healthy. Holiday spreads often overflow with rich dishes while plant-based ones are under-represented, so consider bringing a vegetable side dish to add a lighter option and more variety. 

#5  Savor small portions.
It's OK to indulge in small amounts of your favorite foods on occasion, as long as you put a limit on it. You always appreciate the first few bites of any dish more than subsequent ones, so favor quality over quantity and savor every mouthful. Serve yourself whatever you want on one small plate (an appetizer or salad plate, not a dinner plate), without any refills. If you're still hungry after that, stick to healthy choices like non-starchy vegetables and protein-rich foods.

#6  Limit sweet and alcoholic beverages.
Limit yourself to one sweet or alcoholic drink, or two spaced at least an hour apart. Also drink plenty of water. You can make it more festive by adding fresh mint leaves, frozen cranberries, or slices of lemon, lime, or clementine to flat or sparkling water.

#7  Do more than just eat.
Holiday meals are usually the focal point of family gatherings, but they don't have to be the only activity. Plan to do other things too, like taking a walk outside or going ice skating or sledding.

#8  Keep exercising.
The busier you are, the more difficult it is to find time to work out, but there will never be a better time to do it because regular exercise helps our bodies manage stress. It also helps improve energy levels, sleep quality, immunity, and blood sugar control, which is essential for maintaining a healthy weight. So stick to your regular exercise routine during the holidays. It should include aerobic exercise, strengthening or resistance exercise, and plenty of stretching at the end, tailored to your abilities and goals.

#9  Manage stress with sleep and relaxation.
Stress can be an underlying factor in weight gain and chronic disease, and stress levels are often high during the holidays. Manage it by getting at least 8 hours of sleep each night and practicing relaxation techniques. Cultivate a skill you can practice anywhere -- like meditation, breathing exercises, or self-hypnosis -- and develop a practice that suits your needs and schedule, whether you use it to fall asleep at night or recharge yourself during an afternoon break.

#10  Remember what's important.
Good food can be the highlight of any holiday, but don't make it the only one. Spending time with loved ones is most important, so don't waste too much time striving for perfection.

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