7 Ways to Keep Your Family Fit Through the Holiday Season

There always seems to be some tension between "spending good times" and staying healthy and happy. This is ever so visible during those first weeks of the new year when many people feel rather depressed, while we actually have all the ingredients there to kick-start into the new year.
11/18/2013 09:46am ET | Updated January 23, 2014
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"Health and cheerfulness naturally beget each other." -- Joseph Addison (Published in "The Spectator: No. 387, May 24, 1712)

I love the holiday season. It's the perfect time to give some extra love and attention to the people we care about. It's the time when kind wishes are abundantly flying around and homes are being warmed by families and friends who gather for meaningful conversations and good food. Interestingly enough, there always seems to be some tension between "spending good times" and staying healthy and happy. This is ever so visible during those first weeks of the new year when many people feel rather depressed, while we actually have all the ingredients there to kick-start into the new year.

So how do we start using that opportunity to its fullest? The key is beautifully wrapped in Joseph Addison's quote: if we stay healthy, we will also stay happy. Sounds simple, but we all know it's pretty challenging when our tables are set with large quantities of delicious snacks and meals. Together with award-winning author, certified personal trainer and sports nutritionist Braxton Cosby, I wrote a simple guide that will help you to keep your family fit through the holiday season:

1. Fill the house with healthy snacks

Braxton: You can't fire a weapon without bullets. If the majority of food in your cabinet and refrigerator consists of healthy whole grain breads, all-natural meats and cheeses, fruits and vegetables, and all-natural juices, it's going to be pretty difficult to ingest sugars and carbohydrates that cause unhealthy spikes in blood sugar which increase the chances of binge eating.

2. Enjoy what you eat (and limit your food intake)

Merel: Did you know that it takes about 20 minutes for your stomach to tell your brain that you're full? Taking the time to really taste what you are eating will thus not only help you to limit your food intake, it will also help you to enjoy your food more. How? Feel the structure of your food, feel how your teeth need to work to chew it and determine its taste: is it sour, salty, bitter or sweet? Also make a note to yourself whether the taste is pleasant, unpleasant or neutral. Your kids will love doing this as well. Ask them questions like: Can they describe what their food taste like? How many times do they need to chew if they want to make it really really tiny? How do they feel their stomach is full?

3. Help your kids to make healthier choices (and control their portions)

Braxton: Don't let your kids pick up their own plates at family and social gatherings, but guide them so they can make healthier choices. Kids mostly reach for things that are sweet like cakes, pies, rice and sweet potatoes. It is imperative that you, as the parents, help kids make smart, healthy choices on what to put on their plates. Kids also have a tendency for their eyes to be bigger than their stomachs. They put way too much food on their plate at one time and end up dumping the rest of it in the trash. Helping children understand and appreciate food will lead to better eating habits.

4. Observe the what, when, why and how methodology of eating

Braxton: Each question plays a pivotal role in the amount of weight gained during the holiday season. Keep a string focus on the "what" and "when." Meals should be consumed early, with the majority of calories being consumed during the morning meal because that's when our bodies need energy for the rest of the day.

Merel: This year I decided to organize one of our Christmas gatherings during lunchtime instead of "another" late dinner. This way, I give our bodies a chance to actually digest and burn the Christmas meal. By having the Christmas gathering at lunchtime, I also give my family a chance to go out for a nice Christmas Evening walk (burning those calories!).

5. Spend time outside: enjoy nature and give your body some exercise!

Braxton: Set rest breaks from just being in the house, television, gaming and gadgetry in the form of bodily exercise. Whether it's going outside for a walk, bike ride, throwing a frisbee or football around, make sure you and your kids get at least 1-2 hours full body activity a day. Exercise has a positive side effect of increasing serotonin levels and endorphins. These chemicals help to improve mood and affect, which can lead to fewer periods of depression and emotional eating.

Merel: It's so important to spend time outdoors. Moving our bodies in a natural environment will unleash a sense of wonder, stimulate our thinking, train our muscles and burn energy; it's key to staying physically and mentally in shape!

6. Limit the amount of processed foods

Braxton: Try to eliminate processed foods from the equation. These guys carry chemicals that slow the body's natural digestive system and this in turn lowers the metabolism. You feel sluggish because your body is caught in a chemical fire fight from within, not knowing how to break down foods properly. The only option it has is to store the extra calories as fat.

7. Make cooking itself FAMILY TIME!

Braxton and Merel: The process of cooking is such a great moment to work together as a family. So, have your kids join in on cooking: peeling potatoes, shucking corn and popping string beans can go a long way. Not to mention it's exercise. You can also have your kids make some table decorations (see for some amazing ideas the website of Red Ted Art). In any case: save the canned stuff for the summer. This is the seasons to have the family go "all in" as a team!

1. McArdle, William D., Katch, Frank I., Katch, Victor L. Sports and Exercise Nutrition. Lippincott Williams and Wilkins.1999 pg: 250, 323, 444-446.