Game Plan for a Healthier Holiday Season

Americans gain one to two pounds between the Thanksgiving feast and the New Year’s countdown. Having a simple, smart game plan this holiday season can help you avoid this annual obstacle and set up a positive start to 2020.

“The best approach for the holidays is to aim for weight maintenance,” said Laura Barr Walker, Nutrition and Wellness Educator with University of Illinois Extension. “Weight loss initiatives are difficult to start at this time of year. Now is the time to focus on nutrient dense food most of the time, which is a success in itself with all the temptations of the season. When the New Year begins, then shift that focus to your overall nutrition and exercise goals.”

Fending off the holiday gain does not mean giving up your traditional favorites. “You can enjoy the celebrations, as well as stay fit and not have the added stress of a strict diet during this hectic time of year,” said Barr Walker, who recommends some realistic strategies for a healthier, holiday season:

Strategy 1: Amp Up Your Offense

“Sometimes the holiday bustle wreaks havoc on workout routines. It can be easy to let the schedule slide for a few weeks,” Barr Walker said. “If you miss one, don’t fret, just get back on track.”

Research shows that adults gain significant health benefits when they exercise 150 minutes per week. Those benefits include achieving a healthy weight, boosting immune function and mood, and building muscle, bone, and flexibility.

“If you aren’t in an exercise routine, take advantage of some seasonal opportunities to get you moving,” Barr Walker said, adding some examples:

  • Take a walk to look at holiday lights in your neighborhood
  • Park your car further away from the store when gift shopping
  • Go sledding
  • Opt for stairs over escalators at the mall

Strategy 2: Don’t Forget Your Defense

Many of us have packed calendars with family, friend and work parties, often featuring sweets and rich foods.

“Make a plan before you go, and you’ll be less likely to overdo it,” Barr Walker said. “For example, eat a salad or snack on vegetables before leaving; then, if there are no healthy choices at the party, you have already checked that box. The goal is not to deny yourself your favorite treats, but instead to help you enjoy less healthy items in moderation.”

Remember to slow down when eating to enjoy both the food and the company. Give your body time to register satiation, especially at the holiday meals.

Strategy 3: Tweak Your Playbook

“If you are hosting or bringing a dish to pass, add a few simple vegetable and fruit options to the menu, instead of just rich and saucy choices,” Barr Walker said. “For more traditional offerings, there are small, simple changes that can make a big difference to the total calories and fat. And, most people will not catch the difference in taste.”

Here are a few ideas to start you off:

  • Provide healthier appetizers like whole grain crackers and low-fat cheese, or shrimp cocktail.
  • Cut or replace sour cream in recipes with plain yogurt to add nutrition and decrease fat calories.
  • Use dry, unsalted nuts for flavor and texture. They pack nutrient and protein power and contain healthy fat in their natural state.
  • Choose to roast or grill meats, seafood and potatoes instead of other cooking methods.
  • Use chicken stock, fat-free dairy products and light cream cheese to reduce fat in recipes.

Strategy 4: Stay Hydrated

With all the great tastes of the season, you can skip the sodas, and only sample the punches and nogs.

“Soda, juice cocktails, sports or energy drinks, flavored creams and nogs all provide little or no nutritional content and really are just empty calories,” Barr Walker said. “Choose water – flat or sparkling – instead.”

Her pro tip for this one is infusing water with berries, citrus fruits, cucumber and/or mint to keep you hydrated, curb appetite and still feel festive.

Strategy 5: Eyes on the Prize

The holiday season means time with loved ones and preparing for the upcoming year. “If you do over-indulge at a celebration, push guilt away and start a new day,” she said. “”As you explore alternatives and adopt healthier habits, you will look and feel better over time.”

Get more tips and ideas with a series of short videos at