DOD registered dietitians offer strategies for healthy eating during the holidays
Department of Defense registered dieticians offer healthy eating strategies to help service members and their families during the holidays. They caution holiday indulging can contribute to a slow yearly weight gain. (Army Public Health Center graphic illustration by Graham Snodgrass) (Photo Credit: Graham Snodgrass) VIEW ORIGINAL

Have you ever heard the phrase, “The best way to lose weight is to not gain it in the first place?”

When it comes to maintaining our weight, many of us may let our guard down from mid-November until mid-January. This holiday weight gain can contribute to a slow yearly weight gain.

Studies published in the December 2020 Obesity Science Practice and July 2017 Journal of Obesity found 1–2 pounds of weight gain were consistently observed during this period. Participants in the National Weight Control Registry found having a wider range of strategies may be helpful to navigate the challenges to weight control during the holidays. In one study of 195 adults, published in the New England Journal of Medicine, this gain was not reversed during spring or summer months, and the net of 1 pound remained. This might not seem like much, but if this weight is not lost during the year, then it adds up to 20 pounds over 20 years.

To help us all navigate the holiday season, I’ve gathered some tips and ideas from a variety of Department of Defense registered dietitians.

1. Maintain your routine.

“Maintaining weight or weight loss is all about routine and consistency,” explained Tammy Lindberg, the Air Force Services Center dietitian. “Even if your routine of sleep, activity and stress reduction is controlled, there is still the eating pattern that could potentially derail your best intentions. Regardless of where you are eating holiday meals, one strategy is to understand it is a holiday and allow yourself to sample all the unique recipes that you or others have created to support this season.”

Lindberg says small samples are the key, which means, take a taste.

“This is easier if half your plate is full of nutrient-dense, low-calorie vegetables and fruits,” said Lindberg. “If you are visiting someone for dinner, use the opportunity to bring a dish that you can control the calories. Then after you enjoy a meal, ensure the rest of your routine is followed.”

Lindberg also shared this thought, “It is said you cannot outrun a bad diet. Portion control and routine will minimize any setbacks of the holiday cheer.”

2. Budget your calories.

“I will budget calories for foods I really enjoy and skip the foods I enjoy less, or can get another time,” says Air Force Lt. Col. Heidi L. Clark, chief, Nutritional Medicine Clinical Support Service at the Defense Health Agency. “I love pecan pie and will always save room for a slice, alongside a delicious scoop of sweet potato casserole. I might skip the regular mashed potatoes, because those are something I can get other times of the year, and not eat any apple pie because that's not my favorite.”

Clark also recommends making time for at least a walk, or other exercise, even if it's something light or a short workout.

“Getting outside for a walk is a great way to let your food digest, to get away from the kitchen full of tempting leftovers and good smells, and burn a few calories,” said Clark. “If you can coax family and friends to walk and talk with you, even better.”

Clark says to intentionally plan for light and healthy meals between the bigger, less healthy holiday meals.

She recommends trying to limit foods you might indulge in occasionally during the year – fried food, fast food, desserts – knowing that you'll be splurging on special holiday foods.

“I might indulge in a bowl of frozen yogurt a few times a month during the summer but probably not in November and December knowing that I'll be eating pecan pie and other treats,” said Clark.

3. Keep traditions – use portion control and moderation.

“This year Chanukah begins Dec. 18, and fried foods such as latkes (potato pancakes) and sufganiyot (doughnuts) are served at parties and family dinners,” says Michelle Goldberg, chief of Nutrition Services at Presidio of Monterey Health Clinic. “My tip is not to try to make these holiday foods healthy, but rather enjoy these Chanukah favorites using portion control and moderation. Happy Chanukah!”

4. Focus on creative fruits and vegetables.

Sharlene Holladay, Warfighter and Performance dietitian at Headquarters Marine Corps, says one of her favorite tips around the holidays is to focus on creative vegetable sides and fruit-forward breakfasts and desserts rather than center-of-plate proteins.

“Create true meals around the holidays, not just one-day meals for the holidays,” said Holladay.

