Green and Healthy Holidays

How to save your body, and the planet, this holiday season

/ Author:  / Reviewed by: Joseph V. Madia, MD

As the holidays arrive, so does the time of excess and temptation. Many of us worry over how to maintain healthy diet and exercise, as well as the aspects of the holiday season that aren't so eco-friendly. Wrapping paper, decorations and excess travel can all mean more waste and less sustainability. Parties, packed schedules and all those decadent holiday foods can result in unwanted pounds and crashed diets.

So, what's a person to do?

Fortunately, a lot. With a little prior knowledge and planning, it's relatively easy to sidestep the worst by-products of the holidays and still enjoy a season that won't condemn you to months of making up for it - or leave you feeling guilty about your environmental footprint.

Holiday Food that is Good for You

You know how it goes. The table is there, laid out with a spread that invariably includes pies, fudge, rich sauces and dishes heavy in butter, sugar and everything else bad for you. But oh, so delicious!

But there are actually a number of traditional holiday foods that are healthy, says Stacey Snelling, a registered dietician and associate dean at American University’s School of Education, Teaching and Health. And that's good news, considering the fact that the average American gains as much as eight to ten pounds between late November and the New Year.

"Several foods we consume this time of year are actually good for you when prepared with minimal added fat, sugar, and salt and consumed in moderation," Snelling says. She recommends putting these healthy foods on your plate this holiday season:

White turkey meat - It's low in fat, high in protein and B vitamins, and lower in calories than dark meat.
Cranberries - They are fat and cholesterol free, low in calories, high in fiber and vitamins A and C. But eat real berries, not the sauce which is high in sugar and calories.
Sweet potatoes, pumpkin and carrots - They are all fat and cholesterol free, high in fiber and vitamins A and C.
Broccoli, spinach, peas and green beans - These green vegetables are all low in calories, fat free, and high in vitamins and fiber.
Dark chocolate - High in antioxidants
Red wine - Fat free and high in heart-healthy antioxidants, when drunk in moderation.

Snelling points out that some of the accompaniments to these foods, such as gravy, butter and sugar, are usually higher in fat and/or calories. However, to eat them in small quantities alongside the healthier food can be fine - just be aware of what and how much you are eating. “Food is to be enjoyed in moderation,” she says. “So we want to move away from people feeling ‘guilty’ about consumption and learn to enjoy foods in moderation.”

You can also reduce your environmental imprint of all that extra holiday food, by choosing to serve meat and vegetables that are locally and sustainably grown. Consider a more vegetable-heavy meal, as meat requires far more resources to produce than vegetables, and plan the amount of food carefully to avoid waste.

And of course, incorporating some physical activity rather than zoning out in front of parades, football or movies will go a long way toward keeping off unwanted holiday pounds. “By enjoying favorite holiday foods in moderation and remaining physically active, we can give ourselves and our families the gift of happier, healthier holidays down the road," Snelling adds.

Greening up the Holidays

The average American household generates 25 percent more trash during the holiday season. And who has never thrown away freezer-burnt leftovers because nobody got around to eating them? Add in all the wasted leftover food, energy use from extra travel, and decorations, and last six weeks of the year end up having quite an impact on our natural resources.

The Sustainability and Environment Management Office at Vanderbilt University put together a list of actions everyone can take to reduce holiday waste and make the season a little greener. Here are a few of them:

Travel and Entertaining: Consolidate your shopping trips. Try to carpool with friends or other family members if you have to travel for the holidays, and encourage guests to carpool to your holiday party. If you travel by airplane, you can offset your carbon footprint at sites such as, or
Decorating: Buy a live tree with a rootball, and replant it after the holidays. Many places also offer recycling services that will turn your tree into mulch. Swap ornaments and decorations with friends instead of buying new ones, and use as many items as possible that you already have. Repurposing items can often result in greater creativity.
Energy Waste: Turn your thermostat down when you're traveling or entertaining guests. Put your holiday lights on a timer, and use fewer lights and LED lights for best energy conservation.
Paper Waste: Send e-cards and e-vites instead of paper ones, and use recyclable plates and utensils. With gift-giving, select gifts that require minimal wrapping such as gift cards, tickets and charitable contributions. Or, be unique and put your gifts in reusable containers, such as baskets or fabric.

With a little forethought and minimal planning, you can enjoy the holiday season without taking such a toll on yourself and the planet.

Review Date: 
November 21, 2011