Holiday feasting: 7 ways to stay healthy in the face of temptation

Tasty temptation lurks everywhere at this time of year, but there are ways to savour festive flavours and enjoy fine food without packing on the pounds.

Planning ahead key to avoiding overindulgence and weight gain

Planning ahead is key to enjoying festive food without packing on the pounds. (Shutterstock)

Tasty temptation lurks everywhere this time of year. And even those with the strongest willpower will find it tough to take a pass on cookies laden with butter and sugar or a second helping of turkey and creamy mashed potatoes.

"Energy dense, nutrient-poor foods are everywhere, all the time," says Sara Kirk, a professor of health promotion at Dalhousie University in Halifax.

"Things descend from bad to worse around any special occasion where food is an important part of the celebrations."

"It takes tremendous amounts of conscious effort to resist these types of foods," says Kirk, noting that they are "designed to push our buttons — the precise amount of fat, sugar and salt to light up our brains like a Christmas tree and trigger over-eating."

But there are ways to savour festive flavours and enjoy fine food without packing on the pounds or feeling sluggish after a big meal.

1. Plan ahead

"Planning ahead involves not skipping meals, breakfast being the most important meal of the day," says Cathy Paroschy Harris, a registered dietitian and director of prevention at Thunder Bay Regional Health Sciences Centre.

If you're heading to a cocktail party, have a healthy snack or smaller meal before you go so you won't be quite so hungry but can still enjoy a few appetizers. (Shutterstock)
"Sometimes people will say I'm going out to a big party tonight so I'm not going to eat all day, but that's not a good idea because usually you'll end up overindulging when you get there," says Paroschy Harris, who is also a spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada.

If you're heading to a cocktail party, have a healthy snack or smaller meal before you go.

That way, "you can still enjoy some of the special treats that are offered this time of year but enjoy them in a much smaller portion," says Laura MacLean, a registered dietitian in Edmonton.

If you're going up to a buffet, scope it out first, see where the salads and healthier options are. Avoid the creamy dips with the vegetables, and opt for the vinaigrette dressings or salsas and hummus-based dips instead.

Go for dessert from the fresh fruit platter.

And don't sit or stand by the food. "The closer you are, the more likely you are to eat it," Paroschy Harris says.

2. Do some math

If you're at a buffet or cocktail party, "look at having at least half of your plate as vegetables or fruit and then having a quarter of your plate as the protein and a quarter as whole grain," says MacLean.

And then there's the 80/20 rule, an approach to healthy eating that experts say can be helpful at this time of year.

Under this approach, you eat healthy things 80 per cent of the time. For the other 20 per cent of the time, indulging in treats and less healthy, junk food options is OK.

"You're less likely to overindulge if you do allow yourself to have a small amount of one of those foods," says Kirk.

3. Favour fruits and vegetables

Favouring fruits and veggies is an easy way to avoid overindulging in sweeter, fatter foods.

Also, "instead of doing all animal-based protein, consider including some plant-based protein," says Jess Abramson, a partner in YamChops, a vegetarian "butcher shop" in Toronto's Little Italy neighbourhood.

Brussels sprouts aren't a very popular vegetable, but chef Doreen Prei says proper preparation can make these tiny cabbages more appealing to picky eaters. (Shutterstock)
"One of the favourite holiday appetizers I've seen around is pigs in a blanket and we created our own version that involves figs.

"It's little figgies in a blanket," she says, describing the appetizer as "more of a healthful take, but equally delicious."

For the holiday dinner, add a couple of new vegetable side dishes to the meal, opting for steamed or roasted versions over those with heavier, creamier sauces. Herbs and spices can boost the flavour.

"Some of our good old-fashioned roasted vegetables are making a really good comeback," says MacLean, a spokesperson for Dietitians of Canada.

Think brussel sprouts, for example.

"That's a really easy green vegetable side by just simply slicing them in half, tossing them with a little bit of olive oil, placing them on a cookie sheet and roasting them in the oven at 350 degrees until they're done," MacLean says.

4. Get enough sleep

Not every strategy for eating well over the holidays revolves around food.

Experts say getting a good night's sleep is a critical for maintaining a healthy weight.

"When we don't get enough sleep, it causes changes in the hormones that regulate our appetite," says MacLean, noting studies have shown we'll feel more hungry and eat 20 to 30 per cent more the day after being sleep-deprived.

"Part of the challenge in the holiday season is we're just all tired, we're trying to do so much and fit in so much visiting and preparation, and sleep is something we can get behind on."

5. Get off the couch

"Fun doesn't have to come in the shape of food. It can come in the shape of physical activity," says Kirk.

She suggests going for a walk, having a games night or even a friendly snowball fight with the neighbours as ways of surviving holiday calories.

6. Go high-tech if you want

With new smartphones and apps, people have the opportunity to keep closer track of what they are eating, which can help them make healthier food choices.

Paroschy Harris points to and

"You can keep more aware of what you're eating and your activity," she says.

"Too often we stuff the stuff in our mouths and run off or we're not even paying attention to the hand-to-mouth movement," says Paroschy Harris.

7. Don't get too stressed

In the end, there is probably some holiday leeway for treats, as long as they are taken in moderation.

"We can end up beating ourselves up quite a lot over Christmas by overindulging when actually that's probably the time we should be overindulging and it's the rest of the time we shouldn't," says Kirk.

How lentils can spice up holiday cooking

Lentils can add a healthy boost to holiday fare. Click on the links below for recipes from the Dietitians of Canada website:


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.