Regina Boyle Wheeler; Medically reviewed by Niya Jones, MD, MPH
Consider this: The average American puts on about a pound between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. That might sound small, but unfortunately, that pound typically isn’t lost during the rest of the year, so holiday weight gain adds up over time. You may think it's hard to stick to a healthy diet plan during the holidays — fattening and rich holiday food is part of almost every celebration.
Even so, you can still avoid holiday weight gain by making some smart choices at the buffet table. Karen Ansel, MS, RD, a registered dietitian and spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, runs down “naughty” holiday food choices and offers “nicer” alternatives.
Eggnog is a traditional holiday treat, but downing a few cups could leave you with a belly rivaling Santa’s. One cup packs about 300 calories — not surprising since the main ingredients are milk, sugar, and eggs. Stir in a little alcohol, and the calorie count goes even higher. If you are going to indulge in eggnog, though, don’t make it yourself, warns Ansel. Buy pasteurized, ready-made eggnog to avoid potential salmonella poisoning.
Nice: Cranberry Vodka
Try toasting the holiday season with an ounce and a half of cranberry vodka over ice — about 100 calories — instead of a mixed drink. Ansel says to steer clear of cocktails because they have so many calorie-filled ingredients that the calories can really add up. If you are the designated driver or just want to skip the alcohol, opt for sparkling water with a twist of lime.
Naughty: Baked Brie
Warm and gooey baked Brie cheese is hard to pass up on a buffet, but keep walking. Consider this: Just two ounces pack 190 calories and 16 grams of fat. Ansel advises politely declining crackers and cheese as well. “Stick with high-protein, low-fat appetizers,” she says. Consider eating a low-fat snack before a holiday party, so you’re not starving when you get there and can avoid over-indulging in holiday food.
Nice: Shrimp Cocktail
Here’s a lavish splurge you can savour without guilt. “Shrimp are super-low in calories and high in protein," Ansel says, adding that 10 shrimp are just 50 calories and 9 grams of protein. Protein is digested slowly and will keep you full so you’ll eat less overall and take in fewer calories, she explains. Here’s another smart tip for eating during the holidays: Don’t socialize near the buffet table so you won’t be tempted to nibble constantly as you chat.
Naughty: Dark-Meat Turkey
Turkey is poultry, so it’s low in fat, right? Not if you eat the dark meat. “It’s packed with fat and calories,” says Ansel. Consider this: A turkey thigh has 493 calories and 27 grams of fat. “That’s more than you’d get from a slice of pumpkin pie,” Ansel notes. Another tip to avoid overeating and that uncomfortable stuffed feeling is to wait at least 10 minutes before you go back to the holiday buffet for a second helping — after waiting a few minutes, you might even decide to pass on the seconds.
A holiday ham is a much leaner option. “It has just 140 calories and 7 grams of fat per three- ounce serving,” says Ansel. That’s about the size of a tin of Altoids or a deck of cards. However, keep in mind that choosing ham with a pineapple sauce or a sweet glaze could undo your healthy choice. Suggests Ansel, “I’d skip them — they’re probably laden with sugar.”
Naughty: Cranberry Sauce
Reaching for a spoonful (or two) or a thick slice of cranberry sauce to accompany your turkey? While this traditional favourite may sound like a healthy holiday food choice, you should beware of this dish. “Those tart cranberries need lots of sugar to sweeten them up,” Ansel explains. Just a quarter-cup of traditional cranberry sauce has 104 calories.
Nice: Unsweetened Applesauce
If you want some sweet fruit flavour to liven up your holiday plate, there's a healthier way to get it. Try dumping the cranberry sauce and putting some applesauce next to your turkey (just make sure it’s the unsweetened kind). A quarter-cup weighs in at only 25 calories.
“All desserts are not created equal,” says Ansel. What’s the worst offender? Delicious, but often decadent, holiday pie. “The crust is loaded with butter or shortening,” she warns. And the worst choice of all is pecan pie — it contains more than 500 calories and 27 grams of fat per slice. And that’s before you add on any ice cream or whipped cream topping.
“Go with small, bite-sized chocolate desserts,” advises Ansel. A piece of fudge comes in at 70 calories and a two-inch brownie contains 110 calories. That little shot of sugar might be enough to satisfy your sweet tooth at the end of the meal. You don’t have to deprive yourself during the holidays, but remember that just a few smart choices may make the bathroom scale a lot less frightening come New Year’s Day.