Jump-start a healthier New Year with four holiday eating tips

A table packed tightly with holiday foods: whole fish with lemon wedges, golden brown duck, ham, colorful vegetables, cakes, blintzes and more.

Many people wait until January 1st to start eating healthy. After all, the holidays are full of stress and extra helpings of rich festive food, so why bother?

But banish those negative thoughts, because this is an ideal time to adopt new habits. “Dietary changes you make now can help you manage stress and avoid overspending on holiday rentals,” says Teresa Fung, a registered dietitian at Harvard’s TH Chan School of Public Health. “Also, by practicing healthy eating, you can start the new year with momentum and motivation.”

4 Keys to Healthy Holiday Eating Patterns

Fung offers four great strategies for healthy fares that can give you a jump-start to a healthier 2023.

Focus on portion control and mindful eating. People often overeat during the holidays because of tempting food choices and larger portions — think family dinners and party spreads. “It’s a great opportunity to practice portion control,” says Fung. For example, if three different cakes are served at the party and you like all three, take a small piece of each. “That way, you can enjoy a variety of things without overdoing it,” says Fung

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Eating at large gatherings is also an opportunity to practice mindful eating, which can reduce overeating. “Focus on eating and tasting slowly, and take breaks from talking and socializing,” says Fung. “The slower pace gives your body time to digest what you’ve eaten and signals to the brain that you’re full, so you’re less likely to reach for a second or third serving.”

Push the plants. When considering your holiday meals, make plant-based foods a high priority. For example, the Mediterranean and Mind diets emphasize eating fruits, vegetables, and whole grains and using healthy oils. These foods are rich in fiber, vitamins and minerals that help lower blood pressure and maintain a healthy weight (both welcome gifts during the holidays).

“The holidays are an ideal opportunity to start transitioning to a plant-based diet, since you’re cooking more than usual and often need new ideas for meals,” says Fung. Here are some ways you can start adopting plant-based habits.

  • Eat more salads. They’re great for holiday parties and family meals, because you can make so many. “Another approach is to add a side salad to at least one daily meal,” says Fung.
  • Take a vegetarian day. Once a week, go vegetarian all day and eat nothing but fruits, vegetables, and whole grains. “It can help you recognize what types of foods and amounts of food you should be eating without the overwhelming pressure to do it all the time,” Fung says. As you are more comfortable, try two days a week. A fun option is to consider specific foods or meals for specific days of the week, such as whole-grain Wednesdays and stir-fry Fridays.
  • Try new recipes. Making just one new vegetarian meal each week can help make meal prep less difficult. “There are so many easy, healthy recipes on the Internet,” says Fung “Find something that uses ingredients you love and requires only a few steps or minimal cooking skills.”
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Get spicy. With all the extra baking and cooking, the holidays are the ideal time to add more spice to your diet. Many spices contain antioxidants, flavonoids and other beneficial compounds involved in mood and inflammation regulation.

“There are many spice mixes available that combine different types of spices and can be used in all kinds of dishes, from poultry to soups to side dishes,” says Fung. Better yet, experiment by making your own spice mix. “You don’t need to know what you’re doing, just give it a try and enjoy your creation,” says Fung

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Go easy on the alcohol. One study found that the average adult drinks three alcoholic drinks per day during the holidays. And a new study suggests that just one drink a day can increase a person’s risk of cardiovascular disease. Then there are the extra calories to consider. Depending on the type of beverage (beer, wine, spirits) and quantity, calories per serving can range from about 120 to more than 200.

If you enjoy raising a glass of celebratory cheer, Fung recommends switching to sparkling water or cocktails made with one-third fruit juice and two-thirds sparkling water after one or two drinks. “It can help you stop drinking too much and realize that you can still enjoy social settings without alcohol after the holidays are over,” she says.

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