How to Balance Health and Enjoy the Holidays 

December is National Stress-Free (Family) Holiday Month. As many of us know, the holidays are a joyous but also stressful period of time. 

In an effort to promote stress-free holidays, December was designated as National Stress-Free Family Holidays Month. 

This month aims to raise awareness about managing stress during the busy holiday season and provides tips and resources for balancing health and enjoyment with family. 

The holiday season is a time for celebrating and indulging, but it's also easy to overdo it when tempting treats seem to be everywhere. The good news is that you can absolutely enjoy the holidays while still maintaining your health goals. 

Finding balance is key. If you overindulge every single day, you’ll likely feel sluggish and regretful once January hits. If you completely deprive yourself, you’ll feel restricted and may binge. The solution? Practice moderation, move your body, combat stress, stay hydrated, and get plenty of sleep. 

Be Choosy About Indulgences 

When a Christmas cookie exchange, happy hour, or holiday soiree pops up on your calendar, decide beforehand what you want to indulge in and what’s not worth it. If Aunt Edna’s pecan pie is to die for and you look forward to it every year, then, by all means, enjoy a slice! If cranberry vodka cocktails don’t really do it for you, skip ‘em and go for a lower-calorie wine spritzer instead[1]

Ask yourself: “How will I really feel if I indulge in this?” If a food or drink doesn’t seem that special or satisfying, it’s smart to pass. You have full permission to ditch the mindless munching in order to save your appetite and spirits for what you truly love. 

Practice Portion Control 

While you may want to indulge in holiday meals and treats, be mindful of portion sizes. At a party, survey all the options first before filling up your plate. Start small, because you can always go back for seconds on your faves. Whether you’re serving yourself at home or piling it on your plate at a potluck, be realistic about how much you can - and want - to eat[2]

Use the small plates! This automatically helps with portion control. Focus on quality over quantity by choosing your very favorite items. 

Find Healthier Alternatives

‘Tis the season for gorging on cookies, but you don’t have to forgo baked goods completely to stay on track with your goals. For parties and cookie exchanges, contribute a healthier option like oatmeal cranberry cookies, pumpkin spice protein muffins, or banana bread. That way you know there’s at least one smart choice on the table that you can enjoy guilt-free[3]

If holiday cocktails are your weakness, offer to bring a pitcher of delicious holiday sangria made with red wine and fruit to cut down on calories and added sugar. Or offer up a spiked seltzer as a festive lighter option. 

Fill Up On Nutrient-Dense Foods First 

Don’t arrive to a party hungry! Make sure to eat before you go so you don’t ravenously attack every treat in sight. Focus on getting plenty of protein, smart carbs, and healthy fats throughout the day to keep your blood sugar stable and hunger at bay. Some good options for pre-party include eggs, Greek yogurt, oatmeal, nuts, and nut butter[4]

Start your meal with salad or veggies first before diving into heavier holiday dishes. At a buffet-style gathering, literally, start at the veggie end and work your way down the table. Adding in nutrients via produce helps naturally make less room for other indulge-y items. 

Stay Active 

Counteract all of the feasting and merriment by carving out time for fitness. Maintaining your normal exercise routine is crucial. The holidays are busy, but you’re not off the hook! Schedule workouts in your calendar so they actually happen[5]

If you’re traveling, take advantage of the hotel gym. Also get in activity by taking walking tours of cool neighborhoods, hiking scenic local trails, learning the destination through bike share programs or taking festive exercise classes. 

If you have little ones home on school break, get moving as a family! Go for walks around the neighborhood, hit up an indoor playground, play active video games, have dance parties and sign everyone up for a holiday fun run. 

Stay Hydrated 

‘Tis the season of wassail, eggnog, and hot toddies, but alcohol and sugary drinks can leave you feeling drained, anxious, headachy, and puffy[6]. Aim for at least 64 ounces of water per day minimum to stay hydrated during travel, parties, and indulgent meals[7]. Drink a full glass of water before and during alcohol consumption. Not only does adequate hydration counterbalance sodium and alcohol, but it keeps your energy and immunity high during the holidays. 

 

Be Choosy About Sweets

Cookies, cakes, pies, fudge - sweets seem to take over the holidays. To keep your blood sugar in check, be choosy about the baked goods you indulge in. Ask yourself: is that random tin of Danish butter cookies really worth the calories and carbs? Or would you be better off enjoying Grandma’s delectable Boston cream pie or Aunt Sally’s famous fudge? 

