aerial photo of seven people enjoying a healthy holiday meal with a toast

Eating Healthy During the Holidays: Foods to Watch Out For (or Avoid)

Holidays mean friends, family, festivities, and food. Sometimes lots of food, and not usually the healthy kind. Social pressure doesn’t make mindful eating any easier. Your coworker insists you try her homemade candied pecans, the waft of warm cinnamon buns tempts you while you’re at the mall, and you’ll practically get disowned if you don’t try your adamant aunt’s favourite Christmas recipe.

Weight Gain and the Holidays

Telling yourself to avoid your favourite foods and eat healthy during the holidays can feel like a gruelling endurance test or the elephant in the room — the one thing you can’t stop thinking about.

At the same time, those repercussions of too many dietary indulgences — that second piece of pumpkin pie after a big family dinner, one too many eggnogs at the holiday party — can take a massive toll on our waistlines and overall health. Research shows what you already know — people gain most of their weight during the holiday season.

While multiple studies show the average weight gain among adults between mid-November and mid-January is about a pound (or 0.5 kg), those numbers can fluctuate dramatically. If you’re already overweight and obese, for instance, you’ll likely gain more weight than those at a healthy weight.

The point is: Almost all of us get heavier during the holidays.

Sugary, processed holiday foods account for that gain, but so does chronic stress that often surrounds the busy season. You alleviate those emotions with a second helping of pumpkin pecan cheesecake, which only exacerbates the resulting stress when your skinny jeans no longer fit. Acknowledge that the holiday season presents an abundance of unhealthy foods, stressful situations, and other obstacles that can derail even the savviest health-minded person.

You’re human — you’ll occasionally indulge, and sometimes you’ll feel the effects of familial tension or holiday-shopping stress. Be patient yet firm with yourself. Allow yourself that occasional mindful indulgence, but don’t allow that to become a license to overeat or otherwise let a few moments of bliss sabotage your overall health.

12 Ways to Stay Healthy this Holiday

Eating healthy and (mostly) avoiding the wrong foods during the holidays doesn’t need to feel like a  chore when you put these 12 simple, powerful strategies into play.

1. Schedule your meals & workouts.

You know the routine — getting stuck at the office late or visiting your carb-loving in-laws means you can easily get sidetracked with unhealthy holiday foods. Look ahead for potential glitches. The more you plan, the more you take the guesswork and temptation out of holiday eating and being healthy. Pre-prep dinner, schedule exercise first thing in the morning, keep an emergency kit nearby packed with healthy snacks, and troubleshoot any potential food-sabotaging situations.

2. Beware of “healthier” options that aren’t really healthy.

Manufacturers know you’re more health-conscious these days, yet you also want to indulge in something sweet and decadent. As a result, you’ll find all sorts of foods and drinks including agave sweetened cookies, gluten-free brownies, and artificially sweetened eggnog that provide the illusion you’re being healthier. Try this healthier eggnog recipe instead. These options can trigger a health halo, where you justify overindulging. Read labels carefully and steer clear of anything with problematic ingredients. You’re better off mindfully indulging in a few bites of the real thing (at least you know it isn’t healthy!) than overeating so-called health holiday foods that taste terrible and hijack your health.

3. Front-load healthy foods.

Dive into a carb-rich appetizer or sweet potato casserole and you practically guarantee your holiday meal won’t be waistline-friendly. Instead, start with nutrient-dense, fibre-rich plant foods and work toward dessert. One study showed a simple 100-calorie salad helped people eat less during that subsequent meal. Fibre-rich vegetables such as these stuffed mushrooms can also curb your appetite and keep you on track even during the heaviest Christmas recipes.

4. Swap your favourite dishes with healthy alternatives.

Rather than abstain from your favourite foods, dial-up your holiday meals with nutrient-dense but equally satisfying alternatives. Almost any food or drink becomes an opportunity for a healthier swap. For the perfect healthy holiday feast, our grain-free vegetable nut stuffing and Mashed No-Tatoes make satisfying sides, and Sweet Potato Wedges will satisfy even the finickiest potato-loving kids.

5. Give away the leftovers.

You practiced mindful eating during your family’s holiday dinner, but now it’s 7 p.m. and you realize all those delicious leftovers sit in the fridge. You’re not particularly hungry, though you’re tired and over-stimulated from entertaining relatives. A few bites become a second holiday feast, where you’re mindlessly scarfing down stuffing and casserole from the fridge. Don’t set yourself up for temptation. Give the leftovers to your guests or neighbors; especially the ones you know will get you in trouble during an 11 p.m. kitchen raid.  

