A healthy holiday get-together is an art … and a science.
Vanessa Annand & Matthew Kadey
How can we make our holiday feasts a little healthier? It’s a question that’s plagued anyone who’s left a Thanksgiving or Christmas dinner feeling uncomfortably full (and promptly collapsed into a food coma). The grogginess is just the beginning. Most of us tend to gain a little weight—somewhere between one and two pounds—over the holidays. We usually lose some of that weight in the new year, but about half of our holiday weight gain proves difficult to shake. Clearly, we eat more of certain (read: rich) foods over the holidays. And of course it’s fine to indulge now and then. You want to enjoy the extra care people put into cooking at this time of year, not police every morsel you eat. But by understanding some of the possible reasons for overeating over the holidays, you can treat yourself mindfully. So, here’s our gift to you: We’ve pulled together some of the most fascinating research on how people behave when they gather—especially around the table. And we’ve turned that science into tips that can transform any brunch, dinner or swanky soiree into something healthy-ish.
The more people we dine with, the more we eat. Researchers call this “social facilitation,” and it only seems to happen when we’re dining with our nearest and dearest (not with strangers). The effect is so precise that for each additional person at the table, we take additional bites. We also tend to match our eating patterns to whoever we’re eating with. If your fellow diners are nomming with gusto—and they usually are at a festive feast—it’s a lot harder to put down your fork.
Gender dynamics can affect how much we eat—and how we feel about it. Cornell researchers found men tended to eat a lot more at a buffet-style meal when they were dining with at least one woman as opposed to just other men—probably in order to impress her. (Because what woman hasn’t thought, “A man who can demolish nine helpings of mushroom nut loaf? Swoon!”) Women, on the other hand, ate the same amount regardless of the sex of their eating partner(s). But when they ate with men, they believed they ate more, and they felt rushed and that they overate. Not fun!
When we’re offered a bunch of different of foods, we often eat more. Crunchy green Brussels sprouts, cloud-like mashed potatoes and velvety mushroom gravy? Must. Try. Them. All. Trouble is, this extra intake may not make us feel as full as it should. In a recent study, some participants received three kinds of appetizers, while other participants got only one kind of appy. The people who had access to a variety of appetizers ate more—and yet they remained just as hungry as the other participants.
Keep unnecessary noise to a minimum during meals. You don’t have to go full Silent Night: a big gathering should get a little boisterous. But there’s no need to add the blare of background television or cranked up music. Why? Being able to hear the sounds their food makes as they chew it—every nibble and chomp—can help your guests eat less. Researchers call this “the crunch effect.” (Other meal-related sounds—like the sizzle of oil in a frying pan—haven’t been shown to have the same effect.)
Start with soup. Researchers found that starting a meal with soup led people to eat 20 percent fewer calories. Of course, that’s contingent on the soup being reasonably low-calorie. Go for a chunky or semi-pureed soup: researchers have found people rate those thicker soups as tastier and more visually appealing than broth with veggies.
Cook with functional foods. Spices like cinnamon, ginger and cayenne or herbs like fenugreek and holy basil can help improve digestion, blood sugar balance and stress response—all of which can make for a more pleasant dining experience. For a next-level nightcap, try a cocktail or mocktail that contains tart cherry juice. Tart cherry juice boasts impressive levels of melatonin, an important sleep hormone, and has been linked with enhanced sleep quality and duration.
Give gifts that empower better health. Sure, we all deserve a few holiday indulgences, but sprinkle fitness trackers*, active video games and gorgeous, must-flaunt-at-the-gym water bottles into the gift-giving mix if it’s that kind of gathering. Not exchanging gifts? Use that time to get everyone outside, if possible: walking, snowshoeing, skating and skiing will add a little magic (and movement) to the festivities.
Serving dinner buffet-style may seem simplest, but serving it restaurant-style (as separate courses) helps guests pace their eating and enjoy the fruits (and vegetables) of your labors.
Choose your treats ahead of time. The decision to eat mindfully starts way before you get to Grandma’s dining room. Will it be Mom’s pumpkin pie or Uncle Darren’s Christmas pudding? Bring breath mints so that once you’ve had enough to eat, you can chew one. You won’t want to wreck that minty fresh feeling with a second helping of pie.
Nail your nutrition basics. Omega-3s and probiotics are superstars all year long, and the holidays are no exception—especially considering that both have been linked with healthy changes to body weight. (Mix plant-based liquid probiotics with vegan milk, vanilla, a little sweetener and nutmeg for healthier eggnog!). Ensuring adequate magnesium intake could also help you maintain a healthy weight now and in the coming year. Leafy green veggies are good whole food sources of magnesium. So reach for those steamed greens at dinner, or start the day with a spinach- based smoothie.
Arm yourself with digestive aids. If you’re destined to eat a rich dinner, digestive enzymes could save you from the dreaded bloat. These supplements help break down the food we eat. This reduces the chances of having post-dinner gas. In addition, 1 g of activated charcoal taken at least 30 minutes before a meal and then again after the meal has been associated with reduced intestinal gas; just make sure you know its possible interactions before taking it. Then, get ready to enjoy the holidays with less discomfort and a lot more health.
Get to bed on time. Many of us stay up past our regular bedtimes during the last half of December. Late nights can lead to greater calorie consumption—especially when there are plenty of after-dinner snacks to be had. If you’re a houseguest over the holidays, get settled into your room before diving into the festivities. That way you can slip away when it’s bedtime instead of waiting for your host to show you to your room at the end of the night.
Martha Stewart, who? Jamie Oliver, huh? Cook with these immune-boosting foods, and you’ll outshine the brightest stars of entertaining.
The humble button mushroom may enhance the activity of cells critical to the proper functioning of the body’s immune system.
Include in stir-fries, soups, pasta dishes, veggie burgers and homemade pizza.
Probiotics, friendly critters found in fermented foods like kefir, may lessen the risk of coming down with the sniffles or reduce the severity and duration of symptoms.
Blend into smoothies, use in pancake and waffle batter, pour onto granola or use for creamy salad dressings.
A single kiwi supplies more than a day’s requirement of vitamin C, along with other potent antioxidants that may keep your immunity in tip-top shape.
Use in smoothies, vegan parfaits, salsas, fruit salads and DIY jams.
Zinc, a mineral that pumpkin seeds have in spades, plays a vital role in immunity. Consuming zinc when you’re under the weather may help slash the duration of symptoms.
Toss onto salads, oatmeal, plant-based yogurt, soups and roasted vegetables.
A soluble fiber in barley (and oats) called beta-glucan could rev up your immune response when you’re sick to shorten the duration of symptoms. Whole grains like barley may also improve your gut microbiome to bolster immunity.
Add to soups, grain bowls, salads, burritos, stuffed peppers and pilafs.