She likes to make creative recipes such as parmesan asparagus; sesame mushroom warm romaine salad; toasted walnut and berry arugula; toasted granola, almond and pumpkin parfait; grilled banana and peanut butter waffles; zucchini pancakes as a dinner; avocado toast with cherry tomatoes and arugula; beet and walnut salad; grilled romaine; and curry yogurt toasted cauliflower.

5. Plan and prepare meals in advance.

“I recommend meal prepping on the weekends,” says Karen Hawkins, registered dietitian with the Department of Defense Office of Military Family Readiness Policy.

She recommends planning and preparing one meal to eat several times during the week to help lessen the stress during the holidays.

“As an example, I’ll make a Thai peanut noodle salad and eat some for dinner,” said Hawkins. “Then I add it to salad for lunch one day and add beans to it for another dinner during the week.”

6. Don't go to events when you’re hungry.

Theresa Osteen, registered dietitian at Lyster Army Health Clinic, Fort Rucker, Alabama, recommends enjoying social events around the holidays but avoiding going to them when you’re really hungry.

“I recommend fixing a small plate of your favorites while controlling to portions, avoid getting seconds, and finally, avoid hanging around the food area to prevent mindless eating when the food is right there in front of you,” said Osteen.

7. Eat intuitively.

Heather Hough, clinical dietitian at Landstuhl Regional Medical Center in Germany, says her best advice is to stop thinking of foods as “good” and “bad.”

“Give yourself unconditional permission to eat all year, space to observe how you feel about what you ate, and time to consider how to proceed moving forward,” said Hough. "True overeating is completely subjective and can only be determined by you.”

Hough says restricting food consumption all year and only giving yourself permission to eat certain foods around the holidays will increase feelings of lack of control with food.

“Remember that one food or meal does not make or break your health,” said Hough. “Don’t use weight as a marker to determine how you feel about your food experiences. If guilt is a factor in how you feel about your eating experiences, I urge you to consider healing your relationship with food."

8. Enjoy sampling unique foods.

“Traditional holiday indulgences should be welcomed, but keep portion sizes in mind to make room for all that you choose to enjoy,” said Jennifer Person, registered dietitian at Naval Supply Systems Command in Mechanicsburg, Pennsylvania. “Don’t stuff your plate with all the foods on the table; instead, sample those foods that are unique and special to you. This may sound funny, but a coworker was trying to convince herself not to eat some foods that were at a holiday party one year. I asked her how she was refraining from indulging, and she said, ‘I already know what this tastes like.’ Honestly, I tell myself this too now, and it works.”

Here are some more tips to add to your strategies for a healthy holiday:

9. Is it on the “document-worthy scale”?

My son judges a dessert or a special food by the “document-worthy scale.” He ranks the food on a scale of 1 to 10, with 1 being terrible and 10 being the most amazing food in memory. You can also ask yourself: “Is it worthy of posting on my social media or telling my friends?”

10. Limit the alcoholic drinks.

Alcoholic drinks are full of calories. Try to be selective with your holiday beverages. Enjoy your first beverage, and then transition to water. One hint is to keep a glass of water with you during a holiday event. The more water you drink, the less food you are likely going to eat.

11. Part with holiday food gifts after the holidays.

I find having gift baskets of delicious goodies around the house in the last week of December to be a difficult temptation to resist. My suggestion is the “three-bite rule,” which gives me a taste of something I really desire without going overboard. I also suggest taking the extra goodies to work, church or some other gathering to share with others.

This is my final holiday tip:

12. Monitor your weight.

Hold yourself accountable, and step on the scale more frequently during the holiday season. If you see the scale going over your personal threshold, take action quickly to get back on track. Try to keep your exercise routine on track as much as possible. Regular exercise will help to balance out the special treats during the season.

Nutrition is part of the Performance Triad of sleep, activity and nutrition. Explore this topic more by visiting the Army Public Health Center's Performance Triad website.

The U.S. Army Public Health Center enhances Army readiness by identifying and assessing current and emerging health threats, developing and communicating public health solutions, and assuring the quality and effectiveness of the Army’s Public Health Enterprise.

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