Making merry while still making weight: a guide to smart holiday eating

A file photo shows eggnog and pie, among the holiday favorites that make it difficult to avoid gaining weight this time of year.
A file photo shows eggnog and pie, among the holiday favorites that make it difficult to avoid gaining weight this time of year. (Joshua McKerrow / Baltimore Sun Media Group)

A great thing about the winter holidays is that they are often dominated by rich food and drink we see only at this time of year. A terrible thing about the winter holidays is also that they are often dominated by rich food and drink we see only at this time of year.

Terrible from the perspective of keeping off those extra pounds and maintaining good habits that is, according to Barbara Walsh, community nutrition educator at Carroll Hospital.


“It’s really challenging that you know you only have Christmas cookies around Christmas," she said. “The fact that it’s something that people view as a treat they only get once or twice a year makes it a lot harder for people to have that willpower and steer away from it or even eat it in moderation.”

And yet, reliably, come the first of January, there will be people bemoaning their holiday gluttony and trying to find those gym clothes in the closet. There's nothing wrong with that inspiration, but “there’s no reason we can’t set ourselves up to be in a better position after the new year before the holidays,” Walsh said.

She recommends simply being mindful of what you eat, a generally recommendable practice, but one that can be employed strategically to mitigate the caloric damage of the typical holiday party.

“Plan ahead, which means eat something healthy ahead of time," Walsh said. “Even if you can't have a full, healthy meal ahead of time, try to have some sort of healthy snack. It’s the same concept as never go to the grocery store hungry — never go to a holiday party hungry.”

The website released its picks for best foods and drinks in Maryland across 25 categories. Many of them are in Baltimore.

And at a gathering with rich foods, Walsh said, consider using a smaller plate and scanning the buffet table for some healthier alternatives — shrimp cocktail over meatballs in a rich sauce — to stay a little healthier with your menu. Instead of numerous returns to the serving dishes, she said, consider focusing on socializing.

And put some thought into dessert.

“When it comes to sweet foods, again, moderation is key. Maybe pick something you might actually get some nutrition from,” Walsh said. “If there are fruit platters, that would make a great option for dessert — better than a big piece of cheese cake or something like that."

Another often overlooked source of calories, Walsh said, are those that you drink. Traditional holiday drinks, such as eggnog, can be incredibly high in calories, she said, and you may wish to consider substitutes.

“If you are going to go with some sort of holiday cocktail, you might be better off with a nice glass of red wine than some very sugary beverage or eggnog," Walsh said.

Watching liquid calories is not a bad strategy in general, Walsh said, and after the holidays, whether you are feeling trim or a little weighed down by overindulgence, she recommends avoiding sugary beverages such as soda.

It's a good example of a small change that can make a big difference, Walsh said, and how small changes are more likely to stick — a good rule of thumb for exercise as well.

"It’s important to set realistic goals, things that are achievable to you,” she said. “Perhaps when it comes to exercise for someone who does not do routinely exercise, it’s saying, ‘I am going to start by walking three days a week.’ Then when you hit your walking target, you maybe increase the number of minutes a week."

Wait until you’ve met those walking goals, felt the benefits and then begin to consider some strength training to go sign up for the gym, Walsh said.

You might start even smaller and simply keep a food journal for a week or two, Walsh said, committing to being honest in reporting what you eat.


“A ton of studies that show that people underestimate their caloric intake and overestimate their physical activity," she said.

Just using a notepad — or any number of fitness apps available for smartphones — to become aware of what you eat and how you move can help you pick the one small change that will have the biggest impact right away, Walsh said.

“Once you’ve mastered one simple change, then it’s time to move on to the next," she said. “Once people start to do without things that aren’t necessarily healthy, they start to realize they don’t miss them at all.”