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The secret to healthy indulging over the holidays

We ask a clinical dietician advice on how to treat yourself this Thanksgiving — but not go overboard.
Don't hold back on the good stuff during Thanksgiving — veggies, turkey, potatoes. When it comes sweets and high fat foods, go easy, but don't deny yourself. Photo: ISTOCK

The holidays are here, bringing with them presents, parties…and pies. And potatoes and yams and cookies and cocktails; ‘tis the season to indulge. We talked to Brittany Craig, clinical dietitian at Mount Sinai Downtown, Union Square, about how to enjoy the bounty without going totally overboard.

What are the healthiest choices among all the traditional holiday foods?

Keeping it down to the basics: For instance, for Thanksgiving, having turkey is actually a really great protein source. Filling up on the vegetable dishes like green beans or Brussels sprouts, and even mashed potatoes, as long as it's not a ton of cream and butter, can be a healthy choice. 

Is there anything you think we should just completely avoid?

I don't like to tell people during the holidays to not eat their favorite special, traditional foods. But I like to tell people just to keep it in moderation; be mindful of the foods that are really calorie-packed and fatty, like creamy casseroles and really sweet dishes. Be mindful that those are special treats and shouldn't be overdone.

What are some strategies for indulging in a smart way?

Often times, when people have to plan a large meal like a Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas or whatever, that they think it's a good idea to skip meals before that, or to not eat enough. I think that's a huge misconception, because then you end up being really famished by the time you get to that meal. You kind of overeat. Whereas if you eat something, maybe a small breakfast that's protein-packed, or a snack, then you're not going to be super-starved by the time that you get to that meal, so you'll be able to make wiser choices.

And in terms of portion control, if you're at a dessert table and you see a bunch of things that you want ...

I think probably best thing to do first is just kind of scan; look around and see what's actually there. That moment when you look at things, you're like, "Oh my God, I want everything!” I feel that way. But then, if you kind of really look, you're like, "OK, what can I do without? What do I absolutely want to have?" Then you have to pick and choose small portions of what you think is really going to be worth it. 

What about alcohol? I think a lot of times we're just kind of drinking and not remembering there are calories involved.

It's tricky, I know. Try to drink a glass of water for every alcoholic beverage that you have or plan to have. That just helps slow you down; it also helps make sure you're staying hydrated. And then, wiser choices. Sticking with wine or wine spritzers or a light beer is a better choice than a mixed cocktail that has all the added sugars and things. There's plenty of calories to go around for the holidays, so might as well drink something that's less.

What are your thoughts about exercise?

I'm not a specialist in exercise. But I think sometimes people are hard on themselves because they feel like they're going to stick with their regular exercise routine, and it's almost impossible sometimes during the holidays. Just [try] switching it up a bit. Maybe when you’re with your family or friends during the holidays, suggest everyone goes for a walk after a meal or play a game outside. Even just squeezing in 10 minutes of a quick exercise or yoga session or stretching is better than nothing and it'll be good for your body.

So keep your expectations realistic.

Yeah. You'll bounce back after the holidays. Getting some type of movement in and incorporating your friends and family can make it more fun, too. My family, we always plan a walk in some pretty area, where we'll walk for 30 minutes.

OK, so it happens: You eat too much, you are hungover the next day. How do you take care of yourself after you overdo it?

If that happens, first and foremost, definitely stay hydrated. It'll kind of help flush you out. A lot of people feel a little bit bloated when they overdo it on food or alcohol, because they have a lot of extra sodium. So, really sticking to hydration is important. Eating a little bit lighter, trying to maybe focus more on some fresh vegetables during the day will kind of help de-bloat you, make you feel a little bit better. And exercise, too. It can be a little bit of exercise, just moving. Getting your heart pumping will help you ultimately feel better.

But you shouldn't entirely skip eating or anything the next day.

Absolutely. Especially if you have that hung over from food feeling, I know it's a really not great feeling, and you might not have as much of an appetite when you wake up, which is OK. But, don't not eat. Eat something with protein and lots of fresh vegetables and fruits. 

Any final thoughts?

I just always remind [clients] that the holidays can be stressful. There's a lot of commitments and expectations. But for the most part, it's just a time to enjoy some downtime, some time with family or friends. Sometimes it’s just remembering that and focusing on that, rather than all of the food and the lack of exercise and lack of routine. [It’s about] spending quality time with people that are important to you.