Allison Koch, MS, RD, CSSD, LDN
Navigating The Holidays: 8 Tips For A Healthier, Happier Season
Updated: Jan 8, 2021
It is hard to believe it, but the holidays are upon us! And while that may look a bit different this year, with fewer parties to attend as we social distance, less communal office goodies, and a reduction in family gatherings, you may still feel some holiday angst surrounding what to eat and how to continue to train.
The holidays are also stressful. Add to that a global pandemic and this year may be more so between work, family, friends, training, and other obligations you may have – there just isn’t enough time for everything and often our health takes a back seat. That should not be the case. If anything, now is when you should make it more of a priority to help you ward off illness and stay healthy during this special time. So today, I’m sharing some tips to help you navigate the holiday season while staying healthy, happy, and also supporting your training goals!
Tip #1: Plan Ahead
I encourage all the clients I work with to have a plan for how they are going to attack the week – with both their running AND their nutrition – because you can’t be successful in one without the other. As the holidays approach, this becomes even more important.
Once a week, sit down and map out your meals for the week. Decide what you will have for meals and snacks based on what you have in the fridge/pantry already, as well as what works for all the extra commitments you have that week (meetings, get-togethers, strength sessions, kids activities, etc.). Include some easy to prepare items that require little to no prep and that you can have ready to go when you are in a pinch.
After you have everything you need for the week, set aside an hour or two to do a little meal prep. Assemble breakfast items, prep lunches for the week (or at least cook components so when lunch sneaks up on you all you have to do is dish it out and heat it up), and do any dinner prep that you can ahead of time. You will be amazed at how much time, energy, and stress this saves during the week and allows you more time to focus on the things that matter like spending time with family and friends, focusing on your kids, or even spending a little extra time on yourself.
Tip #2: Survive Your Day-To-Day
Just because it’s the holidays, doesn’t mean you should forego your healthy habits. Continue to meal prep, prepare your own lunches, and keep healthy snacks at the ready so you’re not as tempted by treats that may begin to pile up. It’s hard – I know! But try to listen to your body and hunger cues and ask yourself if you really want the treat sitting on the counter. If you do indulge, do so mindfully. Take a break from typing away on your computer to truly enjoy the treat. You’ll be less apt to go back for a second or third.
Some other tips to help you survive the day-to-day grind: keep communal office goodies (or treats at home) out of view or in an area that is less trafficked like the kitchen or a break room. Why? Out of sight, out of mind. Another idea: before you indulge, consider doing something active or to clear your mind first. Walk up/down a few flights of stairs or go for a walk around the block. Often, when you finish your activity, you may find you are no longer in the mood for that sweet treat. But if you are, enjoy it – without multitasking and without guilt.
Tip #3: Prepare For Party Time
I know this holiday season may mean fewer and smaller get-togethers, but you may still have a handful of celebrations – whether they are virtual or in-person - on the calendar. How do you navigate them when pigs in a blanket or creamy artichoke dip are calling your name? First, if headed to a friend or family member’s, try not to show up hungry (or in my case, hangry). Have a snack before you leave the office or house. Make sure it follows my guidelines for a healthy snack that satisfies: it should include a carbohydrate (e.g., bread, cereal, fruit, dairy, etc.), healthy fat (e.g., nut butter, avocado, nuts/seeds, etc.), and quality protein (e.g., dairy, soy, egg, meat products or some combination of nuts/seeds). Examples include a yogurt parfait made with yogurt of your choice, granola, and some chopped apples or other fruit; a slice of whole-grain toast with peanut butter and sliced banana; or a handful of carrots with some hummus, whole-grain crackers and a cheese stick.
Once you’ve arrived at the party, attack the apps mindfully. Survey what is offered and take what it is you genuinely want to eat vs. a little bit of everything. Research has shown that when faced with a wide variety of foods, people tend to eat more—regardless of true hunger level. Really try to tune in to your hunger level and whether you really want the chips and dip or the veggies and hummus. Another suggestion: fill your plate with better-for-you options first. I like to encourage clients to follow the half plate rule at meals and with hors d'oeuvres. Aim to fill half of your plate (or bowl) with fruits/veggies, one-quarter grain, and the other quarter with a lean protein of your choice. This visual will help you keep your portions in check.
Last – once you’ve had your fill, stand away from the buffet table, so you aren’t prone to mindless nibbling. You can also hold on to something to lessen your likelihood to munch. Last, try to really be keyed in to what you are eating when you are eating – focus on enjoying each bite you take.
