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What is December about? For many of us: candle lighting, religious services, and gift giving. Also: pinatas, plates, and parties loaded with sweet treats and indulgences. “Small tweaks in your diet (and exercise routine) can make a huge impact this holiday season,” says Alexandra Pitkin, a clinical research dietitian in Boston, Massachusetts. “I do not promote restriction; the trick is not over-indulging,” says Brian Miller, a nutrition consultant in Fort Collins, Colorado.  Although the average US adult gains only 2 pounds a year between November and January, most of us don’t lose that weight and it accumulates over time, reports the New England Journal of Medicine (2000). Here’s how to avoid gaining it in the first place.

Our experts

  • Alexandra Pitkin, RD, LDN, clinical research dietitian in Boston, Massachusetts
  • Brian Miller, MS, RD, nutrition consultant in Fort Collins, Colorado
  • Jenna Volpe, RD, registered dietitian specializing in weight management and eating disorders, in Quincy, Massachusetts

Festive dinner

Traditional

  • ½ cup mashed potatoes
  • 8 oz. eggnog
  • 1 slice pecan pie
  • 4 oz. roast beef or ham
  • ½ cup stuffing
  • ½ cup
  • green bean casserole

Estimated nutrition facts

  • Calories 1,400–1,550
  • Fat 80–95g
  • Carbs  125g (50g from refined sugars)
  • Sodium  1,745 mg

Tweaked

  • ½ cup roasted veggies
  • 1 cup salad
  • 4 oz. baked fish
  • ½ cup mashed sweet potatoes
  • ¾ cup apple crisp
  • 8 oz.homemade eggnog

Estimated nutrition facts

  • Calories  650
  • Fat 35–45g
  • Carbs  45–60g (little or none from refined sugars)
  • Sodium 500–750mg

Appetizers & snacks

Go light on these

  • Pigs in a blanket
  • Chicken wings
  • Fried anything

Here’s why
“Traditional holiday dips, buffalo chicken, etc. contain a lot of saturated fat and calories, and are typically paired with bread or chips. This can add up to more calories than a full meal, with little nutrition.”—A.P.

Try these instead

Here’s how
“Try some of the healthier items first. Remember to leave room for the main course and a maybe a little dessert later.”—B.M

Nutritious selections at buffets

Nutritious selections at buffets
“When attending a party, think about some healthy options to bring. It’s amazing that the healthier options out there can be just as (if not more) tasty than their less healthy counterparts.” —Brian Miller, MS, RD

  • Stuffed mushrooms (Italian) or champinones al ajillo (Spanish)
  • Fresh fruit
  • Cheese, up to 2 oz. (1 oz. of cheese = size of four dice)
  • Mixed nuts (handful)
  • Fresh veggies
  • Hummus
  • Shrimp cocktail

Side dishes

Plan ahead, eat mindfully, and limit your indulgences to the foods you really enjoy.
“If you’re hosting, send people home with leftovers.”—B.M.

Go light on these

  • Dinner rolls
  • Stuffing
  • Mashed white potatoes
  • Casseroles made with canned soups, refined crackers, or butter/margarine, or high  sodium

Here’s why
High saturated fat and sodium,  low nutrition. “Green bean casseroles can be high in saturated fat and sodium if not prepared properly.”—B.M.

Try these instead

Here’s why
“For example, sweet potatoes are a great source of vitamins and minerals, and can help regulate blood sugar levels. Choose baked or roasted sweet potatoes over candied or sweet potato casserole.” —A.P.

Beverages

“Eat your calories: Don’t drink them.” —A.P.

Go light on these

  • Store-bought eggnog
  • Hot chocolate
  • Sodas (regular and diet)
  • Special holiday drinks at coffee shops

Here’s why
“Eggnog is high in fat and calories. One of these drinks provides more calories than a McDonald’s cheeseburger.” —A.P.

Regular sodas are likely to send our blood sugar through the roof. Diet sodas contain carcinogenic preservatives such as sodium benzoate. This can sometimes convert to benzene, a cancer-causing agent.

Try these instead

  • Homemade eggnog
  • Coffee or tea with milk and/or raw honey
  • Fruit-flavored seltzer water with fresh lemon/lime
  • Pomegranate juice with ginger ale and lime

Here’s how
“Choose sparkling cider instead of store-bought eggnog and slash half the fat and calories.” —A.P.

Desserts

Don’t forbid yourself. Try to limit to one serving and balance with something nutritious. “Limit, not eliminate, traditional holiday desserts like cookies and candies.”—B.M.

Go light on these

  • Traditional holiday baked goods made with lots of
    white sugar and refined flour

Here’s why
“Pecan pie is loaded with calories and sugar, as much as a can of regular soda. If you eat pie, leave some of the crust behind.” —A.P.

Try these instead

  • Cookie with a glass of milk for calcium and protein
  • Dark chocolate-covered strawberries
  • Simple apple crisp
  • Avocado mousse (with cocoa powder & agave nectar)

Here’s why
“Angel food cake is a great choice because it contains minimal fat and is lower in calories than regular cake. Or choose a piece of dark chocolate to satisfy sweet cravings.”  —A.P.
“When we’re allowed to celebrate, we tend to eat less.”—B.M.

Meal

Self-monitoring helps people feel good about their food choices, research shows. Record your food intake. Try one of the many free apps and websites, such as MyFitnessPal.

Go light on these

  • Red meats
  • Pork
  • Stews cooked in fat

Try these instead

Students share their strategies

“I love eggnog, so I allow myself to buy one quart a year and when it’s gone, that’s it.”
—Dejah W., student at Cape Cod Community College, West Barnstable, Massachusetts

“I drink a lot of water to try to fill up in between meals.”
—Brogan P., second-year graduate student, Drexel University, Philadelphia, Pennsylvania

“I try for the 80/20 principle. If I eat healthy 80 percent of the time, then I can enjoy unhealthy foods 20 percent of the time.”
 —Daniel A., student at Wake Technical Community College, Raleigh, North Carolina

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