Take Charge of your Nutrition: Tips for the Holidays

It’s that time of year! Holiday parties, presents, yummy beverages and delicious food, as well as cold weather, less daylight, busy days, and the perfect recipe for excuses to ignore your health and fitness.

Are you wanting to stay on track with (or even improve) your eating habits this Holiday Season? Do you want to eat your favorite seasonal food too? You CAN do both without releasing a dessert-eating, eggnog-drinking beast.

Here are some guidelines to help you stay on track this month, while still getting to enjoy the tastes of the season.

1.       Eat your veggies.

You’ve heard it your whole life, and for good reason. Most Americans do not consume enough vegetables to begin with. This time of year is no different as foods tend to be heavy on the starches, desserts, and adult beverages. Have a serving of vegetables at every meal. In fact, make vegetables the majority of your plate.

Studies have shown that just eating more veggies without other major changes to diet, can improve health in many ways, such as lower cholesterol, improve digestion and gut health, and reduce risk of diseases like cancer, diabetes, and heart disease. When you boil it down to necessities, there are 3 things humans must obtain from food. These are called essential nutrients and include: 1. vitamins and minerals; 2. fatty acids; and 3. amino acids. Vegetables provide many of these essential vitamins, minerals, and amino acids.

Vegetables are also packed with antioxidants and FIBER. Fiber comes from plants; therefore, vegetables and fruits are the richest sources of fiber. Fiber promotes a healthy gut microbiome – or the bacteria that inhabit your colon and affect many aspects of health. High fiber intake (for example, eating vegetables at every meal) has been associated with lower cholesterol, reduced blood pressure, enhanced weight control, better glycemic control, reduced risk of certain forms of cancer, diverticular disease, heart disease, and metabolic syndrome, and improved gastrointestinal function. Remove all causes of death not associated with diet (accident, smoking-related) then all causes of death remaining can be improved by consuming more fiber.

In short, eat more veggies, even if you indulge in “unhealthy” foods too. Have a serving of the dish you love most, but eat at least 1 serving of vegetables (1 cup) at every meal. What a better time to start than now?

2.       What the heck do I eat?

This is THE question everyone wants to know. Don’t overthink what you should eat. Trendy diets might work in the short term and might work for some people, but most are not sustainable. These crash diets, cleanses, detoxes, low-calories fads, etc., can result in weight loss but almost always lead to weight regain. In fact, most diets fail. Studies have shown that upwards of 95% of people who “go on a diet” regain as much and more weight than before the diet.

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The solution? Find a sustainable way of eating that works for you. The Meal Formula to the right is your starting point. The Meal Formula is your guide for every meal. It is always there for you. For example, if you get off track at your Holiday party, no worries. Seriously. Own it and get back on track at your next meal. You got this!

3.       How much do I eat?

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A quick and easy trick to learning your portion sizes is to use your hand. A serving of protein is the palm of your hand. A serving of fat is the size of your thumb and a serving of vegetables a cupped handful.

As a rough estimate, men have 2 servings of protein, fat, and vegetables and women have 1 serving of protein, fat, and vegetables per meal.

The Meal Formula and hand model combine for a great starting point. Evaluate your energy level, hunger/satiety, and digestion and adjust as needed. For example, if you feel hungry after meals, add more fat or vegetables. Fat brings out flavor in foods but is also is satiating. Vegetables are lower in calorie than fat, protein, and highly processed foods. Increasing vegetables is a great way to add volume (and nutrients!) to your meal without the calorie load. If you exercise regularly and want to add muscle mass, add 1-2 servings of protein per day

Lastly, bigger is not always better. Studies have shown that the larger the plate, the more we tend to eat. If you are at a party with  Stick with the meal formula, portion guide, and a medium size plate if your goal is portion control this Holiday Season.

4.       What about carbs?

Did you notice that the meal formula did not include starchy carbs such as rice, bread, pasta, or desserts? These foods are not “bad,” particularly if you are active throughout the day. However, remember the 3 essential nutrients all humans need (vitamins and minerals, fatty acids, and amino acids)? There is no essential carbohydrate.

When you eat carb-containing food - anything from a cookie to a piece of bread, to an apple -it is broken down into glucose, or sugar, in the body. When glucose enters the blood stream (aka, blood sugar) after eating carb-containing food, insulin is secreted from the pancreas then, in a lock-and-key mechanism, the insulin unlocks muscle cells to let the glucose into the cell where it is used to make energy. At the same time, insulin stimulates fat to be stored and prevents fat in your cells from being used to make energy.

Imagine this, John S sits at his desk all morning. He has a burger, fries, and soda for lunch then sits at his desk the rest of the afternoon. This is a double-edged sword for John S. First, he ate a meal loaded in fat and carbs. Second, he sits at his desk all day long. John is sedentary. His body reacts to the meal he just ate. There is an increase in blood sugar, so the pancreas secretes insulin, triggering the muscle cells to store the sugar. The insulin also triggers fat cells to store the fat he ate too. This is a recipe for weight gain.

This may be an extreme example, however day after day of eating carb-heavy meals and sitting at a desk may be sabotaging your weight loss efforts.

5.       When should I eat carbs?

Your body is more sensitive to the effects of insulin earlier in the day (between 8am-4pm, basically daylight hours). That is, your body is better at using carbs to supply energy to your daily activities. This makes sense as most of us are active during the daylight hours and resting at night.

Think of your day in terms of energy needs. The more you move the more energy (calories) your body burns. There are 2 sources of energy in the body – carbs and fat. Both carbs and fat are used during movement, but the proportion depends on the intensity of the movement. For example, sitting at a desk requires more energy than lying down, standing requires more energy than sitting, and walking and running require more energy than standing. As the intensity of the movement increases, the body relies more on carbs for energy. Eating your carbs before a workout or early in your active day will supply your muscles with energy to get through the workout or daily activities, and even push a little harder.

Later in the day, you become less active, your body is winding down, preparing for sleep, rebuild, and recover from the day and becomes less sensitive to insulin. Fat is the main fuel source at rest. That late-night dessert day after day may be the culprit to weight gain during the Holidays. So, caution when deciding to indulge in that late-night sweet treat because excess sugar and fat in the body may be stored as unwanted fat. If you do, go for a 30-minute walk after dinner.

Consider timing your intake of carbs around your workout. This way, your body will use those carbs to fuel your workout and replenish glycogen stores that were depleted during your workout. Maybe the best time to indulge in one of that tasty seasonal desserts is before or after a workout. Not working out? Dodge the carbs.

6.       Treats: Don’t forget to live a little

Life is made up of days, and multiple times each day you face the choice of what to put in your body. Consistent, healthy eating habits are made one meal at a time. The all-or-nothing mentality when it comes to diet may set the stage for failure. If you get off track, it is not the end of the world. Have your veggies, protein, and fat for your meal. If there is a dessert you absolutely must have, have it. Own it! At your next meal, get back to your Meal Formula and portion guide. You got this!