How to Eat Well During the Holidays

Holidays revolve around food for most cultures. In America, we anticipate the winter holiday season to be indulgent. Needing a nap after meals and planning to go on a diet come the New Year aren’t exactly sustainable approaches. Let alone, it’s not great for your mental health either. So let’s look at effective methods to have great digestion, avoid weight gain, and not feel deprived during the holidays.

As a nutritionist, I get frustrated when someone comes to me saying they need to go on a diet. No, actually, you need a lifestyle and mindset shift. There are ways to enjoy foods on special occasions that we know aren’t in our best interest for health, maintain emotional well-being around food choices, and feel great in our digestion and weight management.

Eat on a Smaller Plate

There’s legitimate science behind the effectiveness of using a smaller plate for weight management. Humans like visuals, including the visual of filling one’s plate. Using a smaller plate is a form of portion control. Slowing down the pace at which we can eat allows more time for our brains and hormones of the gut to register when we are satiated.

When you’re about to dig into what you’ve filled your plate with, I like to use this rule for myself: 15 bites per chew before swallowing. Digestion actually begins in the mouth when our saliva releases specific enzymes to help food breakdown. Chewing more thoroughly benefits your nutrient absorption and your waistline.

Intermittent Fasting

Intermittent fasting (IF) is a hot practice in the wellness world. Let us break the cycle of holiday weight gain anxiety by creating windows of time for when we eat throughout the day. You can still eat everything you want calorically, but you give yourself enough time to burn it off before your next meal. If you have ever eaten a large meal and woken up the next morning feeling still full, waiting to eat your next meal until you are hungry again is fundamentally the same concept.

Let’s look at how IF works. Your body has two preferred sources of energy: sugar (glucose) and fat (ketones). Energy is always available to us when we’re eating regularly, let’s say 3 -5 meals each day. Caloric excess gets stored, and when all of our energy stores of glucose (glycogen) are also burned through, we make energy from stored fat. Through the practice of IF, we burn through all glucose and glycogen and tap into burning our fat stores.

24-hour example of an intermittent fasting schedule:

·       Eat your last meal at 7:00pm

·       Don’t eat again until 11:00am the next morning (a 16 hour fasting window)

·       Eat a normal day’s worth of calories

·       If fasting again tomorrow, stop eating at 7:00pm

There are a number of ways you can approach IF. Whether you choose to do it 2 days each week or everyday, make sure you’re eating a nutrient-dense diet with all the calories you’d be eating with a normal number of meals. I think the best part about IF is that you’re really not depriving yourself, just teaching your body to utilize energy differently.

Just a note on IF.. it generally has less potential hormonal consequences for men than for women. There are ways for women to do IF gently and effectively, though. For women in their reproductive years, I recommend a 12 – 14 hour window of fasting and not practicing it everyday. Depriving the body too much can send a stress signal of starvation, causing the body to actually hold onto weight and disrupting hormone synthesis to save energy.

Digestive Enzymes

Enzymes are responsible for breaking down our food and making sure we’re able to absorb its nutrients. There are three fundamental types of enzymes we need to breakdown a balanced meal: amylase (carbohydrates), lipase (fat), and protease (protein). Many of us are prone to having low stomach acid and thus don’t produce the enzymes needed for optimal digestion. Causes of low stomach acid can include motility dysfunction, certain conditions, stress, and aging. Betaine HCl is one of my favorite digestive enzymes to mimic stomach acid, and an excellent blend you can buy at just about any health foods store is from Enzymedica.


If we had the self-control to practice moderation in all aspects of life, we’d probably be healthier and balanced people. When it comes to eating, moderation keeps our body systems functioning optimally. I find a lot of people view the holidays as the only time they feel it’s okay to “cheat” and drop all sense of moderation. Eat food they know is inherently not good for them, diving headfirst into gluttony. 

Some examples of using moderation at a holiday gathering are this:

·       If you’re going to have alcohol, perhaps you skip on the dessert or vice versa.

·       If you’re going to have mashed potatoes, skip the dinner rolls.

·       If you’re going to have a big meal, intermittent fast for the next 12 - 16 hours

Better yet at the holidays, prepare foods to bring that you know are nutrient-dense. Dessert is where many slip into a mode of forgetting moderation. Sugar is an addictive substance, remember. Making desserts to share with limited added sugar or natural sugar is a nice intro to moderate eating. Some of my favorite holiday desserts to share include my Classic Cut-Out Cookies, Apple Galette, and Snickerdoodle Cookies.

Food Combining

Food combining works with the science of how we digest foods in combination with one another. Certain foods actually don’t digest well with others because of the enzymes they have to compete for.

 Some examples of food combining:

·       Grains don’t digest well with proteins

·       Starchy vegetables don’t digest well with grains

·       Grains digest well with non-starchy vegetables

·       Acidic fruits don’t digest well with sweet fruits

While food combining can be tough to practice at a holiday meal when all of your favorites are being served, it’s an effective practice to know for other times too. To make sense of how to combine specific foods at meals for your optimal digestion, have a look at this food combining chart.