Staying healthy over the holidays

December 16, 2013

By Greg Peters

Leigh Wagner

The weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day are a holiday rush when Americans, young and old alike, will be ho-ho-holding on to their waistlines as they brace for a whirlwind of office parties, late-night cramming for finals and family feasts filled with countless calories.

Studies show American adults put on roughly 50 percent of their annual weight gain in the weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's, and while a pound or two isn't all that much, over the years it can add up to some serious weight gain.

Holiday gatherings with their tasty snacks and festive foods can be the downfall for many this time of year. Matt Taylor, a registered dietitian at Kirmayer Fitness Center, offers some helpful suggestions for folks as they navigate the buffet line at office parties and family get-togethers. He says party revelers should not pass over the tray of fresh vegetables, which is a staple at most gatherings. 

"Be sure to fill some of your holiday plate with vegetables because it will give you some added nutrition and help you from overeating," Taylor says.

He also recommends keeping an eye out for party fare that contains super foods that promote health, such as pumpkin or sweet potatoes. He cautions, however, to beware of sugar and calories that are added during the baking process in items such as holiday bars and breads.

Alcohol can also sabotage healthy eating plans during the holidays. Taylor warns people to be careful when consuming alcohol at parties because not only do these drinks contain calories, but they can lower an individual's inhibitions, making them vulnerable and more apt to choose larger portion sizes when eating.

Taylor suggests people alternate between alcoholic drinks and water during the course of a party or dinner. He says this will help keep a person hydrated and the water will make them feel fuller and not eat as much or as often. 

When you're the cook

For those who are in charge of cooking this holiday season, Leigh Wagner, a registered dietitian who works in the Healing Food Kitchen in Integrative Medicine, suggests substituting sweet potatoes for the traditional white potatoes for a healthier alternative when making mashed potatoes for the holiday feast. She says sweet potatoes are higher in beta carotene, which turns into vitamin A in the body and helps with vision and the immune system.

Wagner offered a smashed potato recipe* that features coconut oil or coconut milk as an alternative to the oil or margarine that a person might use. She says coconut oil is easier to absorb for people with digestive tract issues.

Cinnamon is a spice that is very popular for holiday cooks. Wagner's smashed potato recipe calls for a bit of cinnamon, a spice that studies have shown to be beneficial.

"There is evidence to suggest that cinnamon is anti-inflammatory and can help with blood sugar balance," Wagner says.

Healthy eating for students

For students, the stress of studying for finals can interrupt exercise and sleeping patterns and limit the time allowed to make healthy eating decisions. Instead of making the time for balanced meals, students often reach for unhealthy snacking alternatives that are close by during study hours. Emily Newbold and Katie George, graduate students in the Department of Dietetics and Nutrition, have several options for busy students.

"It's important to start your day of with a good breakfast to give you energy and get you going," George says. "Make sure you start your day off with some complex carbohydrates and a good source of protein such as eggs or a clean protein shake. This will keep you full throughout the day."

Inevitably, everyone reaches for some form of late-night snack. Whether a person is hitting the books for finals or stuffing that last stocking before the trip to grandma's house, Newbold has some healthier options to keep in mind.

"Instead of reaching for those high-sugar highly refined carb foods that are going to send you crashing down later with no energy, a better option would be to reach for lower glycemic foods, which take longer to digest," she says.

Lower glycemic options include vegetable sticks and hummus; dried fruit and mixed nuts; fresh fruit and nut butter; salsa with raw vegetables; and edamame.

Newbold says studies suggest blueberries are a particularly good option because they improve memory and cognition. She suggests combining blueberries with protein or a healthy fat such as nuts or seeds.

George adds that even though students are crunched for time, it is important that they try to find a few moments to squeeze some form of exercise into their day. Working out can help students maintain focus when they study, George says, and help to relieve stress.

"Try to find time within your day when you can do a short bout of exercise," says Sandra Billinger, director of KU's REACH Laboratory. "Any little bit of exercise is better than none at all."

Billinger adds that an easy way to add exercise during this hectic time of year is by choosing parking spots that are the farthest away from the entrance to the stores or buildings a person is going into to shop or work. She suggests when shopping in a location with multiple stores a person should pick a centrally located parking spot and then walk to the stores.

(A video with more tips from Billinger on working exercise into a busy holiday schedule is available here.)

Regardless of how careful a person is with their eating and drinking around the holidays, history shows people are bound to overindulge. But if all these suggestions aren't enough to get a person through holiday season without too many stumbles, Taylor has a bit of advice that should bring glad tidings to everyone's ears. 

"Try to focus on indulging on some of the foods you enjoy instead of overeating," he says. "If you do overeat, don't beat yourself up. Everybody slips up every now and then."

* Leigh Wagner's Whipped Sweet Potatoes Recipe


4 large sweet potatoes
2 tablespoons organic pasture butter or ghee or coconut oil
¼ - ½ cup coconut milk (canned)
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
½ teaspoon pepper
½ - ¾ teaspoon sea salt
pinch of nutmeg or cinnamon and/or cayenne pepper


Peel (unless organic) and cut the potatoes into chunks and place in a large pot. Cover with cold water and let come to a boil. Turn down to medium-high and let cook for about 20-30 minutes, or until potatoes are fork tender.

Drain water and add potatoes back to the pot. Add butter, coconut milk, salt, pepper, vanilla and nutmeg. Whip with a whisk, mashed, fork, or immersion blender. You can also put them in a stand mixer and blend

Add more ingredients or additional spices to your liking.

(Serves 4-6)

Last modified: Dec 19, 2013