The holiday season, now upon us, is a time of celebration and abundance. Teeming with tasty temptations (not to mention tons of stress!), the holidays can present challenges to clients trying to maintain healthy habits. Each festivity or social function can create anxiety for the calorie-conscious struggling to maintain weight as co-workers serve sugary treats at the office and hectic schedules make it difficult for clients to uphold physical activity routines.

While it’s estimated that the average American puts on an average of only 1 pound from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day, this is weight that typically sticks around and adds up year after year (Yanovski et al. 2000). One way for fitness professionals to help clients survive the holiday season is to share fresh ideas and strategies for maintaining weight in the face of such temptations. Here are some practical ideas for enjoying favorite holiday foods without packing on the pounds.

10 Survival Tips for Holiday Parties

Parties are an enjoyable way to celebrate the season, but party-goers can find their resolve weakening in the face of bountiful and calorie-laden food spreads. The good news is, nutrition experts agree that all holiday foods can easily fit into a healthy diet—if eaten in moderation.

“All foods fit!” claims Kyle Shadix, MS, RD, professional chef and food service instructor at Columbia University/Teachers College in New York City. The key, says Shadix, is to keep things in perspective. “It’s all about portion control and not overindulging.”

Here are some effective tips for controlling calories at those notorious holiday feasts.

1. Create and Stick to a Plan
To help maintain healthy habits, identify potential problem areas and anticipate situations that may present challenges, advises Kate Geagan, MS, RD, president of IT Nutrition, a nutrition consulting company in Park City, Utah. She tells her clients to allow themselves some slack and not to aim for perfection (which is impossible any time of the year, but especially so when presented with tempting food and drink). “Choose to focus on two areas at most,” recommends Geagan, “such as [sticking to] a firm workout schedule [and] avoiding the cheese tray if that is a weakness.” By recognizing and anticipating your primary weaknesses, you are more likely to stick with a plan, she says.

2. Maintain a Regular Schedule
While the holidays can be hectic, it is important that clients continue to eat at normal mealtimes. “So many clients are tempted to try to ‘make up’ for bad eating [by skimping] at breakfast or lunch,” explains Geagan. “This sets them up for poor energy, hunger and bad food choices at the next party.” Once again, it helps to have a plan to maintain your resolve. For example, if you are going to an evening festivity, eat a balanced, lighter lunch, such as a mixed green salad with grilled chicken and chopped apples. It is also helpful to try to eat a high-fiber snack, like a handful of colorful veggies, midafternoon to avoid going to the party starving.

3. Practice Mindfulness
Before you heap any party food onto your plate, scan the offerings on the table. Consciously take one “virtual” trip through the buffet to see what is being served. This will help you make better choices. And savor both the food you eat and the conversations you have with other guests; eating more slowly will help you be more aware of when you are satisfied and feeling full. Another strategy is to create a physical buffer zone that is a safe distance from the buffet, says Victoria Shanta Retelny, RD, LD, owner of LivingWell Communications in Chicago. This prevents you from being within arm’s distance of those tempting dishes and discourages mindless munching. “Factor movement into the equation, so that if you are going back for more, at least you have to burn calories to get back to the table,” Retelny advises.

4. Be Selective
It’s normal to want to sample everything, but you may want to consider “saving” your calories for those favorites that come around only once a year. In other words, skip the mundane chips and dip, and go for a small serving of pumpkin pie this Thanksgiving. “If desserts are your weakness,” Geagan suggests, “sample only one dessert per party.”

5. Beware of Beverages
Keeping the holiday “cheer” to a minimum can save a tremendous number of empty calories. “Limit your alcoholic beverages to 1–2 drinks per day,” recommends Retelny. The same goes for those sweetened, nonalcoholic beverages; instead of sodas or punch, choose sparkling water and sugar-free drinks. For a look at some of the most common calorie-laden beverages, see “The Hidden Cost of Liquid Calories” in the October 2006 issue of IDEA Fitness Journal.

6. Practice Portion Control
The bigger the plate, the more people tend to eat. Most holiday buffets offer endless supplies of a variety of tempting foods; this can lead clients to unknowingly consume far more than their daily allowance of calories and fat. Retelny advises her clients to control portion sizes by opting for a small salad plate rather than a larger dinner plate when filling up at parties. Teach your clients how to recognize proper portion sizes by visiting the National Heart, Lung and Blood Institute’s Serving Size Card at

7. Fuel Up Frequently
Never leave the house hungry, warns Retelny. “Grab a quick 150- to 200-calorie snack, preferably a combination of high fiber and protein to stabilize blood sugar and assuage the appetite,” she says. Carry power snacks, such as nuts and dried fruit, with you while shopping or running errands. And always bring along a water bottle to stay hydrated throughout the day.

