Small changes can make a big difference when it comes to eating healthy and avoiding weight gain over the holidays.

By planning ahead, eating in moderation and making healthy choices, you can enjoy your traditional favorites without overdoing it.

It’s also important to prioritize exercise, such as going for walks or cleaning the house.

Many people struggle to eat healthy and avoid weight gain over the holidays – and just like with most things, that may feel even harder in 2020. However, you can stick to a healthy diet without depriving yourself or taking the fun out of beloved traditions.

Jacqueline Daughtry, RDN, LDN, Regional One Health’s clinical nutrition manager, has tips to stay on track during the holidays and throughout the year. “Everyone thinks it’s difficult, but in reality small changes make a big difference,” she said. “I’m not telling you not to enjoy it – you can be merry without overindulging.”

Plan ahead

Thinking about how you can enjoy your holiday meal without going overboard is a great place to start, Daughtry said.

One pitfall for holiday eating is the sheer number of choices, Daughtry said. Look at the spread ahead of time and decide which items you’ll enjoy the most. Take reasonable portions of those rather than some everything, and only go back for seconds of the items you really loved.

She noted a reasonable meal fits on a 9-inch plate. Half of that should be fruits and vegetables, one-fourth should be lean protein, and one-fourth should be whole grains or starchy vegetables like potatoes. Keep that in mind as you plan your plate ahead of time.

Include healthier choices

Clinical Nutrition Manager Jacqueline Daughtry says you can eat healthy without depriving yourself: “Everyone thinks it’s difficult, but in reality small changes make a big difference.”

Many traditional holiday dishes include butter, sugar and other high-calorie, high-fat ingredients. It’s OK to make and enjoy those family favorites, but also offer healthier foods:

  • Plain green beans or green bean amandine instead of green bean casserole
  • Pumpkin pie instead of apple or pecan pie
  • White meat instead of dark
  • Plain baked sweet potato instead of candied yams

“Keep foods as close to the way they were intended to be as possible,” Daughtry said. “Meat doesn’t need to be breaded and fried. Vegetables don’t need to be mixed with mayo and bacon.”

You can also make healthier substitutions when cooking and baking, like egg whites instead of whole eggs, low-fat Greek yogurt instead of sour cream and applesauce instead of oil.

Don’t go in starving

If you deprive yourself all day before your big holiday meal, you’re going to overeat, Daughtry said. It takes 20 minutes for the body to tell the brain it’s full, and in that 20 minutes, you can consume a lot of calories that will just leave you feeling uncomfortably full.

“Your food shouldn’t hurt you,” she said. “Your food should nourish you and bring you joy.”

Don’t skip meals prior to the holiday feast. If you need to, have a healthy snack like a granola bar, yogurt or handful of nuts to tide you over.

Eat mindfully

During holiday meals, enjoy conversation and connecting with loved ones along with the good food. It helps you eat more mindfully so you’ll stop when your body says you’re full.

Most people don’t overeat due to hunger, but because of factors like boredom, stress, habit, etc. Many of those factors are worse this year due to COVID-19, so Daughtry offered some tips for overcoming those hurdles:

  • Talk to your family members during the big meal. You’ll avoid eating nonstop and enjoy making a connection.
  • Spread out the pleasure.
  • Most holiday dishes make great leftovers, so you don’t have to have all your favorites at once – save some to look forward to in the days ahead.
  • Keep tabs on how hungry you really feel on a scale of 1 to 10. If you aren’t enjoying an item that much and feel full, stop eating.

Prioritize exercise

Walking is an easy, inexpensive option, Daughtry said, and there are lots of ways to make it fun:

  • Go for a family walk after your meal
  • Walk around your neighborhood to look at holiday lights
  • Play catch or take your dog for a walk
  • Get up and moving during TV commercials

Household chores count too! You actually burn 90 calories in 30 minutes of cooking, Daughtry said, and cleaning your house is great exercise.

Set SMART goals

SMART stands for Specific, Measurable, Achievable, Realistic and Trackable.

In other words, instead of saying “I want to lose weight,” say, “I’ll lose a pound a week.” Instead of saying, “I want to exercise more,” say, “I’ll walk for 30 minutes a day.”

When you set realistic, measurable goals, it’s much less overwhelming, Daughtry said. “Focus on healthy behaviors, but don’t deprive yourself,” she advised. “When we say, ‘tis the season to be jolly,’ that means enjoy yourself – but don’t overindulge. Moderation is the way to go.”