“I’ll just take one small bite of this, and maybe a small spoonful of that.”

“Just let me taste a few appetizers, I won’t eat the full meal.”

Do these statements sound a little too familiar? Do you try your best to battle holiday overeating, but your willpower loses the fight, year after year, even though you know better?

As the holiday party season approaches, so do the challenges of keeping your commitment to healthy eating. Unfortunately for many it also becomes a time for overeating and weight gain. According to the National Institutes of Health, holiday eating can result in an extra pound or two every year. The average American gains five to 10 pounds between Thanksgiving and New Year’s.

Too often, us triathletes think we’re immune to this problem. But imagine if you didn’t have to worry about dropping extra baggage acquired during the off-season, and could instead focus on increased speed?from the base you’ve developed throughout the holidays, knowing full-well that your body composition goals were not too far out of reach for peak season.  The holidays don’t have to mean weight gain. By implementing a few simple tips, you can provide nutrient dense foods that support training volume, while also enjoying those holiday parties!

10 Tips for Healthy Holiday Eating

  1. Be realistic. Don’t try to lose pounds during the holidays, unless you are 10-12 pounds overweight. Instead, try to maintain your current weight. That way, when it is time to pick up the volume as races approach, you won’t have to work as hard to achieve your body composition goals.
  2. Plan within workout windows. When possible, try to plan your workouts to fit within periods that are either just prior, or after, larger eating occasions. This will help use the additional calories consumed to either fuel a workout or recover from a workout instead of adding additional body fat.
  3. Forget starving yourself on the day of a party. This will most likely backfire and cause you to eat even larger portions. Instead, before leaving, eat a small, low-calorie snack (ie: fruit and a lean protein).  This will help to avoid over-indulging. If you are having a holiday work lunch and know there will be high-fat foods, be sure to think ahead and eat low-fat options that morning and afternoon. For example, if you typically have walnuts with your breakfast on a normal day, consider eliminating them on the morning of the celebration to balance out your total fat content for the day. No, replacing essential fatty acids with lower-quality saturated fats isn’t an even trade-off, but hopefully the replacement will help offset the total amount of fat you consume that day.
  4. If you overeat at one meal, go light on the next. It takes 500 calories per day (or 3500 calories per week) above your normal/maintenance consumption to gain one pound. (It’s impossible to gain weight from one piece of pie!)
  5. Don’t eat unhealthily unless you have to. Since holiday parties are tough enough to navigate, in terms of eating, it is important that you eat as well as possible during periods when you are not at a holiday party. A perfect example is when you are at work and a co-worker brings in left-over desserts. Of course it would be nice to have that cake, but since it is an easy temptation to avoid, avoid it! Later that week when you are at a holiday party, it will be much more difficult to avoid eating unhealthy, so don’t make the mistake of eating that way when it is unnecessary to do so.
  6. Make wise choices at parties. Survey party buffets before filling your plate. Choose carefully between foods you definitely will eat, those you will sample, and those you will skip. Choose proteins, whenever possible, instead of high carbohydrate foods. Most likely, both choices will be accompanied by high fat content, but the higher protein option will lower your blood sugar’s response relative to the higher carbohydrate items. This will potentially reduce the amount of body fat you gain. Include vegetables and fruits to keep your plate balanced.
  7. Consider bringing your own healthy dish to a holiday gathering. That way, if there are no other healthy choices, at least you have a healthy option to choose from.
  8. Move your socializing away from the buffet or appetizer trays. This will minimize the unconscious nibbling. Many people begin socializing with friends and don’t realize, until it’s too late, how much food they have actually consumed. Keep in mind that it takes your brain 20 minutes to register to your body that it’s full. Imagine how much food we can shovel in within that amount of time! Your stomach is the size of your fist; eat until you are satisfied, not stuffed. Savor your favorite holiday treats, while eating small portions. Sit down, get comfortable, and enjoy.
  9. Don’t drink your calories. Non-alcoholic beverages can be full of calories and sugar. (A typical cup of eggnog has over 300 calories, 19 grams of fat, and 21 grams of sugar.) When it comes to drinking alcohol, start with a calorie-free, non-alcoholic beverage, such as water, which will satisfy your thirst. Alcohol can lessen your inhibitions and self control, which can lead to overeating.
  10. Be knowledgeable about healthy cooking substitutions. Incorporate some of the simple cooking tips below in traditional holiday recipes to make them healthier. If you are hosting a gathering this holiday season, try these tricks to reduce fat and calories without sacrificing taste.

Healthy Holiday Cooking Tips and Substitutions

  1. Dressing: Use a little less bread and add more onions, garlic, celery, and vegetables. Add fruits such as cranberries or apples. Moisten or flavor with low-fat, low-sodium chicken, or vegetable broth and applesauce.
  2. Turkey: Enjoy delicious, roasted turkey breast without the skin and save 11 grams of saturated fat per 3 oz. serving.
  3. Green Bean Casserole: Cook fresh green beans with chunks of potatoes instead of cream soup. Top with almonds instead of fried onion rings.
  4. Gravy: Refrigerate the gravy to harden the fat and skim it off. This will save a whopping 56 gm of fat per cup.
  5. Quick Holiday Nog: Four bananas, 1-1/2 cups skim milk or soymilk, 1-1/2 cups plain Greek yogurt, 1/4 teaspoon rum extract, and ground nutmeg. Blend all ingredients except nutmeg. Puree until smooth. Top with nutmeg.
  6. Mashed Potatoes: Use skim milk, low-sodium, fat-free chicken broth, garlic or garlic powder, and low-fat Parmesan cheese instead of whole milk and butter.
  7. Desserts: Make a crustless pumpkin pie. Substitute two egg whites for each whole egg in baked recipes. Replace heavy cream with evaporated skim milk in cheesecakes and cream pies. Top cakes with fresh fruit, fruit sauce, or a sprinkle of powdered sugar instead of fattening frosting.
  8. Substitute applesauce for oil, margarine or butter in muffins and quick breads like banana bread. Try substituting a small amount at first, as the more you substitute the more the texture of the finished product changes.
  9. For dips, sauces and pie toppings, use plain Greek yogurt and fat-free sour cream.

The holidays are a great time for celebrating with friends and family over food, drinks, and conversation. With just a little preparation, logical thinking, and moderation, you can keep off the extra body fat and still enjoy all that the season has to offer. In the long run, your mind and body will thank you and you will be ahead of the game when race season approaches.


Amanda Cassell is a registered and licensed dietitian at The Core Diet under the direction of elite triathlon coach Jesse Kropelnicki. She holds a Bachelors degree in Food, Nutrition, and Dietetics, and is a marathoner and Ironman triathlete. The Core Diet is a sports nutrition specialty group working with athletes from age groupers to world class professionals. Visit TheCoreDiet.com to explore how they can help you meet your body composition, health, and performance goals.