Beating the Holiday Rush – Athlete’s Guide to Good Eating

Christmas sugar cookies. Cranberry-pecan cheese balls. Bacon cheddar spread with crackers. Good eats and the holidays go hand-in-hand.

Late November through December can be one of the most challenging times of the year to stay on track with diet and training goals. It’s dark. Cold. Rainy. And then there is the food.

Maintaining a healthy diet throughout the holidays can pay back royally when January 1 rolls around and you did not lose six weeks of training due to late nights, rich food and too many drinks. So that you don’t have to join the rest of sedentary America on January 1 with a New Year’s vow to get back on track, try navigating the holiday season with these five principles of healthy holiday nutrition.

Principle #1: Limit Your Daily Exposure to Food

Your co-workers may be surprised if you request they bring in a holiday poinsettia instead of red and green M&M’s to make the office festive. Or perhaps suggest a fresh fruit basket in place of calorie loaded roasted pecans. Not comfortable in making some “non-food” holiday suggestions? Here’s a research study to think about, which may help you to speak up.

In an office setting, the visibility and accessibility of chocolate candy was varied over a three-week period. This probably isn’t earthshaking news, but the researchers showed the following: an average of nine candies per person per day were consumed when the chocolate was visible on the desk, six were consumed when the chocolate was in the drawer of the desk, and only three were consumed when they were out of sight, six feet away from the desk. As the research shows, most of us will eat more, and more often when food is readily available.

Principle #2: Follow the 3-5 Rule

Holiday shopping can sometimes feel like a speed workout: you do it at a fast and furious pace. Chances are, sometime this shopping season you’ll find yourself eating on the run at a fast food restaurant, or simply skipping meals until you arrive at home, late, and famished.

When schedules get tight, many people fall into the pattern of skipping breakfast or lunch, but find themselves at an energy low in late afternoon when blood sugar levels start to bottom out.

Meeting the body’s basic physiological need for energy can be done by following the “3-5 rule,” which is: do not go longer than five hours without eating, and do not snack for at least three hours after a meal. For example, if you chose to shop through your lunch hour, and breakfast was at 7 a.m., then plan to eat by 1 p.m. Or if you know dinner will be delayed until 8 p.m., then a snack is essential in late afternoon to avoid “breaking” the 3-5 rule.

Principle #3: Minimize Added Sugar

The holiday season is loaded with treats, many of which contain added sugar. Sugar, like any other carbohydrate, contains 4 calories per gram, about 16 per teaspoon. It is not as calorie dense as fat, which is 9 calories per gram, or 45 calories per teaspoon, but added sugar sends a pleasure signal to the brain that keeps us coming back for more. Sweets are often used to satisfy an emotional state that is desired – relaxation, pleasure, or a boost in mood, rather than strictly to maintain energy. Let’s face it; if we didn’t enjoy the taste of sugary treats, then we would be satisfied with a plate of energy gels for dessert.

Denying pleasure is not what holiday festivities are all about. To keep sugar intake in control over the long holiday season, opt for setting a limit, and sticking to it, and avoid “all or none” thinking.

Principle #4: Keep Your Immune System Healthy

Heading for a holiday party? If you managed to squeeze in some training time, reboot your immune system immediately after exercise with a sports recovery drink, then take a short nap before you go out for the evening. Remember, hands are a great way to pass around germs – always try to use a fork. Something to drink? Red wine, mulled apple cider, or hot tea are great choices. Don’t waste time on nutrient poor calories, head for the veggie tray, hummus dip and whole grain crackers. Protein? Time for cheese, shrimp or lean ham. Leave the buffalo wings, chips and dip for the crowd who’s not into endurance sports.

Principle #5: Consume Spirits at a Moderate Level

Where does alcohol consumption fit into a healthy training diet? Not a problem, according to the data from the National Runners Health Study published in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition (1997). Not a problem, that is, if you are drinking no more than 6 ounces of alcohol per week. Keep in mind that one ounce of alcohol is the equivalent to about 24 ounces of beer, 5-7 ounces of wine or 1-1/2 ounces of spirits. Findings from the National Runners Health Study indicate that the effect of running and alcohol is independent and additive. That is, at every running level, HDL-cholesterol (the “good” cholesterol) goes up in association with the number of drinks consumed per week. In other words, if two people are each running 25 miles per week, the person drinking one glass of wine per day would have higher HDL levels than the runner drinking one glass of wine per week. That’s good news if you enjoy a cocktail or beer, and can afford the calories. But the same beneficial effect can be obtained by simply running more mileage. Based on the study findings, non-drinkers running 45 miles per week can expect higher HDL-cholesterol levels than runners at the 15 mile per week level. How about drinking and not running at all? Not such a good idea. For those folks who simply prefer to watch sports instead of doing them, alcohol should be used with caution. There is a substantial amount of data that indicates alcohol increases blood pressure. It can also increase your waistline and risk of diabetes.

Quick Guidelines for Holiday Parties

If going to an evening gathering with food, it is safe to make the assumption that plenty of carbohydrate and fat will be part of the menu. To avoid weight gain creep, opt to eat “clean” earlier in the day. A smart move is to make every meal and snack a combination of low fat protein and a fruit or vegetable. You’ll arrive at the party with your blood sugar at an even keel, and can enjoy eating some specialty holiday foods without guilt.

Happy Holidays!

About the author

Donna Marlor is a Registered Dietitian, Registered Nurse, and has a Master’s degree in Education Psychology. She lives and plays in Marquette, MI and maintains a private practice in Sports Nutrition. Her philosophy is, “A good diet can change your life. Start today.” To contact Donna, visit