Have a Healthy Christmas

Tips for maximizing yuletide happiness.

For most people, the Christmas season is a joyful time, focused on family, togetherness, and the spirit of giving. For a lot of others, it’s also about food. Cookies. Candy. Hot chocolate. Egg nog. For someone trying to lose weight, the holidays can seem like a huge food pitfall. But they don’t have to be. To emerge on the other side of Christmas without a Santa belly, try hosting the festivities yourself—the healthy way.

It may sound impossible. Trying to explain to your mother-in-law why you’re not eating her famous pumpkin pie or refusing a helping of Aunt Sue’s sugar cookies is hard enough, but convincing your family to sacrifice their favorite foods feels like the epitome of awkward. The key, according to longtime WW Coach Gloria Munson, is to remember that committing to a healthy lifestyle is a permanent change, not a temporary diet plan that can be put on hold to indulge your craving for that slice of fruitcake.

“It’s just a lifestyle change, and you learn to adjust to that,” she says. “It’s not like, ‘Let’s just do it until the holidays.’ You have to be able to do it every day.”

The problems start when it’s your turn to host Christmas and your family doesn’t share your enthusiasm. When you’ve decided to do the holidays the healthy way, it’s time to get your relatives on board. Munson’s a fan of the upfront method, where you tell them ahead of time what to expect on the dinner table in your home.

“I just would say, ‘I prefer healthy alternatives, so let’s do things like grilled salmon. Let’s make baked potatoes,’ ” she said. “You have to ask them for help.”

If your relatives remain adamant about enjoying their favorite holiday dishes as-is, let them—but provide yourself with plenty of alternatives. David Grotto, a registered dietitian and president of Chicago-based Nutrition Housecall, eschews low-cal versions of decadent dishes for naturally healthy alternatives, including vegetable platters, whole-grain breads, and fruit salads, while allowing himself small portions of the good stuff, too.

“My philosophy is this: why not enjoy that food but have a small amount of it, and then fill up on other, healthy foods?” he says. “You’re still eating the same amount of food, just less of the decadent stuff.”

If you'd rather stick to an all-healthy menu, try telling your relatives that they’re welcome to prepare and bring any foods you’re not serving. Brett Curtiss, a vegan who’s currently pursuing a master’s degree in dietetics, used this method while hosting Thanksgiving for the first time, and says it eliminated any potential food drama.

“My wife and I made our own stuff, and we told our friends and family that we were making vegetarian food, but that if anyone wanted to bring anything else, they were welcome to,” he says.

But, he adds, his guests didn’t need to bring much, because turning a holiday dinner into a healthy meal doesn’t have to mean sacrificing favorite dishes like stuffing and mashed potatoes.

According to Munson, the base ingredients for most Christmas dinner foods are healthy on their own. “Turkey happens to be a very low SmartPoints™ value food, which is great,” she says. 

It’s the additives (cream in the mashed potatoes; gravy on the turkey) that up the calories, Curtiss says. As a vegan, he’s had to experiment to find healthy versions of most recipes, but says it’s not hard to do. Most dishes will taste close enough to the original that even non-healthy eaters won’t notice the difference.

“There are a lot of good substitutions for things like cream and butter,” he says. “People don’t necessarily know the difference unless you tell them. My mom makes this yam and apple pie that’s kind of like a sweet potato pie with apples, and one year she decided to use the vegan margarine instead of butter. It tastes exactly the same. Nobody knew the difference.”

Making sure the healthy versions have the same appearance as the regular ones is also key, he says. “If it doesn’t look right, people will be more hesitant to eat it. I try to make it look as appealing as possible.” Doing this well also allows the meal to speak for itself—meaning less chatter about the food, and more time to eat it, he says.

“Our first Thanksgiving as vegetarians, we brought stuff over and said, ‘Oh, we made this squash casserole, it’s really good. It’s totally vegan.’ I think that stigmatized it,” Curtiss recalls. “It’s better not to try to hype it up at all and just let people judge the recipe on how it looks and how it tastes.”

To eat healthy without sacrificing flavor, explore alternative ingredients. In mashed potatoes, Curtiss is a fan of soy milk; Munson recommends fat-free half-and-half or chicken broth. Sweet holiday treats, like cookies and hot chocolate, can also be modified to contain fewer calories without losing taste.

“Try no-bake cookies, which don’t contain butter,” said Bobby Scheve, executive chef at Beyond, an Asian-fusion restaurant in the Shenandoah Valley. “Or try using alternative sugars, like fruit, instead of white sugars.”

Basically, any of your favorite holiday foods can be made in a healthy and satisfying way, and you can make it through the season without having to loosen your belt. The important thing, Grotto says, is to know that you can do it.

“The holidays don’t have to be a weight-gain sentence,” he says. “If you’re on your game, you can lose weight and still have fun.”