A Tokyo Dietitian’s Guide to Festive Feasting
Healthy Holiday Eating Dos and Don’ts
Eat, drink and be merry with these expert tips on how to celebrate the holidays without sacrificing your health.
Whether you celebrate Christmas, Hanukkah or oshogatsu (Japanese New Year), this time of year is filled with holiday celebrations—and all the festive foods that go with it. Many of the patients who fill my office in November and December are nervous about how they’ll be able to balance their meals in a way that allows them to eat their favorite holiday fare while still honoring their health.
I completely understand their struggle, which is why I’m happy to share what I’ve learned through my work as a dietitian over the years. And before you start to worry that this will be another nutrition article that suggests swapping cauliflower in all your holiday recipes or warns of the dangers of sugar, let me reassure you that this is not that article.
So read on for how you can include balance and joy to savor the season with these holiday eating dos and don’ts.
Healthy Holiday Eating Dos
Get comfortable living in the ‘grey’
Although many patients will tell me that they are an “all or nothing” kind of person and want to jump right in on a strict meal plan complete with lists of “good” and “bad” foods, the truth is that those types of diets or meal plans simply aren’t sustainable over long periods of time.
When I think of the patients who were the most successful when it came to making long term dietary change, they all shunned such rigid “black and white” thinking and became good at living in the space between severe restriction and a complete abandonment of their nutrition goals. These types of patients didn’t live in fear of sweets and treats and were able to enjoy foods that were less nutrient dense—like dessert or alcohol—while still prioritizing ones that were.
…the health or nutrition outcomes they wanted were only possible with time, consistency and making peace with food and eating.
This might look like having pizza with a large salad on the side or enjoying a lovely holiday lunch at a fancy restaurant, but planning a dinner filled with lots of vegetables, lean protein and whole grains that also taste delicious once back at home. These types of patients never had to worry about “falling off the wagon” because they never got on it in the first place. They were patient with their progress and understood that the health or nutrition outcomes they wanted were only possible with time, consistency and making peace with food and eating.
Understand that any one meal, snack or dessert won’t make or break your health.
Whenever a patient comes in panicking about an upcoming holiday meal or an outing like a bonenkai (end-of-year party), I find it’s often helpful to look at the bigger picture. Assuming you eat three meals a day, one meal is only 0.09% of your total food intake for the year. So just like eating one salad won’t magically make all your health problems disappear, neither will enjoying one holiday meal. What you do consistently matters the most.
Offer to bring fruit or vegetable dishes to holiday gatherings.
While I think you should enjoy your favorite holiday foods regardless of whether they’re nutritious or not (more on that later), you’d be surprised how appreciative people are if you bring a fruit or vegetable filled side dish to a holiday party. In the excitement over more decadent holiday dishes, fruits and vegetables often get overlooked. Yet in my experience, people are always happy to have them as part of their meal, and in many cases, it’s one of the first dishes to run out! This time of year has amazing seasonal produce, such as mikan (orange), daikon, yuzu or komatsuna (Japanese spinach) that can be incorporated into dishes or salads that are sure to be a hit.
Appreciate other aspects of the holidays that don’t involve food.
Even though festive meals are a big part of the holidays, don’t let food and food anxiety overshadow the many other wonderful parts of the holiday season. From enjoying the holiday illuminations to visiting the shrine for hatsumode (first shrine visit of the year), the holidays aren’t just about eating—they are also about joy, connection and celebration.
Healthy Holiday Eating Don’ts
Skip meals before holiday gatherings or parties.
“Saving up” calories before a big holiday meal or event almost always guarantees a binge. Plan to eat regular, nourishing meals instead.
Feel you need to make “healthy” versions of your favorite holiday food.
There is nothing wrong with changing a favorite holiday recipe to include more nutrient dense foods or to accommodate a dietary need, such as a dairy or gluten allergy. However, don’t feel like you must do that if what you really want is to enjoy the holiday meal or food as it is.
…if what you really want is a piece of Christmas cake, don’t feel like you have to settle for some fruit or a sugar-free dessert instead…
Research has shown that people who deprived themselves of their favorite foods—such as chocolate—not only experienced more cravings for the restricted food but also ended up eating more than those who didn’t restrict those foods in the first place. So if what you really want is a piece of Christmas cake, don’t feel like you have to settle for some fruit or a sugar-free dessert instead—have the cake and enjoy it guilt-free!
Punish yourself if you overdo it with food or drinks during the holidays.
Avoid the temptation to restrict your food intake in response to overeating at a holiday event. Doing so only puts you in a binge and restrict cycle, since severe dietary restriction often results in overeating later due to feelings of deprivation and shame. While it is okay to listen to your body and eat less food if you aren’t hungry at your next meal, punishing yourself by barely eating is counterproductive.
In the hustle and bustle of the holiday season, finding the balance between eating and celebrating can be difficult. Yet with the tips above and an extra serving of fruit and vegetables (sorry for the shameless fruit and veg plug but I am a dietitian after all!), you can start the new year healthy, happy and well nourished.