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Visions of Sugar Plums: How to Avoid Common Holiday Food Pitfalls

The truth is, many people gain weight during the holidays. This fact is not something that should hold you back from enjoying yourself. Everyone has treats that are hard for them to resist.Even those with the strictest of diets will eat a less-than-healthy snack every now and again, and it’s even trickier to stay away from sweets at parties. With so many people around and so much going on, you might be stressed, more tempted, or even feel pressured to eat holiday food to fit into social situations.

Don’t go into the holidays with an all-or-nothing mindset. People tend to slip up eventually when they make their resolutions too strict or ambitious. If you want to have a smart strategy about creating healthier habits or keeping in line with ones you’ve already set for yourself, the key is to take small, realistic steps—and let yourself enjoy a less-than-healthy treat sometimes.

Heed the following advice if you want to have a higher chance of success in having a healthy holiday season and New Year’s.

The Problem: Weight Gain During the Holidays

Researchers from Cornell University’s Food and Brand Lab found that people tend to overindulge in various types of holiday food from October through December—but that it can take five months to return to normal weight.1 This is not a reason to get nervous though, as the same research showed that the weight gain was, on average, only about 1.5 pounds.

Interestingly, weight gain seems to be a trend during the holidays not just in the U.S. but for different nations all around the world.. Additionally, the study showed that weight increased in Japan over their Golden Week, in Germany during Easter, and in the U.S. around Thanksgiving.

The study shows that weight gain is definitely something to be aware of in order to keep holiday food indulgence from getting out of control. Those 1–2 pounds can add up over the years and easily turn into ten pounds after only five years if you aren’t mindful of holiday celebrations.

It’s not just during the holidays, themselves, that people tend to overdo it in the holiday food department. People might spend the weeks surrounding the holidays eating more of the things they normally would not touch.

Enjoy yourself over the holidays, but try to overindulge only on the actual dates. The holidays really only cover a few days. When people say “25 days of Christmas,” don’t take it literally. Try to apply that mentality to your decorating endeavors and jolly spirits—not snacking. From a food standpoint, the time leading up to, right after, and in between holidays should be treated as you would your normal, non-holiday schedule.

How to Avoid Holiday Food Pitfalls

What is a healthy eating approach to the holidays? Should you indulge in some holiday treats? Should you avoid them altogether? No—everything should be okay in moderation, so it’s not necessary to skip the sweets entirely. A holiday treat won’t break the calorie bank—however, an entire box of chocolate could be a big setback.

Set yourself for success by limiting the number of sweets in your house. If you’re at someone else’s house and have no control over that factor, try not to stand around talking in rooms that have a lot of food in them. You won’t have as strong of an urge to munch unnecessarily if the snacks are out of sight.

If that’s not realistic because the people you want to catch up with are right by the buffet table, try this tactic: survey all the holiday food that is there and aim to pick out just two or three things you want to try the most. You can also hold a cup of water to sip away at slowly and try to add one healthy snack to your plate for every unhealthy one—have veggies and dip or some slices of sharp cheddar cheese with your Christmas cookies and hot chocolate.

If celebrations are in the evening, make sure you eat breakfast and lunch. Do not starve yourself until dinner—it is more difficult to make health-conscious decisions when we are very hungry. And while it may be difficult to get the entire family or all your friends on board with healthy dishes, you can still bring something that is more in line with your health goals.

There are plenty of holiday recipes that can be made health-friendly. Try swapping the following ingredients for healthier alternatives when creating holiday food recipes:

  • Fresh vegetables over green bean casserole 
  • Mashed cauliflower instead of mashed potatoes 
  • Skim milk over evaporated milk 
  • Low sodium broth for soups 
  • Yogurt dips instead of high-fat dips or cheese spreads 
  • Wine spritzers or apple cider over soda or creamy drinks 
  • Homemade stuffing instead of store-bought 
  • Roasted sweet potatoes over candied yams 
  • White meat rather than dark meat 
  • Partially freeze gravy before serving so you can skim off the fat that rises to the top 

Also, be mindful of beverages. Alcohol becomes sugar when it metabolizes, so drinking alcoholic beverages adds to your daily sugar intake. And even regular, non-alcoholic eggnog can have more than half your recommended dose of saturated fat for the day.

We’re not saying you should avoid fun drinks entirely, but many people don’t realize just how many calories they contain. Besides, it’s harder to keep track of the holiday food you’re eating while under the influence of alcohol. If you do choose to partake in some festive alcoholic drinks, try drinking a glass of water for each of the beverages that you have. This will help you cut calories, keep you hydrated with something that’s good for you, and help you avoid that nasty hangover the next morning.

After the meal, or even in between meals, keep in mind that healthy activities—such as exercise—can help offset calorie excursions. Ensure you’re making time in your holiday plans to work up a sweat. Go for at least a 15–20 minute walk each day if you can. In many areas around the world, it seems that people are not only eating more during these holiday weeks but exercising less as well because of the cold weather or holiday stress.This is ironic because exercise can help lower the stress of the holidays and daily life. Be sure that you prioritize some movement this Christmas season. You can get on the dance floor if you are at a holiday party where that would be appropriate and the weather is preventing you from being outside much, as even dancing can burn calories.

This is ironic because exercise can help lower the stress of the holidays and daily life. Be sure that you prioritize some movement this Christmas season. You can get on the dance floor if you are at a holiday party where that would be appropriate and the weather is preventing you from being outside much, as even dancing can burn calories.

Customizing Your Holiday Food Experience

The holidays are for socializing. Make the day more about friends and family than food. Listen to hunger cues and take your time to savor and enjoy the meal. Use the other tips from our blog to guide you through the holiday season too.

It’s important to know that things will affect everyone differently. As it turns out, you can eat for your genes during the holidays. Find out more by downloading a free sample report to see how to do right by YOUR body and its own individual needs—even when it comes to holiday food.


1. Helander EE, Wansink B, Chieh A. Weight Gain over the Holidays in Three Countries. New England Journal of Medicine. 2016;375(12):1200-1202. doi:10.1056/nejmc1602012


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