Look at how dieticians navigate festive season over-indulgence, encouraging healthy eating habits

Describing the challenges presented by the abundance of social events and tempting treats. Picture: Pexels/ RF._.studio

Describing the challenges presented by the abundance of social events and tempting treats. Picture: Pexels/ RF._.studio

Published Dec 4, 2023


It's official, the festive season is here! It's no secret that maintaining a healthy lifestyle during this time of the year can be quite a challenge.

A study from 2017 revealed that adults in the United States tend to gain weight during the Christmas holidays and the same phenomenon may apply to us here in South Africa as well.

With our celebrations often centred around indulgent and sometimes unhealthy food, it's important to be mindful of our choices to prioritise our well-being.

In light of this, four South Africa Registered Dietitians and spokespeople for ADSA, (Association for Dietetics in South Africa) are sharing how they navigate maintaining balance during the festive season.

Dietitian Zama Khumalo shares her perspective on the silly season:

Khumalo stresses the importance of listening to our bodies, especially when it comes to managing cravings that can impact our healthy habits.

She explains, “One of the key aspects of achieving your healthy lifestyle goals is listening to your body – especially when it comes to cravings that all too often are the bane of healthy lifestyles. During the summer holidays, we can experience a lot of cravings.

“For instance, it’s hot, and you just want to cool down with a nice, cold and often sugary beverage.

“One of my favourite things about the South African summer holidays is the opportunity to explore how to incorporate cravings into the ways I manage my healthy lifestyle."

Describing the challenges presented by the abundance of social events and tempting treats, Zama adds, “There’s a parade of parties and end-of-year functions, family get-togethers and braais with friends. It’s a social whirl centred around food and drinks, raising challenges when it comes to health and nutrition.

“I try to listen to my body. I avoid depriving myself of the treats I may crave at that family braai - everything is allowed in moderation!

“So, a small slice of cake or a scoop of ice cream is okay as long as I keep it balanced with healthier options."

Kelly Scholtz, spokesperson for the Association for Dietetics in South Africa (ADSA), shared some great tips for keeping the family healthy over the holidays.

“For example, I aim to drink 2 litres of water or herbal tea and to consume 500g of vegetables and fruits every day. I aim to make time for my own yoga practice, or at the very least 5 minutes of stretching at the end of the day,” says Scholtz

She adds, “I use a simple meditation and breathing practice daily to keep my mind calm and focused, and I aim to take at least one walk in nature every week. Our bodies need habits like these to stay healthy.

“So, during the changes that the holiday brings to our routines, define a few anchor habits, and keep track of these.”

One of Scholtz's main nutrition challenges is finding the time to buy and prepare healthy food that the whole family enjoys, without breaking the bank.

To tackle this, she has a rotation of dishes that include options like roast chicken and vegetables, spaghetti bolognese with lots of grated vegetables, mild chicken or vegetarian curry, macaroni cheese with wholewheat pasta and puréed cauliflower, wraps with chicken or mince and salad, stir-fry with noodles or fried rice, and lots of vegetables with any lean protein.

When time is limited, Scholtz opts for a quick veggie omelette or frittata.

“If I run out of time or ideas, then a quick veggie omelette or frittata works well. When it comes to the festive season, we continue to eat lots of vegetables, fruit, salads and other healthy food, but we might add in a few more indulgent foods when we are entertaining.”

“A good relationship with food includes being able to take part in festivities, so I would encourage you to enjoy your holidays, where you can try to include healthy options and enough water so that your body is still nourished and hydrated while you are having fun.”

ASDA spokesperson and registered Dietitian, Nelile Nxumlo keeps it simple

Maintaining a healthy lifestyle can be challenging, especially when faced with the abundance of food options during the holiday season.

For one individual, the main challenge lies in trying to stay on track with healthy food choices while enjoying the festivities.

With a typically simple lifestyle that includes weekend braais and family lunches, this individual takes pride in preparing delicious curries and Sunday 7-colour meals.

However, the holiday season brings about larger family gatherings and a greater variety of food options, making it harder to stay focused on healthy eating.

A few strategies that help keep things on track:

“Firstly, I try not to attend events and parties on an empty stomach. When you’re hungry you run the risk of overeating or choosing the higher calorie food options.”

“Salads and vegetables always fill up half my plate, and this is an easy way to limit your portions of foods with high refined starch content.

“I stock up on healthy snacks in the house, like fruits, nuts, and popcorn and try to avoid keeping lots of sweets and cookies.”

Keep hydrated by drinking plenty of water and avoiding high-calorie beverages and drinks. Don’t stop exercising just because it is the holidays.

There are always ways to keep active without being at the gym, such as taking walks, hiking and swimming.

“It’s important to remember the holidays are only four to five weeks long and you can keep focused on maintaining your healthy lifestyle habits.

“Yes, of course, you can indulge on certain days, but you will feel great if you combine enjoying the holiday celebrations with healthy eating and sticking to your lifestyle habits as much as possible”

Nathalie Mat’s tips for healthy eating while travelling with children on holiday

The summer holidays are a time for families to enjoy fun activities and make food together.

Nathalie Mat, a supporter of healthy eating, believes that it's great to involve kids in cooking because it helps them try new foods and learn why healthy eating is important.

While there are special celebration foods during the holidays, Mat suggests that families don't need to buy too much of them. She explains that it's okay to enjoy these seasonal treats but be mindful not to eat too much of them.

When travelling with kids, Mat recommends preparing a car 'picnic' with a variety of finger foods that everyone likes.

This can include crunchy veggies, hummus, pretzels, and popcorn, as well as some quick and easy options like ready-made meatballs or marinated chicken.

Having some food in the car allows families to be more flexible about when they stop for breaks and whether they want to stop to eat. It makes the journey more enjoyable for everyone.

Mat also believes in being kind to the whole family when it comes to holiday eating. She advises that while it's important to make healthy choices most of the time, it's okay to have some fun treats too.

Mat maintains that food is not just about nutrition; it's also about having fun and celebrating together. She encourages families to make eating and cooking together a part of their lasting memories and to let enjoyment be a part of their healthy eating decisions.

In Mat's words, “At the end of a long year, we all want to relax. Making poor food choices day in and day out is likely to make us feel uncomfortable but micromanaging our diets while on holiday is unnecessary and unpleasant for all involved.

“Aim to make nutritious choices most of the time and make space for the fun stuff too.”

We don’t just eat for nutrients; we eat for enjoyment and as part of celebration. Cooking and eating together can form lifelong memories, and we must let enjoyment be part of our nutrition decisions.