8. Practice Self-Monitoring
Set a simple fitness and eating goal at the beginning of the holiday season, and monitor yourself. Stay on track by using a tool that works for you, such as a food log. Use the log to record what and how much you eat, and don’t forget to include anything you had at parties. Be vigilant! To remind yourself of the payoff, Geagan suggests, identify your own reason for staying on track (e.g., to maintain the lean muscle mass you worked so hard to get), then put it in writing and repeat it like a mantra each day.

9. Be a Social Butterfly
Remember the spirit of the holidays is to gather with those you love, not to consume food. In fact, simply heading into holiday parties with the mindset that you are seeking companionship—not cookies and cake—may help you eat less, notes Ruth Baldwin, MA, RD, owner of RB Consulting LLC in Albuquerque, New Mexico.

10. Don’t Diet
Starting a weight loss program at the start of the season is a recipe for disaster. Attempting to diet in the face of holiday feasts can actually backfire, causing you to binge when presented with such temptation. Instead, create a plan for success at the start of the season and stick to it.

Healthy Holiday Fare

Can healthy really be used to describe holiday meals? You bet, particularly if you prepare the food yourself. A traditional holiday meal is often a balance of major nutrients and provides a variety of vitamins and minerals. That said, it is still possible to cut out some of the fat and boost the nutritional value of traditional holiday fare without your guests suspecting a thing.

First, look for ways to reduce overall calories. The quickest and easiest way to do this is to limit the number of high-fat offerings, says Shadix. “Some recipes just need butter, but you can cut the amount the recipe calls for,” he confides. You can also reduce the amount of sugar called for in most holiday recipes. For more ways to cut the fat and calories in traditional festive fare, see “Healthy Holiday Alternatives” below.

Another strategy for health-conscious hosts is to buy or prepare portion-controlled treats. “Offering individual des­serts and appetizers makes it easy to have just a taste, not half the cake,” says Retelny. This strategy is something your guests may actually thank you for later.

While every host wants to have enough food for all the guests, experts recommend exercising some restraint. In other words, don’t go overboard with your menu offerings.

“I encourage clients not to cook too much food, and only to use fresh ingredients,” notes Shadix. Faced with mounds of extra food, guests may feel inclined to eat more, and if they don’t, you will be stuck with all those leftovers! In addition to cooking less food, it’s a good idea to place higher-calorie items in smaller serving dishes, according to Baldwin. “It encourages people to serve themselves less,” she says.

Some More Strategies

What about all those favorite holiday foods your family clamors for each year? “Decide which ones you must include, then try to round out [the meal] with some new, healthier choices,” suggests Geagan. Search for inspiration for new family favorites by consulting a food magazine or website, such as

Add color (and nutritional value) to the traditional beige-colored holiday meal by including more fruits and vegetables. For example, add cranberries and apples into your favorite stuffing recipe, or whip up sweet potatoes instead of mashed potatoes.

To balance out the array of higher-calorie foods, remember to include more healthy fare, such as a dark green, leafy salad with fresh orange wedges, pear slices, chopped walnuts and a small amount of goat cheese.

When trying new recipes this season, be daring. “Make your pumpkin pie without the crust and you can even enjoy a dollop of whipped cream and come out ahead in the calorie department,” suggests Baldwin.

Don’t forget to include the children in holiday food preparation. An added benefit to making and choosing healthy foods is modeling better behaviors for kids; the holiday season can be tempting for them, too. Create new and healthier family traditions using some of the ideas outlined in “Healthy Holiday Projects for Kids” on this page.

In addition to eating wisely, keeping up some level of physical activity is important for maintaining weight and burning off extra holiday stress. Make sure you schedule workout times along with the holiday parties in your day planner.

Happy, Healthy New Year

Don’t let the endless rounds of holiday parties sabotage your clients’ healthy ways. Share these holiday survival tips with your clients and remind them that they have control over the choices they make. By taking the right steps at the beginning of the holiday season, they can avoid all those guilt-driven, weight loss New Year’s resolutions in 2007!

SIDEBAR: Healthy Holiday Alternitives

SIDEBAR: Healthy Holiday Projects for Kids

Including the little ones in holiday food preparation can be a learning experience for them and may even help you create new, healthier family traditions. Here are some fun projects you can do with your children this holiday season.

  • String cranberries or popcorn for tree or mantle decorations.
  • Poke cloves into fresh, whole oranges in the shape of a star or tree.
  • Collect pine cones, soak them in sugar water and sprinkle them with cinnamon.
  • Make homemade food gifts, such as holiday jams and jellies.
  • Decorate sugar cookies or prepare simple foods, like homemade cranberry sauce.
  • Set up a stand offering hot cocoa instead of lemonade.
  • Donate some hours helping to serve holiday meals at a local food bank or homeless shelter.

Jennie McCary, MS, RD, LD, is the wellness coordinator for Albuquerque public schools. She also chairs the Action for Healthy Kids project team in New Mexico.

Yanovski, J.A., et al. 2000. A prospective study of holiday weight gain. The New England Journal of Medicine, 342 (12), 861–67.

Jennie McCary, MS, RD, LD

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