How to Stay on Track during the Holidays

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guest post by susan macfarlane, registered dietitian nutritionist

There’s a reason most people set health and fitness goals after the holidays; changing or maintaining your health habits is difficult to do in the months leading up to Christmas. However, the holidays are a unique mixed-bag of challenging eating situations. Developing a plan to deal with these situations can help you stay on-track with your health and fitness goals year-round.

Holiday Challenges


The holiday season is usually depicted as one of good cheer and warm wishes. But in reality, the holidays can be a source of significant stress, with mental illnesses such as depression and anxiety spiking at this time of year.


Start by having realistic expectations for yourself and others. Preparing a “Martha Stewart” type of meal, complete with its own homemade centrepiece might be nice, but completely impractical. Appreciate the time, energy, and budget you are working with and let go of the pressure to create the perfect holiday (if such a thing even exists?!). And most importantly, practice self-care. Have a bubble bath, book a massage, watch a movie, colour, dance, nap, or do whatever it is that leaves you feeling rested and rejuvenated.

Food Is Everywhere

Nowadays, families don’t sit down to just one large holiday meal. Rather, there are holiday meals at in-laws’, aunts’, grandmas’, friends’ and colleagues’ houses. And these meals typically contain many courses plus an array of snacks and alcoholic beverages. The holiday cheer, along with social pressures to eat and drink, often result in us consuming seconds (or thirds) and mindlessly nibbling on carefully laid out appetizers and beverages while we catch up with loved ones.


There are many eating challenges wrapped up in the above scenario, the first being that you are attending dinners where you aren’t in control of what is served. When possible, offer to bring a healthy side dish or appetizer to lighten the cooking load of your hosts. It’s also helpful to ensure that there are some low-calorie beverages, such as sparkling water, available as an alternative.

It’s also wise to not show up hungry to a dinner party, as it is much more likely that you will end up overeating as a result. Have a snack containing protein and carbs (such as ¼ cup of almonds with a piece of fruit) before leaving the house. At the dinner party, try to position yourself away from the snack table, making sure that you have a glass of sparkling water to occupy your hands.

Lastly, focus on creating a balanced plate, with at least half or more of your plate devoted to vegetables, with the remaining half split between whole grains and protein. And don’t forget dessert! In our house, dessert is actually served with meals and I typically eat it first. Crazy, right!? But here’s the thing – most people will eat 1-2 plates of food, then say “yes” to a large slice of dessert, despite feeling overly full. This has always seemed counter-productive to me since eating dessert first will increase fullness and likely result in you eating less at meals.

No Access To A Gym

For some reason, we have it ingrained in our minds that unless we have access to a gym or fitness equipment, we can’t exercise. During the holidays, there are two reasons people stop exercising: 1) they don’t have the time (for a solution to this, see challenge #1 above) and 2) they don’t have access to a gym or their usual equipment.


During the holidays, set a fitness goal for yourself that you feel you can easily achieve. For example, at home, I aim to exercise at least 5 days per week. But when I visit my family during the holidays, I modify this goal so that I’m engaging in some sort of activity at least every second day.

While many fitness centres offer drop-in rates or complimentary passes, you can also find great workouts on YouTube. And don’t forget that nature is the best playground. Get the whole family involved in something active, such as snowshoeing or tobogganing (if you’re lucky enough to live somewhere with snow!).

Dealing With The Extras

If the above challenges didn’t seem like enough, there’s also dealing with the workplace Christmas party, all the extra alcohol, and the many containers of baking delivered by well-meaning loved ones.


It’s one hundred percent okay to toss something out that you find challenging to keep in the house or truly don’t enjoy and are only eating out of guilt. Although this may feel like food waste, you’re not really benefiting (either physically or mentally) from eating the food, which to me, sounds like a bigger ‘food waste’. Of course, the better solution would be to have a conversation with loved ones upfront and say that you would prefer them to donate food or money to a shelter in your name.

That said, if there is an indulgence that you enjoy having, now is the best time to practice mindful eating by using all five senses to enjoy that item. Also, spend some time thinking about why you are indulging. Were you hungry? Bored? Stressed? Was everyone else eating? Was the food just there? The more you understand your eating habits, the easier it will be to make changes.

And if all else fails, remember that the holidays really won’t undo the progress you’ve made throughout the year. Our health and wellness are the cumulative effect of our daily habits. So if you like to “let loose” during the holidays and practice wellness for the remainder of the year, then go for it!

Happy Holidays!

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