Allow yourself a small treat daily - one small cookie versus four. And practice mindful eating by savoring each bite. Make it more special by sharing dessert with others or plating it up nicely with some mint or pomegranate arils rather than mindlessly grabbing sweets from containers. 

Manage Stress 

The holidays often bring unwelcome guests - stress, fatigue, and a disrupted routine. Work deadlines loom, budgets get stretched thin, tricky relatives chime in, and travel plans go awry. When you’re overwhelmed and exhausted, it’s difficult to make healthy choices and resist temptation. Combat stress by pressing pause and practicing regular self-care. Carve out time for enjoyable hobbies, soothing baths, morning meditation, cozy reading breaks, and cat naps between parties[8]. 

Don’t be afraid to say no in order to protect your time, budget and sanity! Delegate tasks if you tend to take on too much. Ask loved ones for help. Avoid obligations that don’t spark joy. Scale back shopping and social commitments to reasonable levels so you can truly relax and enjoy. 

Get Adequate Sleep 

Holiday revelry can wreck havoc on your sleep-wake cycle, leaving you fatigued, stressed, and more vulnerable to cravings. Prioritize getting 7-9 hours of quality sleep per night[9]. With parties, late-night shopping excursions, and travel, this isn’t always easy but do your best! Maintain your regular bedtime routine as much as possible. 

Destress before bedtime, avoid electronics, keep your room cool and dark, invest in blackout curtains if need be, and reserve your bed for sleep and intimacy only. Catch up on rest when you can with naps and by sleeping in if your schedule allows. 

Bring Your Own Food 

Whether it's an office party, family dinner, or New Year’s bash, you won’t have much control over the food so bring your own if possible. Tote a healthy salad, veggies and hummus, protein-packed chili, or lighter soup. That guarantees you’ll have smart options to fill up on first before diving into indulgent apps and sweets. 

Stash healthy snacks in your purse, desk, or car. Bring single-serve packets of almond butter, apple sauce, nuts, low-sugar protein bars, popcorn, or individual hummus with baby carrots and snap peas. That way if indulgent treats show up, you can still make balanced choices.

 

Hit Reset January First 

While New Year’s resolutions get a bad rap, there’s no shame in wanting to better yourself starting January 1st! After an indulgence-heavy December, get back on track by meal planning healthy dishes, setting exercise goals, journaling intentions, sipping herbal detox tea, and tossing leftover holiday treats[10]

That said, you certainly don’t need to swear off carbs, cookies or cocktails indefinitely come January. Simply emphasize nourishing ingredients again, limit processed foods and added sugars, increase plant-based dishes, and get consistent with fitness. Find what makes you feel your healthiest and happiest all year long! 

The holiday season is about connection, celebration, and tradition. You can 100 percent enjoy the merriment without derailing your goals! This time of year is indulgent by nature - and that's okay. By putting some of these tips into practice, you can strike that tricky balance between health and holiday fun! 

References: 

[1] Schumacher, Anika, Caroline Goukens, and Kelly Geyskens. "Taking care of you and me: How choosing for others impacts self-indulgence within family caregiving relationships." International Journal of Research in Marketing 38.3 (2021): 715-731. 

[2] Mason, Frances, et al. "Effectiveness of a brief behavioural intervention to prevent weight gain over the Christmas holiday period: randomised controlled trial." bmj 363 (2018). 

[3] Ewals, Stephanie. "Common Holiday Challenges." 

[4] CHARGE, TAKE. "The Happy, Healthy Holiday Plate." (2019). 

[5] Test, White Cell Count. "Maintaining your diet and exercise routine during holidays." 

[6] Plans, Meal, and Yummy Extras. "10 Practical Tips for Staying Healthy During the Holiday Season." 

[7] “Staying Hydrated as the Temperatures Rise.” Kendall Reagan Nutrition Center, 6 Jan. 2022, www.chhs.colostate.edu/krnc/monthly-blog/staying-hydrated-as-the-temperatures-rise/

[8] Ewals, Stephanie. "Common Holiday Challenges." 

[9] “Get Enough Sleep - MyHealthfinder | Health.gov.” Health.gov, Aug. 2021, health.gov/myhealthfinder/healthy-living/mental-health-and-relationships/get-enough-sleep.

[10] DiGiulio, Sarah. “Why It’s so Hard to Come Back from Vacation — and How to Do It Better.” NBC News, NBC News, 22 Jan. 2020, 
www.nbcnews.com/better/lifestyle/why-it-s-so-hard-come-back-vacation-how-do-ncna1115341.