Healthy food and alcohol swaps for the festive season
Updated December 2023 | 5 min read
Expert contributors Dr Shelley Wilkinson, consultant dietician; Professor Carol Maher, lead researcher at University of South Australia
Words by Kerry McCarthy
Keep healthy this festive season with our healthy food and alcohol swap ideas to stay on track without spoiling the fun.
Enjoying the festive season can mean invitations to work parties, long lunches, family get-togethers and festive celebrations. And playing a leading role is the food and drink.
While everyone deserves to let their hair down, enjoying yourself doesn’t mean having to compromise your health, weight or fitness goals. But holidays are a time of temptation, and many of us overindulge.
"Food is more than just nutrients, it’s how we celebrate," says consultant diettitian Dr Shelley Wilkinson. "Add alcohol [to the situation], which lessens our resolve to be healthy, and we can overdo it."
Gaining weight over the holidays
The University of South Australia (UniSA) recently completed Australia’s first study into how seasons and certain times of year affect our weight. The study found the weight of the participants increased sharply at Christmas/New Year and Easter, and they were heaviest in summer and lightest in autumn.
"Feasting has been part of cultural celebrations for centuries, but wasn’t such a problem when food was scarce," says Carol Maher, lead researcher from UniSA’s Alliance for Research in Exercise, Nutrition and Activity. "Now, when in Australia we have an abundance of food, overindulging during [holiday periods] and the winter months has more serious consequences."
But it’s not just the amount we eat or drink that’s concerning. With festivities come sweets and indulgences we might not usually eat. Such food often has higher than usual amounts of fat, sugar and salt, or is highly processed, which over time can have negative health impacts.
The Australian Institute of Health and Welfare (AIHW) reports one in four children, and two in three adults, are now classified as overweight or obese. Obesity is a risk factor linked to several long-term health issues, including type 2 diabetes, heart diseases and some cancers.
One of the solutions, suggests Carol, is to change our mindset around what a celebration is. “Rather than feeling it’s a period where it’s inevitable that we're going to blow out, can we instead recalibrate on what these times really mean to us, such as quality time with family or being able to take a break from work?”
Thankfully healthy eating on holidays doesn’t mean living on carrot sticks and water, says Shelley. "There are no bad foods. But there are ‘everyday’ and ‘sometimes’ foods. With so many events, so close together, we have to choose our ‘sometimes’ carefully."
Knowing how to navigate the buffet and recognise healthier options means you can have a great time, without too much regret, this festive season.
On the menu: Party pies and chips
Pastry is loaded with butter, which is high in saturated fat. "Have one [party pie], then look for some healthier options," advises Shelley.
Hot chips are loaded with salt and saturated fat, both of which are linked to heart disease, so instead munch on lighter alternatives, like pita breads or crackers with a healthy and flavoursome dip.
Swap it: Choose sliders over party pies. Smaller than an average burger, you can also ditch the bread if you don’t want it.
On the menu: A seafood spread
Keep unnecessary saturated fats, salt and oil to a minimum by grilling, rather than deep frying, fish or seafood. Serve oysters and prawns without any garnish, rather than slathering them in seafood sauce, or opt for lighter marinades, like a squeeze of lemon or fresh herbs with olive oil.
Swap it: Ditch deep-fried fish and chips for grilled fish or fresh prawns. And swap potato salad with mayo for fresh green salads, loaded with pine nuts, fresh stone fruit, wild rice and a light, vinegar-based dressing, like this one.
On the menu: Snags and burgers
Processed meats are full of salt and saturated fat, so offer alternatives. "Grilled chicken with homemade peanut sauce is great for kids," recommends Shelley. "And make sure you have lots of salads and vegies on offer. The more fruit and veg available, the better choices people can make."
Swap it: Opt for grilled lamb or pork cutlets over sausages. Marinate with lemongrass and ginger or honey soy for a fresh, modern flavour.
New Year's Eve bash
On the menu: Canapés and Champagne
Canapés might be bite-sized, but grazing all night can lead to overeating. The trick? Don’t go hungry.
"Try having some Greek yoghurt with fruit and nuts before the party. It will help protect your gut against the alcohol, but also means you won’t arrive starving," suggests Shelley.
Swap it: Choose canapés that incorporate veg or fruit, like beetroot with feta, and avoid anything deep fried, wrapped in pastry or covered in sauce. Prosecco is a lower-kilojoule alternative to Champagne and wine.
On the menu: Classic party snacks
If you're making fairy bread for the little ones, Shelley recommends a high-fibre bread like Wonder White, which contains resistant starch that supports gut health. Swap out chips for air-popped popcorn, and if pizza is a favourite, make the dough yourself using Greek yoghurt and flour or cauliflower-based recipes you can find online.
For adults, put together a grazing board loaded with grapes, olives, lean meats, unsalted nuts, wholegrain crackers, bread sticks and cherry tomatoes.
Swap it: Trade store-bought sausage rolls and creamy dips for home-made vegie rolls encased in low-fat puff pastry and some mashed avocado with garlic and pepper.
Tips on drinking responsibly over the holidays
If you’re out and about more often this festive season, you could end up drinking more than usual. Follow these simple tips to cut back on the booze:
- At the bar ask for a small glass of wine or beer over the larger size, which is more than one standard drink.
- Finish each drink before you allow anyone to top you up to avoid losing track of how much you’re drinking.
- Opt for half-strength beer, or a spritzer, to reduce your alcohol consumption.
- If you like a gin and tonic, go for a diet or zero sugar tonic water, as standard tonic water contains about 10g of sugar per 100ml.
- Hosting a party? Make up jugs of iced water with fresh fruit, or soda and fresh lime, as a booze-free option.
- Volunteer to be designated driver occasionally so you can maintain the recommended two days a week booze-free.
If you find you’re drinking more to get through tough times, Daybreak*, Hello Sunday Morning’s online behaviour change program, can help you take the first step to changing your relationship with alcohol for the better.
It's an app that provides 24/7 digital support and connects you anonymously with a like-minded online community of people trying to change their relationship with alcohol.
5 tips for staying healthy in the holidays
- Eat before you go to a party. That way you won’t be super hungry and you’ll be less likely to overindulge.
- Only eat when you’re hungry or at a designated meal. Mindless eating just because food is there means you’ll easily consume too many calories in a day.
- If you’re drinking alcohol swap in a glass of water every other drink. As well as cutting down on the alcohol, you’ll stay hydrated and feel better in the morning.
- If you’re hosting, look for ways to add flavour to marinades and salads using herbs and spices rather than butter and cream.
- Give yourself permission not to eat at every event. Don’t feel pressured to indulge every day just because it’s the holidays.
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