6. Manage stress levels.

Isn’t it ironic how what should be the most joyous time of year oftentimes becomes the most hectic? Chronic stress can make you sick and leave you nose-diving into the peppermint bark brownies your coworker made (contributing to weight gain in the bargain). Consider a meditation or mindfulness practice. Or simply take five minutes out of your day to breathe deeply and instantly reduce stress levels. Protecting your spine from neurological interference also provides a great way to manage emotional and mental stress. Prioritizing chiropractic visits is especially crucial during the holidays when even little events can sabotage your peace of mind.

7. Up your workout intensity.

Want a surefire way to get a killer workout that keeps you lean and burns off holiday stress? Burst training or high-intensity interval training (HIIT) is an ideal way to lose weight and reduce your disease risk. Best of all, you can knock out an entire workout in about 15–20 minutes — less time than it takes to find a parking place at the mall during the holidays. HIIT provides the blueprint you need to build muscle, lose fat, and manage stress. (Although sorry, doing these workouts doesn’t give you permission to indulge in a second piece of apple pie on Christmas day!)

8. Get great sleep.

You’ve got big obligations along with juggling end-of-year work deadlines and social gatherings. Regardless, make sleep a priority even during your most hectic days if you want to optimize your immune health, stress levels, hormonal balance, and so much more. Research shows just one partial night of sleep deprivation can induce insulin resistance in healthy people! Set your phone or another reminder to prepare for bed, then put your phone and other electronics away. Take a hot bath, read a good but not stimulating book, and prepare for eight hours of solid, uninterrupted sleep.

9. Eat before holiday events

Nothing happens on time, and showing up to holiday parties famishes guarantees that one bite of bacon spinach dip becomes repeated spoonfuls smeared on a baguette. Arrive at your social gathering satiated but not stuffed. You can concentrate on your company rather than that big plate of artichoke dip in the corner. Before you go, try half a smoothie, a handful of almonds, or a protein bar. healthy pumpkin spice protein shake

10. Bring your own healthy holiday dish.

If you’re attending a dinner party where you know that less-than-healthy choices are de rigueur, offer to bring along a veggie tray, healthy snack, sugar-free dessert, or entrée. Your host will appreciate the effort and you’ll ensure at least one healthy holiday dish. Better yet, host your own event that includes plenty of foods rich in protein, healthy fat, and fibre.  

11. Watch the alcohol.

Downing that second glass of spiked eggnog or Christmas-themed beer can lower your inhibitions so you’re reaching for a second and third sugar cookie. If you imbibe, consider switching to sparkling water or tea after one drink. Put it in a fancy cocktail glass and nobody will know the difference. You’ll stay hydrated (especially crucial when you’re drinking alcohol) while avoiding that dreaded morning-after hangover.

12. Practice gratitude.

The holidays often trigger excess baggage. Difficult in-laws, sad memories of loved ones no longer there, and fighting massive crowds to find that perfect gift your child demands. Try shifting your mindset to gratitude. “When we decide to focus on all that is good in our lives, happiness increases, blood pressure drops, and heart rate decreases,” writes John D. Kelly, MD. Consider keeping a gratitude journal to begin and end your day. Reach out to people and genuinely thank them for what they’ve done. You’ll discover that even during the craziest of days, a little gratitude helps put things into perspective.

Healthy holiday recipes don’t need to be time-consuming or boring. You’ll feel good knowing you’re serving your family and friends nutrient-dense foods whether you’re serving up Christmas dinner, having a holiday gathering for your kids’ friends, or entertaining the in-laws for a week.

Just as gratifying, you’ll be several steps ahead of the curve on New Year’s Day while others scurry to put their resolutions into place. Happy holidays!

healthy holiday eating

Dr. B.J. Hardick

About Dr. B.J. Hardick

Raised in a holistic family, Dr. B.J. Hardick is a Doctor of Chiropractic, organic foodie and fanatic for green living and earthly sustainability. He has spent the majority of his life working in natural health care. In 2009, he authored his first book, Maximized Living Nutrition Plans. In 2018, he authored his second book, Align Your Health. An energizing and passionate speaker, Dr. Hardick shares his lifestyle methods to numerous professional and public audiences every year in the United States and Canada. He is known for his articles, recipes and contributions on MindBodyGreen.com, FoodMatters.com, MaxLiving.com, and his own site, DrHardick.com. In his spare time, he invests his keen interest in sustainable living into urban development in his hometown of London, Ontario. Learn More