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Cookies and eggnog and pie, oh my!

5 tips from a Fred Hutch nutrition expert on how to stay on track and avoid a holiday snack attack

Dec. 24, 2013
Cookies and milk

It's OK to sample your favorite holiday treats -- just be mindful about what you are doing, experts advise.

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Like many cancer survivors, Cathie Johnson pays close attention to her diet.

“I’m constantly researching nutrition,” said Johnson, a 13-year breast cancer survivor from Everett, Wash. “I get the American Institute for Cancer Research newsletter and try to eat the foods they suggest, like blueberries and apples and walnuts. And I’ve met with the nutritionist at Seattle Cancer Care Alliance where I was treated.”

Unfortunately, even healthy eaters like Johnson can get sidetracked during the holidays, when sweets, treats and fat-laden foods seem to be lurking behind every corner.  What’s the best strategy for getting through the mashed-potato-and-gravy gauntlet? Read on for a few tips.

Be mindful. “If I were counseling somebody, I’d tell them to be mindful of what they’re eating during the holidays,” said Carolyn Ehret, a registered dietitian and manager of the Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center’s Nutrition Assessment Shared Resource, which helps assess the diets of study participants for Hutch scientists. “This is not the time to be on autopilot.”

Ehret said people will often do a “ton of mindless eating” during the holidays because their brains are elsewhere. Holiday food, however, is not. It’s at home, it’s at work, it even comes to you through the mail.

“At this time of year, we’re really busy and we’re doing all kinds of things at the same time,” she said. “Just stop for a moment and think about what you’re doing. Ask yourself, ‘Do I want to be eating this? Why am I eating this?’”

Mindful eating is particularly important for breast cancer survivors who often gain weight following treatment, thanks to menopause, tamoxifen and/or aromatase inhibitors. 

Plan ahead.  Ehret also suggests thinking about meals in advance, especially when it comes to those ubiquitous holiday parties. Don’t go to events hungry because you’ll run the risk of loading up on calorie-rich goodies. And if you have a big gathering, adjust the rest of your food intake accordingly.

“Try to budget before you go,” she said. “If you go to a party in the evening, make sure what you eat during the day allows for the extra calories you’re going to have at the event.”

Johnson said she’ll often make herself a “really nice salad, with the very best olive oil and balsamic vinegar” before going out to a big holiday do. That way, she’s full and won’t be tempted to stand at the snack table and graze.

Planning ahead can also help you deal with the long haul of the holidays, said Ehret.

“They just go on for so long,” she said. “It’s at least a month or more. So it’s not just one slice of pie, it’s one slice that can happen many times over the course of six weeks.”

Eat the best and skip the rest.  Instead of filling your party plate with calorie-laden chips, dips and sweets, Ehret suggests loading up on fruits and vegetables which are lower in calories and packed with nutrients. Or snacking on a handful of nuts instead of noshing on chips and candy.

“Say no to things you don’t really like that you can get anytime or that are just empty calories,” she said. “It’s totally OK to be selective.”

That might mean occasionally indulging in one of your grandmother’s homemade cookies rather than a “processed cookie made in a factory with an ingredient list that’s a whole paragraph long,” she said.

As for holiday food gifts that aren’t as delicious (or sentimental), Ehret said it’s perfectly fine to get rid of food that doesn’t fit into your healthy eating plan.

“Just thank the person and keep the fact that you tossed it to yourself,” she said.

Watch your portions and your alcohol.  People have a tendency to fill their plate and then eat whatever’s on it, said Ehret. So she recommends opting for smaller plates – both at the buffet table or when serving meals at home.

She also recommends monitoring alcohol intake.

“Not only does it provide empty calories, it makes it harder to say no,” she said. “If somebody offers pie, you’re like, ‘Why not?’”

Johnson said she limits herself to one drink a day, even during the holidays, a recommendation embraced by the Hutch’s Survivorship Program.

“I’ll just have one drink and then carry around a bottled water,” she said. “As long as I can keep busy drinking something, I’m OK.”

Learn to say no. “Come on, have another one!” “It’s just a cupcake, it’s not going to kill you.” Sweets, treats and tasty libations can be hard to turn down, especially when peer pressure comes into play. That’s why Ehret suggests learning to say ‘no’ in a variety of ways.

“A simple ‘no thank you’ can be pretty powerful,” she said. “But you can also say, ‘I’m opting to not have any more’ or ‘I’ve had enough.’”

Feel uncomfortable saying no? Ehret suggests getting creative with holiday food pushers.

“You can always say something like, ‘I just don’t tolerate that any more’ or ‘I’ve lost my taste for that,’” she said.

But saying yes to a special holiday favorite isn’t the end of the world, she said.

“If that mincemeat pie is important to you and has lots of family memories, the enjoyment you get out of a bite or two goes more towards your health than whatever bad stuff might be in it,” she said. “It’s important to leave room for memories and emotions and what’s important to us during the holidays, too.”

What are your healthy practices that help you through the holidays? Share your secrets with us on Facebook.

Fred Hutchinson Cancer Research Center is a world leader in research to prevent, detect and treat cancer and other life-threatening diseases.