Healthy Eating Around the Holidays: Adopting a Plant-based Diet

By Dana Hunnes


The holidays can be the most joyful time of year, and the most stressful. Eating healthfully can be a challenge even for the best-intentioned of us, and there are a number of reasons why:

  1. Between October and the end of the year, it is a free-for-all grub fest. There is Halloween, where candy rules supreme, Thanksgiving, where high-calorie, high-fat comfort dishes are common, and same with Christmas, Hanukkah and even New Year's.
  2. Holidays are a time when we visit family. While this is often a very joyous occasion, it can also create stressful and sometimes emotional situations.
  3. Our places of employment frequently have holiday parties with unhealthy food options.
  4. The number of activities we engage in during the holidays can sometimes make it more difficult to find time to exercise and take care of ourselves.

When all these items interact with each other, the nexus can result in weight gain, dissatisfaction and unhealthy eating – if not stress. Most people do not lose the weight they gain during this time of year; it becomes a permanent fixture of their bodies. Over time, people can end up adding 10-15 pounds of body weight over the course of several years. This is called “weight-creep,” which can significantly increase one’s risk for chronic diseases such as diabetes obesity, cardiovascular diseases, heart attack, stroke, kidney disease, and a whole host of other degenerative diseases, including cancer.

What you can do to prevent weight gain

In the United States, 40 percent of women and 35 percent of men are obese. That number will continue to increase unless we significantly change the way we eat. One of the first things we can do to prevent weight gain and stay healthy during the holidays – and year-round – is to starting adopting a plant-based diet, one that minimizes the intake of animal products. A plant-based diet is rich in micro nutrients, fiber, water, phytonutrients, vitamins and minerals, antioxidants, anthocyanins, polyphenols, resveratrol, potassium and other important nutrients.

Americans typically consume too much sodium – 4-to-5 grams of sodium per day (instead of the recommended amount of less than 2.3 grams per day) – and not enough potassium. A plant-based diet is very high in potassium, a nutrient that helps maintain heart health and lowers blood pressure. Moreover, Americans eat roughly 200 pounds of meat a year. There is evidence that regular consumption of red and processed meat may be associated with increased risk for cancer, diabetes, heart disease, obesity, and stroke. There are many studies demonstrating that plant-based diets are associated with a decreased risk for hypertension, and a whole host of other diseases.

How to start a plant-based diet

Don't wait until the new year to start consuming a healthier plant-based diet. You can get all the nutrients you need from a plant-based diet, and almost everything has some protein in it.

A slice of whole-wheat bread has around 4 grams protein (sometimes more). Peanuts have 7 grams of protein in a quarter-cup serving. Beans, nuts and seeds also frequently have 8-to-10 grams of protein in a half-cup serving. Tofu and edamame are excellent sources of complete proteins as well.

Decrease your stress now and prevent that holiday weight gain.

Dana Hunnes, PhD, MPH, RD, is an adjunct assistant professor in the UCLA Fielding School of Public Health’s department of community health sciences.


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