Mass General nutritionist Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN, shares ways to enjoy healthy holiday meals without stressing over your diet.

This time of year can feel particularly stressful when trying to maintain healthy habits. Sharing a meal as part of a small gathering during the holidays can also make it more challenging to eat healthfully. As writer Erma Bombeck once said, “I come from a family where gravy is considered a beverage.” Here are some tips on how to approach the season.

Moderation and Sanity

An extra ladle of gravy or slice of apple pie on Thanksgiving will not throw your diet into chaos, but daily “extras” until your New Year’s resolution kicks in do have potential to derail healthy habits. Maintain a sense of moderation — and of sanity — during the holidays by putting the season in context.

At mealtime, strive to fill your plate with a fist size of starch and two fists of vegetables.
At mealtime, strive to fill your plate with a fist size of starch and two fists of vegetables.

“Moderation” can be an ambiguous term, but one way to practice it is to simply be mindful of portions. You can do this by using your hand to help assess what is on your plate. The amount of protein you need typically fits in your palm. Making a fist with your hand also provides a general guideline for starch size at meals. (In contrast, you’ll want to strive to eat two fists of vegetables.)  This is less important to worry about on, say, Thanksgiving day, but can be quite helpful to employ during the time between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day.

Eating with Perspective

It is also important to maintain perspective on your overall diet by trying to resist all-or-nothing thinking around the holiday spread. For instance, dark meat is often touted as an unhealthy choice. White mean is leaner, but not by much. One ounce of white turkey meat has about 40 calories and no saturated fat — which is the type of fat that has been linked to elevated cholesterol levels. In contrast, one ounce of dark meat has about 45 calories and 0.5 grams of saturated fat. Dark meat also has more zinc, iron, and B-vitamins.

In fact, many foods served this time of year offer benefits. Research has shown eating cruciferous fall vegetables (think broccoli, cauliflower, and Brussels sprouts) may help reduce signs of inflammation, a marker of many diseases. Butternut squash is also readily available in colder months and is a good source of vitamin A and C, two nutrients that help promote a healthy immune system. The same goes for pumpkin, so there are benefits to that slice of pumpkin pie. Eating these vegetables once a year won’t cut it though, it takes regular consumption to offer protection. So try pumpkin in other places too — here’s a seasonal smoothie recipe.

If you end up overdoing it more than you had hoped, try not to fret. Healthy eating is built on long-term habits, not single days.

In short, one day won’t make or break a healthy diet. That said, if holiday meals continue to offer you stress here are some tips to help manage them.

Tips for Holiday Meals

Avoid skipping meals prior to the main event. If you are starving, you are more likely to overeat. Once the table is set with food, survey the entire spread. Opt for the foods that will offer you the most joy and leave the rest behind for the day.

And if you end up overdoing it more than you had hoped, try not to fret. Healthy eating is built on long-term habits, not single days. It also helps to treat food as a helpful partner, rather than the enemy. As Oscar Wilde once said, “After a good dinner one can forgive anybody, even one’s own relatives.”

Emily Gelsomin, RD, LDN
Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN

Emily Gelsomin, MLA, RD, LDN, is a senior clinical nutrition specialist at Massachusetts General Hospital. As a registered dietitian, she counsels on medical nutrition therapy on an outpatient basis and is co-director of Be Fit, the hospital’s employee wellness program.

Jointly sponsored by The Clubs at Charles River Park and MGH Nutrition and Food Services, the 10-week program focuses on helping participants “Be Fit and Eat Right.” Every ten weeks, employees from different departments within the hospital compete with each other as they make a commitment to Be Fit. Through the creation of a social environment at the workplace, participants are supported to make progress in personal lifestyle changes with the help of a unique support system that includes a dedicated nutritionist and personal trainer.

Be Fit strives to create a milieu of wellness that extends beyond the 10-week curriculum by offering features to those who are not part of the intensive program. This includes the creation of Choose Well, Eat Well, a rating system designed to help both employees and patients increase awareness of healthy choices at retail eateries within the hospital. It also includes a monthly e-mail with a timely nutrition tip.