The holiday season brings many families and friends together to celebrate, visit, and enjoy each other’s company. Holiday celebrations often take place with easy access to high calorie, traditional holiday foods that we have come to associate with the holiday celebrations. Seasonal favorites such as pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes tend to be prepared with heavy creams and sweet, high sugar syrups. The University of Florida’s Health Street site has some great recipes for healthier versions of some of your favorite dishes here: https://healthstreet.program.ufl.edu/2017/11/08/make-your-thanksgiving-more-heart-healthy/. Research shows that constant exposure to unhealthy holiday foods, combined with social events and stress, can increase caloric intake from highly rewarding foods.
As the prevalence of obesity continues to rise in the United States, considerable efforts are made to understand the environmental factors that affect weight gain. The winter holiday season in the United States, which spans mid-November to mid-January, contributes to over half of annual body weight gain. There are small changes, however, that every family can make as they celebrate the holiday season to focus on health without losing any of the fun.
Festive Ways to Move More During the Holiday Season
One small but potentially powerful change is adding physical activity into holiday schedules and family traditions. After meal walks and neighborhood strolls to view outdoor holiday décor can help burn calories while providing an opportunity to make new family memories.
Physical holiday games and challenges can be great ways to celebrate as a family while getting everyone up and moving. Consider challenging the family to a holiday version of “Freeze Dance!” This activity is a lot of fun and gets everyone in the Christmas spirit. Play some of your favorite holiday songs and have your family and friends dance with one person controlling the music. When the music stops, everyone must immediately freeze. If a player does not freeze, they do 10 jumping jacks, sing a silly song, or similar activity of their choosing during the start of the next round, and can then rejoin the dance.
Another fun game than can spark some friendly family competition, in addition to getting active, is a “snowball spoon” relay race. Divide participants into two teams and hand each person a spoon. Have the teams line up and place a cotton ball (or ping pong ball) onto the spoon of the first person on each team. When you say “go” the first member of each team should run to the pre-marked spot, drop their snowball into their team’s container, and run back to the starting point for the next player to go. If the snowball drops, they must stop and put it back on their spoon. Continue the relay until all players on both teams have raced. Whichever team finishes first becomes the winner.
There are many fun and easy family-friendly ways to incorporate physical activity into your holiday celebrations. Here are a few more suggestions to add activity into your holiday routine and traditions:
- Build activity into family visits and outings, including games and family walks.
- Have a holiday step challenge with fun prizes!
- While out shopping, park farther away from your destination to get extra steps. These steps can be part of your challenge activity!
- Turn holiday decorating into a family activity to get everyone up and moving.
- Take a walk around your neighborhood to see holiday decorations.
- Take the stairs instead of the elevator.
- Select exercises to do during commercials while watching television.
Healthy Recipe Swaps
The holiday season is a wonderful time to try recipes and add new favorites to the holiday menu. New recipes or recipe “tweaks” offer another way to focus on health during the holidays. It can be exciting and rewarding to try new recipes with similar flavors to high calorie food favorites. A vegan eggnog is a great alternative to the original without losing any flavor or nostalgia. Vegan options allow easy ways to swap the heavy cream, whole milk, eggs and sugar with healthy alternatives. There are many recipes available for vegan eggnog that include bananas, coconut milk, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, honey, and even cashews. A half-cup serving of traditional eggnog has 112 calories, 10 grams of sugar, and 5 grams of fat while a half-cup serving of vegan eggnog has around 90 calories, 1 gram of sugar, and 2 grams of fat.
For the pecan lovers in your family, another healthy treat swap without the extra calories are pecan energy bites. This recipe uses raisins or dates to create a paste, followed by additions of pecans, unsweetened coconut, vanilla, cinnamon, nutmeg, ginger, and salt. This mixture is combined and then rolled into small, round “bites” for a portion controlled, healthier treat. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=e4e_1DAT4B8.
Another tasty option is a green mint “nice” cream. Swap out the sugar, eggs, and heavy cream for ripe avocadoes, coconut milk, honey, dark chocolate, vanilla, and peppermint extract for a healthy and delicious frozen treat that will get everyone in the holiday spirit. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=xaRMM_T7g6I&t=5s.
Additional Tips for Healthier Holiday Celebrations
Here are a few other helpful ideas to celebrate with holiday foods in a health forward way.
- Add in color! Make your dishes festive and bright with fruits and vegetables.
- Limit splurge foods. Choose one or two favorites as a splurge.
- Do not skip meals. This practice can lead to overeating later in the day.
- Select drinks consciously. Stick to calorie-free drinks, such as water, tea or seltzer, instead of high-calorie festive drinks.
- Watch portion sizes.
- Only eat until you are satisfied. Try to avoid being stuffed.
- Plan events that do not revolve around eating.
While the holidays can increase temptation to indulge in unhealthy foods, a little bit of planning, small changes, and commitment, will help you and your loved ones have an enjoyable holiday season without adding any unwanted pounds or health risks. Finding a balance between health, tradition, entertainment, and food is key to creating happy, healthy holiday memories. Embrace healthy changes, keep physical activity fun, and these new traditions will keep individual health and family bonds strong.
 Flegal KM, Kruszon-Moran D, Carroll MD, Fryar CD, Ogden CL. Trends in Obesity Among Adults in the United States, 2005 to 2014. JAMA 2016; 315(21): 2284–91.
 de Castro JM. Family and friends produce greater social facilitation of food intake than other companions. Physiol Behav 1994; 56(3): 445–5.
 Caplan CE. Ode on health and the holidays. CMAJ 1998; 159(12): 1499.
 Bhutani S, Wells N, Finlayson G, Schoeller DA. Change in eating pattern as a contributor to energy intake and weight gain during the winter holiday period in obese adults. Int J Obes (Lond) 2020;44:1586-1595.
 Women’s health Magazine. https://www.womenshealthmag.com/food/a22741241/is-eggnog-healthy/. Accessed 09/30/2021.
 Myfitnesspal. https://www.myfitnesspal.com/nutrition-facts-calories/eggnog-vegan. Accessed 09/30/2021.
Carmen Bostrom, 4-H Program Assistant, UF/IFAS Extension, Palm Beach County
Noelle N. Guay, 4-H Extension Agent, University of Florida/IFAS Extension, Palm Beach County
Cydni Longley, Family & Consumer Sciences Agent , UF/IFAS Extension, Palm Beach County