Tip #4: Be Bashful Around Booze
Why? Alcohol is calorie-dense and nutrient-poor. And those calories can add up quickly if you aren’t careful. Alcohol also breaks down your inhibitions and can impair your judgment, making you less likely to resist (and often eat more of) the foods you might otherwise pass up. Last, alcohol can interfere with recovery from workouts and mess with your sleep. All reasons to take it easy with booze this season.
Here’s how a typical drink adds up:
90 calories/5-ounce glass of wine
150-170 calories in a pint of beer
75 calories in about 1.5 ounces of spirits
So what to do? For starters, try to keep visual evidence around of what you have consumed so you don’t forget. Leave an empty bottle of wine or beer in view and you will be less tempted to drink more. You can also follow each beverage with a glass of water to ensure you stay hydrated and potentially drink less. Last – watch the added mixers. Stick with clear spirits mixed with calorie-free beverages like sparkling water or club soda vs. juice or soft drinks.
Tip #5: Pile Your Plate Up With Fruits And Veggies
Fruits and veggies – whether fresh, frozen, dried, or canned – are rich sources of vitamins, minerals, and other nutrients that help support optimal health, including your immune system. Now more than ever it’s important to make sure you are meeting your nutrient needs and fruits and veggies can help deliver those. Training hard? You may want to focus on more carbohydrate-rich fruits and starchy vegetables to meet your increased needs. Just don’t forgo the leafy greens and broccoli. Try to find a balance and aim to include a wide variety of colors on your plate.
Tip #6: Practice Mindful Eating When It Makes Sense
Listening to your hunger is important. Being mindful about what and when you eat is also important. But as many of you are runners and endurance athletes, you have different needs than the general public. Sometimes you need to eat when you aren't hungry to get the most out of our training.
Why? If you only listen to your hunger cues to eat, you may miss out on multiple windows of opportunity to enhance recovery post-workout or to optimize your workout performance. But recognizing when to eat and how it will impact your training can make or break your success and longevity in the sport. This doesn’t mean you have to stick to a strict eating schedule or plan. It just means recognizing when you need to eat to properly fuel for and recover from training and when it’s more appropriate to listen to your hunger cues and be more mindful.
Have a long run or important track session planned? You need to fuel for that activity – before and afterward – even if you don’t feel like eating. Sitting down to enjoy a holiday feast? This is a good time to be more mindful and listen to your hunger cues. Think of hunger on a scale of 1 to 10 (1 being extremely hungry and 10 being overly full). You should start eating when you are at a 3 or 4 and aim to stop when you are at a 6 to 7. Saving up or skipping meals can lead to overeating and sugar cravings later in the day.
What the heck do I mean by hunger cues? Is your stomach growling? Are you low on energy? Do you feel shaky, have problems focusing, or are you irritable (i.e., hangry)? These are all classic hunger cue signals. Experience any of these and it’s most likely time for a snack or meal!
Once you’ve checked in with your hunger cues, and you sit down to eat, be as mindful as possible during your meal or snack. That means turn off the TV. Put the phone away. Take the time to really enjoy what you are eating and the company you are with – even if it’s just yourself. And enjoy it!
Tip #7: Move (i.e., Exercise!) More (if Possible)
If you are reading this, my guess is you already move regularly – whether it’s running, biking, group fitness classes, or at the gym. During the holidays, it may become more difficult to stick to your typical training plan. My suggestion? Plan your workouts right into your calendar and stick to them. Staying active can help ease the added stress and help you have more energy. If you are someone who likes a challenge, set one for the month. The team I train with typically does a plank and pushup challenge during the holiday season. I know there are runners who try to do running streaks or set a mileage goal for between Thanksgiving and the New Year. Whatever keeps you moving, is something that you enjoy and keeps you motivated – do that activity.
Tip #8: Remember The Reason For The Season
Whatever you celebrate this holiday season, remember the reason for the season. Enjoy time with family and friends – whether that’s virtually or in person. Don’t let what you eat stress you out. If you want a treat, then by all means, have the treat - just be mindful when you do and genuinely enjoy it - without guilt!
To wrap up today’s post, I’m sharing with you one of my favorite festive recipes, Pomegranate, Kale and Quinoa Salad with Walnuts and Feta. It is festive because the colors reflect the colors of the season and it is also packed with super-food, immune-supporting, and seasonal ingredients like kale, pomegranate arils, and quinoa - to ensure you are getting a big nutritional boost at your holiday meal. Enjoy!