By Beth Sumrell Ehrensberger, MPH, RD
It seems to start with the first handful of candy corn, and continues until the last drop of New Year’s champagne has washed down the chocolate-covered strawberries. Even the most health conscious are affected by the onset of the holidays; attendance at yoga class dwindles and your normally allusive sweet tooth tempts you with every swirl of icing you spy. It’s that time of year again, and you’re wondering how to hang onto the good habits that you’ve honed throughout the year while still enjoying the long awaited treats of the season.
Dashing Through the Snow
Since it’s so difficult to hit the gym during the holidays, instead, harness your own inner child, grab a couple of friends, and head outside for winter fun that happens to double as physical activity. Just 30 minutes of slipping and sliding down the neighborhood hills with a sled can burn 260 calories for a 155 pound person – that’s the same number of calories burned in a half-hour of high impact aerobics. (And which activity sounds like more fun?) Gliding around a rink on ice skates also burns the same amount of calories, and it’s a great way to get into the holiday spirit if you don’t live in a snowy climate. Snowshoeing can burn even more calories – about 300, the same number of calories in a cup of eggnog. Even dreaded winter chores count as exercise; 30 minutes of snow shoveling can burn just over 200 calories.
Everyone knows that exercise burns calories, but it also yields some big benefits that you may find surprising. Recent research suggests that serotonin, a neurotransmitter responsible for regulating mood, can be stimulated with exercise and light exposure. Even better, increased serotonin activity has been shown to improve mood, increase energy, and decrease carbohydrate cravings. Who knew that exercise could not only burn carbohydrates but help you avoid them, too? Even if you’re not up to dashing through the snow, a sun-filled morning walk or a couple of extra laps around the mall before you start shopping also count as exercise. Best of all, thirty minutes spent walking at a brisk pace can burn away those two sugar cookies you snitched from Santa’s cookie plate.
Make a List and Check it Twice
…or at least make a plan. During the holidays, when your dining schedule is likely to be quite irregular, a solid plan can help keep your diet on track. It’s especially important to eat balanced meals throughout the day; this practice will maintain control over your blood sugar, helping you avoid voracious hunger that makes the tin of homemade fudge in the company break room seem unavoidable.
Been dreaming of the looming holiday feast that you know will be filled with delicious but waistline-dangerous foods? Make an advance plan for navigating the holiday buffet; chances are you have a general idea of the spread. Roasted turkey is almost always on the holiday table, and is a good choice, offering the long lasting satiety of protein without a lot of fat if you remove the skin. Pile your plate high with veggies; look for steamed or roasted vegetables that let the vibrant color of the vegetable show instead of being covered in a calorie dense sauce or cheese. Beware of veggie dishes that have morphed into calorie-filled diet busters; take a very small spoonful if you simply can’t resist a taste. If you have a choice between sweet potatoes and mashed white potatoes, go with the vibrantly colored sweet, since they are packed with beta-carotene. But sweet potatoes are just one holiday food rich in the powerful phytonutrient beta-carotene; scan the buffet for other deep yellow, red, and green vegetables like sweet red peppers, spinach, kale, and butternut squash. Luckily, pumpkin is also packed with beta-carotene, making that tempting slice of pumpkin pie a better choice than the pecan not only because it’s packed with phytonutrients, but also because pecan pie has about 200 more calories and nearly double the fat.
Don’t forget the calories you sip, too. Alcoholic beverages can be sneaky places for calories to hide, especially in sugary mixed drinks. Just two champagne cocktails have as many calories as a double cheeseburger with bacon (and that’s before you even hit the hors d’oeuvres!). Add a couple scoops of spinach dip with five crackers and two mini quiches to the two cocktails and you have the caloric equivalent of a banana split and a small order of fries. Instead, ask the bartender for a glass of red wine, which has half the calories of a champagne cocktail, and fill your glass with a healthy dose of antioxidants like cancer-preventive resveratrol and HDL- boosting flavonoids.
Naughty or Nice?
Sometimes being a little naughty is nice, so go ahead and indulge, but just a little. Maintaining an “all or nothing” approach to eating treats during the holiday season will only leave you feeling deprived, increasing the chances that you will really blow it later. Aim to satisfy your sweet tooth with a healthier version of the traditional fat-filled standby. Craving apple pie? A whole apple cored, filled with raisins, and baked in a bath of cinnamon and apple juice provides the warm apple flavor but not the fat. As a bonus, not only do you get fiber from the apple’s peel, but also the insulin-regulating benefit from cinnamon, as evidenced by a recent study concluding that just over a teaspoon of cinnamon can prevent an after-meal blood sugar spike.
Enjoy special holiday foods in moderation and pass on foods that you could eat anytime during the year. Why waste calories on a fistful of store-bought chocolates when you could save your splurge for something really special? If you can’t stop thinking about the candy dish piled with chocolates, curb your craving with a cup of hot cocoa made with skim milk. Studies show that the antioxidants in cocoa are significantly higher than those in red wine or green tea. If you find yourself faced with several holiday parties all in the same week, plan ahead and choose where it’s most important for you to spend your calories, or better yet, volunteer to bring a delicious healthy dish featuring flavors of the season for everyone to enjoy together. Packed with antioxidants, sugar-sprinkled cranberries make a healthy holiday dessert when baked with coarsely chopped apples. Since antioxidants are most concentrated in the peel or skin of fruits and vegetables, cranberries, with their high skin-to-fruit ratio and edible skin, have a particularly high ORAC score (ORAC is a measurement of antioxidant capacity), and rank 6th on the United States Department of Agriculture’s list of the twenty highest antioxidant-rich foods.
The Most Wonderful Time of the Year
By choosing to indulge wisely and making time to exercise, you will feel great and will be better prepared to take on the inevitable stresses of the season. If you take care of yourself, you help ensure that you are healthy and able to take care of those you love – and isn’t that the best gift you can give?