5 Tips for Healthy Holiday Eating

The majority of yearly weight gain occurs in the last 6 weeks of the year (1). The amount of this weight gain is highly variable and based on one’s current BMI status. Individuals with a higher BMI (overweight/obese) were much more likely to gain excessive weight during this time of year as compared to individuals with a normal weight BMI. Unfortunately, this weight gain (unlike weight gained throughout the rest of the year) is less likely to be lost (1). Thus, even a small weight gain during the holiday season of 2 lbs, year after year, can cause us to gain 10 extra pounds of body fat after 5 years.

Holiday parties pose challenging times to stick with a healthy nutrition plan. Combine this with a lack of motivation to exercise due to darker days and colder weather, this is a yearly recipe for continuous weight gain.

Something’s gotta give. The following strategies can be easily employed to help prevent holiday weight gain or even promote holiday weight loss.

1. Eat protein and veggies for breakfast

In the morning, our body is coming off a fasted overnight state. During this fasted state, our body is better able to burn body fat and use it for fuel as the body repairs itself during sleep. This body fat burning can easily continue into the morning hours as long as our insulin levels stay low. Remember, sugar or foods that elevate blood sugar like rice, cereal and bread cause an insulin spike. This insulin spike can immediately stop body fat burning and signals the body that elevated blood sugar is available to be burned for fuel instead. If we are lucky, that sugar gets burned but most likely that donut we had for breakfast is followed by a sedentary day of sitting at the computer which means that the sugar we ate for breakfast is destined for storage in our fat tissue.

By eating protein, veggies and healthy fats (like avocado) for breakfast, we do not elevate insulin levels and instead, allow the body to burn fat throughout the morning hours, even while we sit at our desk.

An added benefit of protein and veggies for breakfast is that it controls blood sugar fluctuations throughout the day. If we start the day out with something like cereal, we cause a big blood sugar spike, followed by an insulin spike. Insulin’s job is to pull the extra sugar out of our blood stream. Unfortunately, the body often misjudges the amount of insulin that is needed and releases more insulin than necessary. This results in too little sugar in our blood stream and can lead to cravings for sugar to quickly bring blood sugar levels back to normal. This means we will often crave and consume something like a cookie which will spike blood sugar excessively and lead to the blood sugar fluctuation roller coaster to repeat itself all day.

Protein, veggies and healthy fats for breakfast do not lead to blood sugar spikes and therefore prevent the crazy sugar craving and crashing roller coaster, making us much more capable of choosing high quality, healthier foods throughout the rest of the day--including when we face the temptations of a holiday party.

2. Listen to happy music on your way to the holiday party

Mood is linked to food consumption. In one study, participants were asked to read a happy story or a sad story and then were allowed access to an all-you-can-eat buffet. Those folks who read the happy story consumed significantly less food than the individuals who read the sad story.

This means that when you are about to head to a holiday party, enjoy a car ride of positive, upbeat, happy music. Share a laugh with a companion on your way. Doing this could subconsciously lower your food consumption at the party. Plus it can make the party way more fun than if you are stressed about holiday presents and other negative holiday worries.

3. Move for 90 seconds multiple times throughout the party

This may seem like a silly statement because 90 seconds seems like no movement at all. However, 90 seconds of movement is all that the body needs in order to increase GLUT-4 receptors in the muscle tissue. GLUT-4 receptors are like elevator doors on our muscles. These doors open up to our bloodstream and can pull things out of the bloodstream and into the muscle for use when the doors are present and open. That means that extra sugar we consume at holiday parties can enter our muscles to be burned for energy instead of stored as extra body fat. The GLUT-4 receptors are not always present and open. Instead, they need a signal in order to open up to the bloodstream and pull sugar in. One of these signals is movement. The more you move, the more GLUT-4 receptors are ready to burn sugar before it can get stored in body fat.

Thankfully, only 90 seconds of movement is needed in order to open the GLUT-4 doors. At a holiday party, this means stand instead of sit. Walk around the party and mingle. Go up and down the stairs a couple of times. Run out to the car for no reason at all except to get in more movement. Dance.

Or do my favorite “potty squats” in the bathroom for 90 seconds. It doesn’t matter how you get the movement in, do it however you can and your body will reap the benefits.

If you want to prime your body during the holiday season to have more GLUT-4 receptors available to burn sugar, you can do some basic exercise for this. One study showed that you can double or even triple the number of GLUT-4 receptors you have by doing 14 rounds of 20 second bursts of movement for 8 days in a row. This means that for relatively little movement, you can help ensure that your body will burn sugar and not store it. 20 second bursts could be anything from power walking to stair climbing to squats to pushups to sprints to jump lunges. Go as hard as you can for 20 seconds and repeat this 14 times and your GLUT-4 numbers will surge.

4. Feed your inner nutritionist first, then feed your inner 5 year old.

Buffet-style eating has been shown to cause us to consume significantly more calories than if we had limited meal options. Because holiday parties abound with plentiful, delicious food options, set the following guidelines in order to both enjoy the food but also keep from gorging and going home with a stuffed, bloated belly.

Feed your inner nutritionist by choosing 2 healthy items (one protein and one veggie) and eating as much of them as you want. Really satisfy your appetite with these two things. Your protein options could be anything from deviled eggs to cocktail shrimp to ham slices. Your veggie options you be anything from roasted cauliflower to cut, raw veggies to broccoli casserole. Eat only these two things but eat as much as you want. Once you have completely satisfied your appetite with those two things, then you can feed your inner 5 year old by picking one unhealthy item (only one!) and eating as much of it as you want. Because you are limiting the flavors you consume, your body will naturally eat less of the unhealthy food than if you allowed yourself to graze every dessert option available.

5. Consume vinegar in water prior to eating a high carbohydrate holiday meal.

Vinegar (especially apple cider vinegar) has been shown to have numerous health benefits. Among these is the ability to lower your post-meal blood sugar and insulin levels. Remember, insulin is a storing and locking hormone. Its job is to pull out sugar from the blood and pull it into fat storage. So by keeping both blood sugar and insulin levels lower, you significantly reduce or possibly event prevent any sugar from being store as body fat. Yay!

In order to reap these benefits, try consuming 2 tablespoons of vinegar in water as close to your holiday party as possible. If the idea of drinking vinegar disgusts you, you can also get a benefit from consuming pickled or fermented veggies prior to the party. Or, even better yet, offer to bring pickled veggies to the party (pickled carrots or asparagus with dill are especially yummy this time of year). Use the pickled veggie as your veggie option (see number 4 above) and also get the blood sugar lowering and insulin reducing benefit from eating this type of veggie.


Roberts et al. Nutr Rev. 2000;58(12):378-9.

Hepworth et al. Appetite. 2010;54(1):134-42.

Privetera et al. J Health Psychol. 2016; pii: 1359105316650508. [Epub ahead of print]

Dohm. J Appl Physiol (1985).2002;93(2):782-7.

Ostman et al. Eur J Clin Nutr. 2005;59(9):983-8.

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