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Holiday season’s in full swing and for many of us that unfortunately means overindulging. But UCF College of Medicine faculty member Dr. Magdalena Pasarica, an M.D.-Ph.D. who specializes in family medicine and nutritional science, offers ways to enjoy the holidays in a healthier way.

Her first piece of advice: Remember that the holidays are about socializing, celebrating and sharing with family and friends. Food may accompany the celebration but it shouldn’t be the focus because “when you concentrate on food, things can easily get out of control,” Dr. Pasarica explains.

So as you’re planning holiday events, remember that spending time with the people you love is what makes festivities great, not the amount of food you eat or serve. You don’t have to be stuffed at every sitting. Choose quality of food over quantity. A bite of a great cheese or dark chocolate you love is just as enjoyable – and much healthier – than devouring the entire box of candy or four cheese-filled baked potatoes. (And you won’t feel miserable two hours later.)

When you’re cooking holiday meals, consider these simple changes that will bring more health to your eating:

  • Read food labels religiously. Choose foods that are high in fiber and low in simple sugar and saturated fat. A bottle of juice may claim it has “no added sugar” but still have a lot of unhealthy simple sugar in a serving.
  • When possible, use sugar substitutes instead of sugar for baking. Use fruits instead of chocolate chips for dessert. Choose dark chocolate instead of milk chocolate. Swap low-fat milk, crème and cheeses for whole-fat varieties.
  • Increase your fruits and vegetables. Swap a crudité tray for chips. Find healthy vegetable side dishes instead of potatoes and bread. Explore your market for vegetables you’ve never tried before and embark on a veggie eating adventure. Instead of a high-fat, high-sugar dessert, try a piece of fruit drizzled in dark chocolate. Build a different kind of salad with colorful fruits and vegetables like raspberries. Remember, your eyes play a key role in the foods you enjoy so make healthy foods beautiful in their presentation.

While you can plan healthfully for your own events, you also have to navigate holiday parties. Here are Dr. Pasarica’s tips for handling the buffet line:

  • First and foremost, plan. Don’t arrive on an empty stomach. Eat a healthy meal before the party.
  • Peruse the food before you pick up a plate. If everything looks divine, take a small bite-sized amount of what looks good. That’s a bite, not a chunk. Choose small portions and small plates and make sure you’re stocking up on vegetables. See three different cookies that catch your eye? Share. Cut each in fourths and share with friends. You get a taste of each without eating three cookies – and you won’t appear rude for taking several bites of a cookie and then tossing it away.
  • Think about your choices. If you “must” have a bite of the gooey dessert, choose healthier options to balance the splurge. And limit the splurge to a bite. Avoid excess amounts of high-calorie, high-fat, and high-simple carbohydrate foods.
  • Bring one of your own favorite healthy dishes to the party. Not only will you get to enjoy a dish you know is healthy, you’ll be leading by example – and maybe passing on a healthy recipe to others.

Finally, remember the two lessons Dr. Pasarica says she learned early in her nutritional training – the key to a healthy diet is moderation and variety. Encourage your family members – especially children – to appreciate many different kinds of foods. Show them that healthy foods can look and taste great. And when it comes to portions, don’t go crazy. “By creating healthier foods for the holidays, we’re setting new traditions and leading by example,” she said. “We’re improving the health of our children now and in the future. Every parent wants that. We all want our children to be happy and healthy.”

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