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The Medical Minute: Tips for staying healthy in the season of sweets

‘Tis the season for food indulgence. With temptations at every turn, how can you steel your resolve to stay healthy till the new year? Heather Tressler, a registered dietitian at Penn State Health Milton S. Hershey Medical Center, shares some tips to help you enjoy the flavors of the holidays with minimal guilt.

Enjoy seasonal favorites, in moderation

Let’s get those special holiday meals — like Thanksgiving dinner — out of the way first. For those, Tressler says not to sweat the extra fat and calories. “One meal isn’t going to destroy whatever healthy eating habit you’ve been working toward,” she said.

You also shouldn’t avoid your favorite foods that are only served during the holidays. “I would still allow yourself to enjoy those special foods, but just watch how much of those you’re eating,” Tressler said. “It all has to do with portion sizes at the end of the day.”

Those ubiquitous holiday treats? They’re not quite the same as a holiday meal or a special food, says Tressler, who admits to a weakness for Christmas cookies. “But if you really want that cookie or peanut butter cup, go ahead and have one. Telling yourself it’s completely off limits will just make you want it more,” she said.

Balance with healthier foods

As you enjoy that sweet potato casserole, slice of pumpkin pie or Christmas cookie, think about what else you’re eating each day, Tressler says. “Are you getting enough vegetables, enough protein? Honor the hunger that you have, and don’t put a lot of pressure on yourself to be perfect. But do continue with those things that make you feel healthy the rest of the year — like eating fresh produce throughout the day and having some healthy options on your dinner plate.”

Keep up with exercise

While the holidays may cause you to focus on managing a multitude of culinary delights, it’s important to maintain other healthy habits throughout the season — including exercise.

“You might have to adjust your regular exercise routine due to the weather or your schedule,” Tressler said, “but there’s still a lot you can do outside.” For indoor activities, she suggests riding a stationary bike, dancing or even a cardio workout from YouTube. “Just find an activity you enjoy and try to do it at least 20 to 30 minutes a day, five days a week.”

Sure, exercise can help negate a few of the extra calories of the holiday season, but that’s not the main benefit, Tressler says. “We’re dealing with extra stress at this time of year. Physical activity is really important for our bodies and our minds. And that can be our saving grace of the holiday season,” she said.

Say no to fad diets

Some may opt to throw moderation out the window, vowing to tackle the resulting weight gain in January with a strict diet. Not surprisingly, Tressler does not endorse this approach.

“When you put yourself on a time crunch, like, ‘Jan. 2 ― I’m going to do this,’ it becomes unrealistic,” she said. “Going through fasting or a cleanse or a fad diet isn’t healthy and won’t help in the long run. Due to their nature, they’re unsustainable. And as soon as you stop, you’re going to gain back the weight.”

Instead, Tressler advises you to focus on what you can do each day to help keep your mind and body healthy. “Look for ways to move your body, and feed your body well. You’re going to be exposed to less-than-healthy foods throughout your life. Knowing how to manage them, beyond the extra temptations of the holiday season, is really important.”

For those struggling to put good intentions into action, Tressler recommends working with a dietician or a personal trainer. “Whatever it takes to get you motivated to make healthy choices,” she said.

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The Medical Minute is a weekly health news feature produced by Penn State Health. Articles feature the expertise of faculty, physicians and staff, and are designed to offer timely, relevant health information of interest to a broad audience.

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