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Enjoy without packing on the pounds

GRAND FORKS, N.D. — With the holidays just around the corner — and the many opportunities to overeat — how does one bring healthier options to the table typically loaded with tempting foods?

Is it possible to make your favorite traditional foods without sacrificing taste or sabotaging your commitment to a healthy lifestyle?   

Absolutely, say area dietitians who offered a smorgasbord of suggestions for reducing the calories and increasing the nutritional benefits of beloved holiday dishes.

Hint: Those who think ahead will benefit the most.

“Planning is a big key,” said Linda Bartholomay, manager of the Diabetes Center and a registered dietitian at Sanford Health in Fargo, “whether you’re cooking (the big meal) or attending parties.”

“If you’re cooking, focus on ways to increase the nutritional value and be conscious about calories in the foods you’re making.”

Mandy Burbank, Grand Forks Public Health dietitian, agreed.

“As a cook, think about, ‘How can I make each bite more nutritious?’ ” she said.

Burbank recommended choosing low-sodium soups, beans, taco seasoning and chicken in holiday cooking.

Taking a common holiday dish, mashed potatoes, Bartholomay recommended adding in “some sweet potatoes with the white potatoes — they help with blood sugar. Leave the skins on the white potatoes — that helps with fiber.”

Sweet potatoes help the body control the rise of blood sugar levels, which is activated by the consumption of white potatoes.

“You can boost the flavor of mashed potatoes by using low-sodium broth and folding in chopped onions or minced garlic,” she said.

To make mashed potatoes creamier, mix in fat-free sour cream or cream cheese — the latter makes the dish higher in protein.

Nonfat plain Greek yogurt in mashed potatoes or a chip or vegetable dip makes these foods healthier and lower in calories, she said.

“Usually foods that are very colorful offer more nutritional value,” Bartholomay said.

Select baby kale, spinach or mixed greens instead of iceberg lettuce in salads. Adding berries will further boost the color and nutritional value of salads.

“Baby kale is extremely mild in flavor and has high nutritional value,” she said.

‘Mindful’ eating    

If you’re hosting party, “use smaller plates,” Bartholomay said. “Your guests will appreciate it.

“By moving from a dinner plate to a salad plate, you can cut the amount of calories by 40 percent,” she said.

As a guest, when you’re standing at the buffet table, scan all the options and make mental notes before starting to fill your plate, she recommended.

“Be very mindful of your choices. Think about, which foods do I really want? Take more of the lesser-calorie food items and lesser amounts of the higher-calorie foods.

“Make wise decisions. Fill a good portion of your plate with plain vegetables and fruits.”

Bartholomay also stressed the importance of “being conscious while you’re eating,” she said. “Take smaller bites of food and smaller sips of beverages.”

Stand further away from the buffet, “especially if you’re someone who indulges in mindless eating.”

And don’t assume that drinks are somehow calorie-free.    

“Most people don’t realize how many calories they consume in beverages,” she said. “Even unsweetened apple cider has 60 to 80 calories in a half-cup.”

Eggnog is very high in calories, so choosing a low-calorie version would be a good idea, she said.


“Wine glasses can be very large,” she said. Use the smaller version, “because we tend to fill it up.”

Be aware that alcohol increases hunger and generally decreases self-control, Bartholomay said. “You’re more apt to overindulge.

“Make every other drink a club soda, water or other no-calorie beverage,” she said. “Or, just have one alcoholic drink.”  

Alcoholic beverages can also run up your calorie intake at a holiday event.

“A shot of any type of liquor — such as bourbon, whiskey or rum — is 90 calories,” she said. “It’s easy to lose track” of the calories you’ve consumed.

An alternative is to mix the liquor with a non-alcoholic beverage.

Alcohol provides “empty calories” which have no vitamins, minerals or proteins, Bartholomay said. “So packing in other foods which have nutritional value will help with calories” but also changes the way you feel.

“If you notice those days when you’ve had a lot of food with low nutritional value, compared to days when’ve had more fruits and vegetables, you actually feel better.”


The holiday season is a prime time for ratcheting up stress levels — whether it’s due to the job, the numerous events and social obligations, or gifts to buy and send.     

“Stress is a big factor” in the tendency to overeat, Bartholomay said. “You’re run down and it’s more difficult to plan ahead.

“We eat in reaction to stress.”

Burbank said, “Some people substitute stress management with eating.”  

Exercise is a good way to keep stress under control and burn off excess calories, she said.

If you’re planning to attend a party, working in some exercise in the morning or later in the day would help burn the “indulgence calories” that you’re likely to consume, Burbank said.

“Make sure your breakfast and lunch are pretty low calorie. Eat sensibly throughout the day.”

If you’re concerned about gaining weight over the holidays, “weigh yourself every week,” she said. “I wouldn’t go overboard and do it every day.”

Bartholomay advised the use of smart-phone apps, such as My Fitness Pal and Fit Bits, during the holidays.

“If you do overindulge, cut back on calories the next day,” she said, “or increase your activity level to burn off the excess calories.”

Drink at least eight glasses of water or other fluids a day, especially during the holidays, she said.

“Making sure your thirst is satisfied before indulging in anything with calories is a good idea.”

Lack of sleep is also associated with increased weight gain over time, she said. “Be sure to get adequate sleep, because being sleepy makes you want to eat more.”

‘Just one day’      

“The biggest thing to remember is that it’s just one day – whether it’s Thanksgiving or Christmas,” Burbank said. “If you’re eating pretty sensibly around the holidays, it’s okay to indulge on that one day.”  

Eating sensibly and increasing your physical activity will go a long way towards reducing calorie intake and enjoying a healthier holiday.

“Balance it out. It takes focus and extra energy to plan it,” she said.   

“Enjoy the food that you’re having, and make sure every bite is worth it.”  

Thanksgiving ‘by the numbers’

The average person needs only 2,000 calories a day to maintain their current weight. But on Thanksgiving Day, an American may eat more than 4,500 calories and 229 grams of fat (not counting breakfast or late-night snacking on leftovers), so many people may eat somewhere between 5,000 and 6,000 calories or more, according to the Calorie Control Council.   

Calories in favorite Thanksgiving foods:

6 oz turkey — 340 calories

½ cup stuffing — 180 calories

½ cup cranberry sauce — 190 calories

½ cup mashed potatoes — 150 calories

½ cup gravy — 150 calories

½ cup green bean casserole — 225 calories

½ cup candied sweet potatoes — 150 calories

Glass of wine — 120 calories

Cup of eggnog — 340 calories

1 slice pumpkin pie — 180 calories

½ cup whipped cream — 75 calories

½ cup ice cream — 145 calories

1 slice apple pie —  410 calories

1 slice pecan pie — 480 calories