Healthier Holiday Eating For Seniors

ThanksgivingFeastIf Santa keeps a list for “naughty” eating and “nice” eating over the holidays, many older adults would see a checkmark next to their name with the note, “nibbled too much/overindulged.” The list of fattening holiday foods is endless: mashed potatoes and gravy, pecan pie, iced gingerbread, eggnog. Pile on the artichoke dip and sweet potato casserole, and the extra calories, fat, sodium and sugar expand from Thanksgiving through New Year’s.

Many aging individuals get off-track nutritionally during the holidays because they are already dealing with health conditions that affect diet, including diabetes, arthritis and recovery from surgery. The year-end sugary treats and rich foods can exacerbate an already poor diet, especially for seniors malnourished from eating convenience foods or empty-calorie foods. Eating a well-balanced diet boosts brainpower, adds energy and strengthens muscles and bones, but over the holidays, many older individuals turn to noshing on fattening foods with limited dietary value. The taste and smell of food can change with aging, also prompting the elderly to simply eat more of a food to try to discern the flavor or aroma.

“Finding a healthy balance of nutrition and celebration over the holidays is a challenge for many seniors and their family caregivers,” said Gregg Balbera, president of Right at Home Nassau Suffolk. “Yet with a few proactive steps, cooking for festive occasions and eating during them can be a blend of wholesome foods and plenty of enjoyable times with family and friends.”

Balbera notes that depriving oneself fully of favorite holiday fare can actually backfire and bring on more intense cravings and spark overeating. Instead, the key is to consume fewer unhealthy foods and revel in festivities at the same time. But how?

The following tips can help:

have a handful of nuts before the big meal to take the hunger edge off
have a handful of nuts before the big meal to take the hunger edge off

• Plan ahead and choose wisely. Forget winging it at holiday functions. Consider eating a light protein snack before the party and bring healthier foods to the function including a vegetable or fresh fruit tray.

• Know basic calorie counts. Checking the calories in favorite holiday foods can motivate seniors to indulge a bit, but curb the temptation to have a second slice of pie or take home leftover fudge.

• Mingle or sit away from the dessert platters and buffet tables. Hovering too close to the ready-at-hand foods invites mindless munching.

• Select smaller portions. Sample a few bites of “off-limit” foods and practice eating in moderation overall. Choosing a smaller plate also can help with portion control.

easy on the eggnog
easy on the eggnog

• Ease up on alcoholic beverages. At holiday celebrations and parties, alternate between drinking spirits and drinking nonalcoholic, calorie-free drinks. Stay hydrated with water throughout a gathering.

• Be aware of emotions. Socializing with loved ones during the holidays can stir up tender and unresolved issues. Even the smell of certain holiday foods can trigger a painful emotional response.

• Account for travel fatigue and stress. Allow for energy and sleep adjustments for seniors who travel to holiday gatherings. The busyness of holiday prep, shopping, etc. can add its own toll. People tend to overeat when tired or frazzled.

(Photo by Paul Barton/CORBIS)
(Photo by Paul Barton/CORBIS)

• Fit in exercise. Throughout November and December, keep up a regular workout routine or opt for indoor exercises such as stair climbing. After a holiday meal and before dessert, invite everyone to go for a walk together. (The dishwashing can wait.)

• Substitute instead of skip out. Citrus, vanilla and cinnamon are delicious substitutes for full amounts of sugar in recipes. Unsweetened applesauce or mashed bananas work well for fat ingredients. The Mayo Clinic issued a substitution guide for replacing ingredients with healthier choices.

• Savor the celebrations. Laughter and uplifting conversations can increase the body’s natural defense system and lower blood pressure. Endorphin hormones released through laughter alone lower pain sensation and foster positive emotion.


A number of common holiday foods are actually packed with nutrients and can prove beneficial to encouraging older adults to join in the revelry without compromising their dietary health:

• Cranberries – The tart fruit retards bacteria that are common in urinary tract infections. Cranberry sauce can be sweetened lightly with sugar or a sugar substitute.

• Pumpkin Pie –
A boosting source of potassium, fiber and carotenoids (for making vitamin A), the orange vegetable is a traditional holiday favorite in pies and bars. Substituting artificial sweetener and 2 percent milk instead of sweetened evaporated milk will save on calories without sacrificing taste.

Green beans (Photo by Christy Hinko)
Green beans
(Photo by Christy Hinko)

• Green Beans – Packed with vitamins K, C and A, this naturally low-calorie vegetable helps protect bones and is delicious served with a light sprinkling of olive oil and lemon.
To avoid “nibbled too much/overindulged” this holiday season, talk ahead of time with family and party hosts about alternative recipes, or contribute your own healthier culinary creations. Holiday recipe makeovers will delight everyone’s taste buds and keep the unwanted sugar, fat, sodium and calories off the guest list.

Submitted by Right at Home of Nassau Suffolk, serving the communities Centerport, Cold Spring Hills, Commack, Dix Hills, East Northport, East Setauket, Greenlawn, Halesite, Hauppauge, Huntington, Kings Park, Lake Grove, Lloyd Harbor, Melville, Nesconset, Old Bethpage, Plainview, St. James, Smithtown, Stony Brook, West Hills and Woodbury.

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Christy Hinko
Christy Hinko is the editor of Glen Cove Record Pilot.

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