Wouldn’t it be nice, for once, if we could get through the holidays in a more thankful way, with a healthier approach toward meals and gatherings that don’t make you scream at the scale come New Year’s Day?
It isn’t easy, what with more parties to attend, more comfort foods to tempt us and more demands on our time.
No wonder most Americans gain at least a pound or two in the weeks before Jan. 1.
This generally isn’t the best time of year to start a new diet or launch an ambitious exercise program, but there are plenty of ways to make good nutrition choices, keep your cheer and maintain your weight.
“Being healthy for the holidays is about being realistic,” said Shelby Braun, Healthy Options nutritionist with the Independent Health Foundation. “We don’t have to tackle anything crazy, just make sure we’re sticking with a plan.”
Here are some simple steps you can start now, and bump up when next year arrives.
WHEREVER YOU ARE
Don't skip meals
"Breakfast is the meal most commonly skipped meal and research has shown that those who eat breakfast tend to consume fewer calories throughout the day," Braun said. A hearty, healthy breakfast can include oatmeal or a healthy breakfast burrito you make at home, freeze and reheat if needed. She also suggested packing a healthy lunch at home before setting off for school or work, where less healthy choices often await.
"Eat something within that first hour of waking up and eat something every four hours after that, whether it be a meal or a snack," Braun said.
Healthy snacks generally pair a carbohydrate with a protein. Think apple and peanut butter, tuna and crackers, or fresh fruit and plain yogurt. If you choose a protein bar, look for a very short ingredient list made with whole foods. "Some bars have a lot of fillers," Braun said. She keeps Lara protein bars at her desk and in her car.
Plan to succeed
This means designing healthy meals, making a shopping list and sticking to it.
The Independent Health Foundation established the Healthy Options program (healthyoptionsbuffalo.com) in 2004 to help address the higher-than-average rate of stroke and heart disease in Western New York. The program works with more than 170 restaurants and food trucks that have agreed to offer heart-healthy food options low in fat, saturated fat, cholesterol, and sodium.
Braun, standard bearer for the program for a little more than a year, encourages the same thresholds for meals that can be made at home. For an entrée, that includes something with no more than 600 calories, 22 grams of fat, 7 grams of saturated fat, 750 milligrams of sodium and 7 grams of sugar. Fried foods never make the cut.
Braun also recommended you get in and out of the grocery store as soon as possible, and stick to your list. "Grocery stores tend to spread themselves out with all of our staple items across parameters and in different sections, so you have to weave through stores and go from one end to the other. It's exposing you to more things being sold, so you're more likely to impulse buy."
Wegmans is among grocery chains that have a website and app that allow you to build a shopping list and direct you to what's on it in your favorite store, Braun said. The Tops Friendly Markets website and app have similar features.
“Instead of using butters and creams or cheeses in your thick soups, use things like pureed white beans, Yukon potatoes, or even rolled oats if you’re doing a blended soup,” Braun said. “This gets extra fiber and protein into recipes. It’s beneficial, hearty and filling.” Make pasta more lean by replacing eggplant or zucchini for at least half of the pasta layers. “Cauliflower is another big one,” she said. It can be used as a substitute for rice, potatoes, and mac and cheese.
What you decide to drink matters. Choose lower calorie options. Tonic water contains "a very high amount of sugar," Braun said, but not soda water. An ounce of liquor, 6 ounces of wine and 12 ounces of beer each packs roughly 100 to 120 calories. "With alcohol, if you do indulge, consider one drink to be equivalent to a piece of cake," Braun said. "It's going to be a dessert." Soda pop is even worse. A 20-ounce bottle of cola has roughly the same amount of sugar as five Ho-Hos.
Workspaces recently ripe with leftover Halloween candy now become havens for Christmas cookies, other baked goods and chocolaty treats. Pizza, wings and pop – traditional year-round Buffalo fare – will continue to be popular at holiday meetings and gatherings, too. Make good choices 90 percent of the time at home and you can enjoy some of these treats in moderation elsewhere, Braun said.
