It can be hard to eat healthy during the holidays with visions of sugar plums — and plenty of other sugary foods — dancing in our heads.

According to Geisinger dietitian Allison Naylor, the key to having your Aunt Ethel’s fruit cake (and eating it, too) lies in one word.


“It’s cliche, but it is so true,” she said. “A lot of patients think they can not have anything during the holidays. They get so restrictive that they wind up over-eating. We encourage patients that portion control and moderation is important with all the sweet treats and alcoholic options this time of year.”

Madeline Waters, a dietitian with UPMC Susquehanna, takes the concept of moderation one step further — suggesting that responsible holiday food and alcohol consumption is a matter of mindful eating.

“You need to be present in the moment. Slow down and enjoy the food you are eating. Savor the flavor and smells and texture of each bite,” she said. “I am a huge supporter of mindful eating. I think it is important to give permission to eat and enjoy some of your holiday favorites, as long as you eat mindfully and maintain balance.”

That balance comes in the form of splitting up your plate and not overdoing one type of food vs. another.

“I suggest making sure half your plate is veggies and fruit, and the rest should be divided between lean protein and carbohydrates,” Waters said. “The meat should be about the size of a deck of cards and usually around a half-cup of carbohydrates is a good goal to have.”

Another thing that helps offset the extra calorie consumption during the holidays — exercise and keeping active.

“A lot of times, people give kids some cookies to keep them occupied and they sit watching TV or on electronic devices,” Naylor said. “Instead, see what activities you can tie them into. Play a game together, go outside and play some football or go for a walk. Whatever you do, try to involve the whole family.”


Alcohol concerns

Drinking alcohol leads to concerns beyond drunkenness and loss of inhibition, Naylor said.

“Those drinks can provide a lot of unnecessary liquid calories. Also, alcohol has a dehydrating effect on the body and not many people drink the water necessary to offset that,” she said. “Also, as you drink and lose your will power and inhibitions, you make less controlled decisions about what you eat.”

But what if you are at a family function or holiday party where everyone else seems to be drinking alcohol?

“You can sip on water or club soda. You can even add some cranberries and put it in a fancy glass so no on really knows,” she said.


Party planning

Eating healthy at a holiday party can be especially difficult — unless you plan ahead, according to Naylor.

“If you are going to an event and not sure there will be healthy options, plan to bring your own so you know there are some things you can enjoy without the guilt,” she said. “Plus, who knows, maybe others will enjoy that healthy dish you bring and you can start some new, healthier traditions.”

It is also important to consider logistics of the room.

“Strategize where you sit — if you sit near the food table, you may wind up grazing more than you planned,” said Waters.

Eating appropriately before a function can also help reduce temptations to overeat — going to a party hungry only increases the odds you will overeat, according to Naylor.

Waters suggested waiting at least 10 minutes between your meal and going up for seconds.

“It allows you to digest the food some, and gives you a better chance to gauge your true appetite,” she said. “Pause, and ask yourself if you are truly still hungry or just mindlessly eating.”

When you do go up for seconds or dessert and decide you’d like to try a bigger variety of the items on the table, Waters suggested using tablespoon-sized servings instead of normal size — and with each bite, take the time to savor and mindfully enjoy the food you are consuming.

“You want to be in a position to walk away from the function and feel good about the choices you made,” Waters added. “That will only enhance your overall experience at the party — feeling good afterward.”