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By Geoff Borro, MS, RD, CSSD

Published: 11/19/23

In a previous post, we exposed the fact that not all calories are created equally. The nutritional quality of the calories we consume impacts both our immediate and long-term health as well as our weight management efforts.

Consuming high-quality calories is especially challenging during the holidays. Traditional holiday meals are high in food volume and high in calories. But what if you could make a few changes to that holiday meal to create a high-volume, lower-calorie meal loaded with vitamins, minerals, and other nutritional components that are essential to a healthy diet? What if, this holiday season, you could maintain your commitment to being healthy and happy?

Take a look at the two holiday meals below. What do you notice? You might first notice that the meal on the right has less than half the calories as the meal on the left.  Now picture each meal on your plate.  Both are large holiday meals, but the overall quantity of food you get from the meal on the right is greater, despite the fewer calories.  In fact, you could eat the meal on the right for both lunch and dinner for the same caloric cost as the single holiday meal on the left. The meal on the left is significantly higher in total fat and sugar, while the meal on the right has less sugar, double the fiber, and more protein.  Not only will the combination of fiber and protein in the meal on the right keep you feeling fuller for a longer period of time, but it also contains more of the essential vitamins and minerals that keep our bodies functioning properly.

nutrient dense vs calorie dense meal comparison

Now, think about how you can transform your own traditional holiday meals into tasty and nutrient dense meals that energize you. Here are a few tips to build a nutrient-dense holiday meal:

  1. Choose lean proteins like turkey breast, pork tenderloin, filet mignon, or white fish.
  2. Limit added fats and focus on seasonings to add flavor. Oil, butter, and cream add rich flavors but quickly ramp up the calories.
  3. Add more vegetables. Squash, riced or mashed cauliflower, and zucchini noodles are just a few examples of nutrient-dense foods that can take the place of more calorie-dense starches like potatoes, rice, and pasta.
  4. Center your dessert around unsweetened fruit. By eliminating the added sugar and fat from cookies, cakes, and pastries, you’ll bring the calories down while adding nutrients in the form of vitamins and minerals.
  5. Limit alcoholic drinks. They offer very little in the way of vitamins and minerals and they stack up the calories from alcohol and carbohydrates.

Opting for nutrient-dense foods that keep us feeling satisfied and energized rather than sluggish and regretful is a great way to thrive through the holiday season this year. Remember that we have choices when it comes to how we prioritize our goals throughout the holidays. For this week and throughout the remainder of the year, aim to maximize the nutrient density of your meals and leave yourself feeling both healthier and happier for 2024!