Bring lunch or dinner
Choose healthier foods as work staples, Braun said. "Keeping things on hand so you're not caught off guard is the biggest and most important thing."
Companies should be mindful, too
If a company expects employees to be healthy, there should be an expectation that workplace leaders encourage healthy options, Braun said. If a company doesn't have refrigerators or microwave ovens for employees to store and prepare healthy meals, it should consider them.
Independent Health work sites include healthy vending machines. The company hosts a Salad Bar food truck at its Amherst offices on Tuesdays at lunchtime, year round. The Independent Health Foundation also has launched a Healthy Meetings initiative that other companies can adopt to encourage better employee choices.
"We're working with a couple of restaurants right now to create Healthy Option catering packages, something where you can be confident within our parameters for calories, sodium content, fat – which includes total fat and saturated fat – and added sugar."
The foundation offers healthy cooking classes and is working with Fisher-Price to put Healthy Options in its cafeteria in East Aurora.
Busy workdays without a packed lunch tend to lead to hasty take-out food choices, Braun said. Same can go after a busy workday.
"In general, you want to have one to two servings of carbohydrates, 3 to 6 ounces of protein, and one to two servings of fat, she said. "You really want to bulk up most of your food with non-starchy vegetables."
Many restaurants now include menus online, so you can choose a healthy option before you arrive. You also can ask for a to-go box at the start of a meal and stash half of a big portion away.
Processed soups and broths can pack up to 2,400 mg of sodium, roughly the equivalent of the daily recommendation, so ask your server before you order if the stock was made in-house. Those tend to be lower in sodium.
Ask for steamed foods over sauteed or seasoned, Braun said. "Look for broiled, poached, grilled or roasted, versus creamed or fried or toasted."
When you're on the go, limit the coffee – and extras, she said. Triple, triple coffees – with three sugars and three creams – add way too much sugar and fat, and often pack more calories than the doughnuts and bagels consumed with them.
Lattes can be worse, and sometimes pack the same number of calories as an entire meal. Skip the lattes with whole milk, cream and fattening toppings, Braun said, and ask for skim milk. "Again, that should be your 10 percent, not 90 percent," she said. "You don't need hot chocolate every morning. Pick a particularly cold day where you feel like treating yourself."
That's why balance is so important when it comes to weight maintenance.
Stick to "a nice structure" on most workdays and many weekend days, Braun said, and give yourself more latitude on holidays and special days.
"It's OK to have a nice Thanksgiving, where you're indulging is some of your favorite recipes that have been passed down for generations," she said. "You also don't have to feel like putting your holidays in your 90 percent instead of your 10 percent. Ninety percent of the time, we're sticking to a nice structure. We're making our meals at home, We're making healthy choices."
If you slip, and feel crushed by guilt, Braun said, "the biggest thing is starting over fresh in the morning."
HOLIDAY NUTRITION RESOURCES FROM THE BUFFALO & ERIE COUNTY LIBRARIES
“Cooking Light Holiday Cookbook,” Heather Averett
“Gluten-free and Vegan Holidays: Celebrating the year with simple, satisfying recipes and menus,” Jennifer Katzinger
“Happy Herbivore Holidays & Gatherings: Easy plant-based recipes for your healthiest celebrations and special occasions,” Lindsay S. Nixon
“Healthy Holidays: Total health entertaining all year round,” Marilu Henner
“Joyous Health: Eat and live well without dieting,” Joy McCarthy
“The South Beach Diet Parties & Holidays Cookbook: Healthy recipes for entertaining family and friends,” Arthur Agatston
“6 Tips for Reducing Holiday Waste and Waist,” visit goo.gl/STFxzV (Harvard Nutrition News)
Find more resources at buffalolib.org
Twitter: @Bnrefresh, @ScottBScanlon