The holidays are a time to be around friends, family, and of course, food. But many of our holiday treats and dishes can often be high in calories but low in the nutrients and vitamins our bodies need. One way to resist unhealthy sweets and foods this season is to incorporate more protein into every meal and cut back on carbs and fat—you’ll feel more full, so you’ll eat less and cut down on snacking. Protein is important because it helps you build and maintain lean muscle mass; it’s the foundation for bones, muscles, skin, blood and connective tissue. The USDA recommends adults eat 5.5 to 6 ounces per day. (This varies, however, depending on age and activity level.)
Protein-rich foods such as meat, poultry, eggs, legumes and seeds also supply B vitamins, vitamin E, iron, zinc, and magnesium. So when you’re adding protein and cutting back on empty calories, you’re getting the benefit of extra nutrients your body needs.
Here are some ways to swap in protein as you navigate all the holiday temptations:
- Start the day with a high-protein breakfast—about 25 grams should do it. Instead of cereal, try a protein shake or oatmeal with protein powder blended in. Studies suggest this not only helps keep you full until lunch, but may even help curb your intake over the course of the day.
- Try not to head to a holiday event with an empty stomach. Have a substantial snack prior such as plain Greek yogurt or nonfat cottage cheese with fruit, or a protein shake before you leave. You can also bring some portable high-protein foods with you, such as a handful of unsalted almonds, a protein bar or a piece of low-fat string cheese, just in case.
- For sides, cut out the starchy sides such as white rice, bread, mashed potatoes, and white-flour pasta and double up on legumes, quinoa, lean meats, black bean pasta and soy alternatives to meat.
- As a main course, try a holiday salad with a protein boost from lean chicken or seafood with edamame, tofu or beans as a topper.
You don’t have to completely avoid your favorite holiday foods. One trick is to skip the foods you can eat year-round like chocolate chip cookies and taste the special treats you can only get this time of year like gingerbread. And don’t forget to keep up (or begin!) your exercise routine – you’ll not only feel better, but you’ll look great in your holiday best.
Written by: Susan Bowerman, M.S., R.D., C.S.S.D., F.A.N.D., senior director, Worldwide Nutrition Education and Training
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