Families, Food, and Fitness: Eating During the Holidays

family holiday table

Managing balanced eating can be challenging, especially at family holiday meals where food often represents love and generosity, making it tough to say no that extra piece of pie. AICR Nutrition Advisor Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, can help you navigate that and she has advice on boosting physical activity for multiple benefits.

Q: How can I avoid overeating in response to people pushing food at me during family gatherings?

A: Family dynamics vary, so an approach that works in one family might not do well in another. Is your family one in which eating rich foods in large amounts is seen as an essential part of gatherings, and not doing so is met with resistance? Rather than making a major statement that you don’t want to eat that way, you might try to let your healthy eating quietly fly under the radar. Especially if you are busy helping, or not sitting right next to the person most likely to push food at you, your lack of overeating may go undetected if you don’t make a big deal of it. If people do urge you to take more than you are comfortable eating, try for responses that don’t put them on the defensive. You might compliment the food and say that you are so full you’d like to wait until later for more. If you refuse in a way that makes others feel guilty by implying that they are eating excessively, or that the food they have served you is unhealthy, they may be offended and push further.

Remember that the health impact of a food varies with its portion. If you help with serving, you can choose the portion that’s right for you. Try to find some vegetables or other healthful choices to savor slowly, so that if others are going back for third or fourth portions, you still have something to munch. Don’t let other people derail your efforts to take care of your health. Nevertheless, try to be sensitive when you are dealing with people for whom you know refusing food feels like you are refusing their love.

Q: How long would I have to walk to burn off the calories in holiday treats?

A: It depends on the treats you choose and how fast you walk. Holiday cookies often have 60 to 140 calories each, and sweet desserts may contain from 200 to 600 calories or more per serving.

If you walk at a moderate 3 miles per hour pace and weigh 150 pounds, you would need about 24 minutes to burn the calories in a 100-calorie cookie, and well over an hour for other sweet desserts. If you can comfortably walk at a brisk pace of about 4 miles per hour, you could cut your walking time to 15 minutes to burn the same number of calories; or if you walk briskly for 24 minutes, you’ll burn almost 200 calories.

Looking at this math, it’s easy to see that although boosting physical activity at a time when there’s more high-calorie food around can help avoid weight gain, adding extra exercise doesn’t easily keep up with how quickly excess calories accumulate from overeating. However, don’t look at walking and other exercise simply as a way to balance calories you consume. Physical activity, independent of weight, links with numerous health benefits, including lower risk of several cancers. It also helps your body regulate blood sugar and keeps several hormones at healthy levels.

For many people, daily physical activity also helps to handle stress, raise energy levels and improve sleep quality, which are all often challenges at busy times of year. So enjoy select sweet treats of the season, choosing those that you enjoy most at times when you can truly taste and savor them.

Karen Collins, MS, RDN, CDN, is AICR’s Nutrition Advisor. Karen is a speaker, writer and consultant who specializes in helping people make sense of nutrition news. You can follow her blog, Smart Bytes®, through her website and follow her on Twitter @KarenCollinsRD and Facebook @KarenCollinsNutrition

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