Tis the season to be healthy — tips for eating well this holiday

UAB health and nutrition experts say it’s easy for eating to get out of control this time of year, with long-term health consequences.

Holiday meals are steeped in tradition, but experts at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB) suggest that checking grocery shopping lists twice is an important practice for better health.

nycu_eating-well_sA healthy diet emphasizes eating fruits, vegetables, whole grains, fat-free or low-fat dairy products, lean meats, poultry, fish, beans, eggs and nuts, according to the 2010 Dietary Guidelines for Americans. In addition, the guidelines say a healthy-eating plan is low in saturated fats, trans fats, cholesterol, sodium and added sugars.

When it comes to holiday eating plans, these guidelines can be tricky to abide by. According to Lindsey Lee, R.D., clinical dietitian with EatRight by UAB Weight Management Services, there can be consequences if they are not followed.

“Research shows that most people gain 1 to 3 pounds each holiday season, and they typically do not lose that extra weight after the holidays,” Lee explained. “Those pounds pile up year to year.”

After years of packing on the holiday pounds without losing them, people end up with bigger problems than their pants not fitting, including hypertension, pre-diabetes, diabetes, high cholesterol and sleep apnea. But there are easy ways to minimize chances for weight gain.

"Research shows that most people gain 1 to 3 pounds each holiday season, and they typically do not lose that extra weight after the holidays."

“Think about the foods you can’t get at other times of year and decide to eat those during dinner versus the foods you can eat all the time,” Lee said. “Instead of snacking on store-bought cookies, wait for that slice of Grandma’s homemade pie after dinner.”

It is the same with other meal options, said Lee.

“Eat a bit of your favorite casserole you only see once a year instead of the heavier sides you can eat year-round.”

Also, Lee said to space eating throughout the day. Instead of reserving calorie intake for dinner, have four to five mini-meals, starting with breakfast.

“If you eat throughout the day – and make healthy choices that follow dietary guidelines as you do so – then you won’t get to the dinner table starved and completely overdo it with calories consumed,” Lee added.

Lee said it is also important to hydrate.

“With the holidays comes a bevy of celebratory beverages, and many of them are high in calories. While it’s okay to indulge, create a smart system: Have water before and between every glass of alcohol or other beverage.”

“With the holidays comes a bevy of celebratory beverages, and many of them are high in calories,” Lee noted. “While it’s okay to indulge, create a smart system: Have water before and between every glass of alcohol or other beverage.”

Also, you can make your own mocktail, Lee advised, by adding flavored, no-sugar drink mixes to sparkling water. “This will taste like a cocktail without all of those extra calories.”

UAB Wellness coordinator Lauren Whitt, Ph.D., said that through the long stretch of holiday vacation time, people should step on a scale each day to stay in check with their weight.

“Calories consumed must be less than calories burned to maintain or lose weight,” she said. “If you monitor your weight, you will know if you should skip seconds at dinner or that holiday party you’re headed to.”

Whitt added that if the scale goes up, throwing in an extra walk or other form of cardiovascular exercise can help.

“Exercise also boosts your mood and can help take the edge off of holiday stress, so kick those holiday blues and extra pounds with a brisk neighborhood walk to burn calories and raise your endorphins,” Whitt encouraged.

Whitt emphasized that staying in a good frame of mind – and stress-free – whether through exercise or by taking a minute of quiet, will deter stress-eating and weight gain.

“The holiday season to-do lists can leave us feeling overwhelmed and anxious, so balance your needs, relax and rejuvenate yourself to keep a clear state of mind,” Whitt said. “This will help you be wise in choosing how much and how often you indulge.”

Lastly, Lee said to focus on what matters: It is not the food; it is the family and friends.

“We get caught up on shopping, cakes and candies,” Lee said. “Focus more on the actual holiday and less on what you’re going to eat, and you’re less likely to overindulge.”

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