Food can be a healthy part of the holiday season

UAlberta registered dietitian offers tips on how to avoid overeating during the holidays.


It’s the holidays, that wonderful time of year when we celebrate and socialize with family and friends and co-workers and eat … and eat… and eat!

“Food is part of our celebrations, our culture, our way of being sociable,” said Anna Farmer, a University of Alberta community nutrition professor and registered dietitian.

The problem for many of us is that we eat too much during the holiday season—and too many high-calorie foods—and at the end of the season, we’ve put on some weight.

“I think we almost expect it,” said Farmer. “I think that’s one of the issues.”

But there is a way to enjoy the holidays and feel good at the end of the season. The key, according to Farmer, is to maintain an energy balance and make healthy food choices.

“Energy in has to be balanced with energy out,” she said. “I think people should enjoy the holidays and enjoy the food they’re eating, but if you know you’re going to have a heavier meal that night, eat lighter that day, get an extra walk in.”

Many people who know they will have a big festive meal one evening won’t eat during the day to keep their energy intake lower, but Farmer said that’s not the way to go about it.

To avoid overeating, she advised not to go to a party hungry because when you're hungry, you tend to lose track of the amount of food you eat. And because you’re famished, chances are even higher that you won’t keep track of how much you’re eating.

But, added Farmer, if you ate nutritious foods before the holiday meal—such as fruit, yogurt or some cheese and crackers—you wouldn’t feel quite so hungry when you got there and you’d be better able to keep track of what you’re eating and able to resist temptation.

Eat, drink and be mindful

Restraint and awareness of portion sizes are key to keeping track of the amount of food you’re eating and limiting mindless eating.

For example, if you treat yourself to a nice dessert or sweet treat, “you can still have it but you might opt to have a smaller piece or you might opt not to put the whipped cream or the ice cream on top of that piece of pie,” advised Farmer.

Another common contributing factor to weight gain during the holidays is what and how much we drink.

Alcoholic drinks tend to be higher in calories than other drinks, so Farmer advised that if you have a tendency to drink more alcohol during the holidays, balance that with non-alcoholic or sugar-free drinks and water so that not all of what you’re drinking is high in calories.

Farmer also suggested that if you have certain food triggers in social situations that are cues for you to eat more than normally, just be aware of that and look for ways that work for you.

“Try using a smaller plate, for instance, choose favourite foods, limit fried foods and include fruit and vegetables to balance your plate,” she suggested.

In the end, it’s not one meal that’s going to make you gain weight over the holidays, said Farmer, it’s that celebratory mood that we’re in for the whole holiday period. But if you have a balanced approach that includes moderation in your approach to eating and physical activity over the festive season, you can enjoy the holidays, your friends and family, and the food—and end up feeling pretty good after it’s all said and done.