Healthy Eating During the Holidays
In this Breastcancer.org podcast, Diana Dyer, RD, talks about how to eat healthy before, during and after the holidays.
Listen to the podcast to hear Diana talk about:
strategies for coping with the snack table at holiday parties
how to be festive and alcohol-free
tips for eating if you’re undergoing chemo during the holidays
ideas for making traditional family dishes healthier
Areas of specialization: nutrition, critical care nutrition
Diana Dyer is a registered dietitian and multiple-time cancer survivor. She is the author of the book A Dietitian’s Cancer Story and writes the blog DianaDyer.com, where she shares her thoughts about life as a cancer survivor, food and nutrition, growing food, recipes, and our environment.
— Last updated on June 29, 2022, 2:48 PM
Jamie DePolo: Hello, everyone. This is Jamie DePolo. I’m the senior editor here at Breastcancer.org, and on this podcast I am delighted to have Diana Dyer as our guest. Diana is a registered dietitian and a multiple-time cancer survivor. She was first diagnosed with breast cancer in 1984 at age 34 and then diagnosed with a second primary breast cancer in 1995 at age 45. She is the author of A Dietitian’s Cancer Story and writes the website CancerRD.com, which offers nutrition information for cancer survivors. [Diana also writes the blog DianaDyer.com, where she shares her thoughts about life as a cancer survivor, food and nutrition, growing food, recipes, and our environment.]
Diana also is a member of the Breastcancer.org Professional Advisory Board, and she provided many expert insights when we were creating the Nutrition section on the Breastcancer.org website. Most recently, Diana and her husband, Dick, started the Dyer Family Organic Farm in 2009 and were USDA organic-certified in 2014. They plant more than 40 varieties of garlic on the farm, which is located in Ann Arbor, Michigan. And today we’re going to talk about something that I know everybody likes to talk about in December, which is eating and nutrition around the holidays. So, Diana, welcome. Thank you so much for being a guest.
Diana Dyer: And thanks for having me.
Jamie DePolo: That’s great. So, I know you have talked about nutrition with our guests, our visitors, before in a couple of Ask-the-Expert podcasts, or not podcasts, Ask-the-Expert Online Conferences, but we thought we’d have you here for a podcast, too, because as I said, this topic is hugely popular with people. And it always seems like everyone is doing great on eating healthy, and then December comes around and there are parties, there are gatherings, there are family coming in from out of town, and things sometimes go out the window. And so, I guess, first of all, since we actually have a party to go to this week, parties usually mean a snack table, which is usually loaded down with stuff that is perhaps not so healthy depending on who is throwing the party. Do you have any tips for people on how to sort of stay healthy and still have fun and not look like you’re starving yourself?
Diana Dyer: Yes. This is all about…thank you, you know, I mean, what a great sort of lead-in, setting the stage for what we all are faced with. Believe me, it is not just the holidays, how does one define the holidays? It almost starts with Halloween.
Jamie DePolo: Well, yeah.
Diana Dyer: And keeps going. Because we live in this food environment in which there is food surrounding us all the time that we really need to be intentional about eating. And so it is about intentional selection as opposed to deprivation. And so I sort of, I think that’s my basis, and it is something that I use on a daily basis whenever I’m in a food situation where I need…you know, I’m making choices.
So, if I were walking into a party, and I went to a lovely one yesterday afternoon. First of all, of course I don’t go hungry. You know, I try to have a little something that’s going to take the edge off of the actual condition of hunger to begin with. So then I think it’s important, of course, for me and for all of us to remember, it’s the people you’re meeting that are really the most important, that you’re socializing with, that you’re sharing with that are actually more important, more fun, it’s what you’re going -- at least for me, I speak for myself, it’s what I’ll remember more than the food. And so I think that it’s okay to not feel that you must please someone else by sampling one of everything. So, it’s be selective, really look at that buffet table first, make the rounds, just sort of like you make the rounds with the people. Don’t just dive in and fill up your plate. Be very selective, and again, I think there’s really nothing off limits but portion control. Portion control is really where it’s at. So, savoring your food, not gobbling it, intentionally eating it, and enjoying it, even remarking on it, talking about it, anything that sort of helps you expand the experience.
Jamie DePolo: Well, that brings up a point to me because this happens to me all the time: I’ll be at a social gathering and there’s a food table and I happen to be talking to somebody. And I’m trying to eat mindfully or intentionally, but because I’m talking, I’m talking and kind of mindlessly shoveling as I’m… which sounds rude, but really I am polite and I chew with my mouth closed. But I get kind of caught up in the people and events, and I’m not really paying attention to what I eat. Do you have any tricks or tips, like how…and maybe it’s just me, I get so caught up in talking that I’m not paying attention to what I’m eating.
Diana Dyer: So actually, I think of you describing your situation as far more skilled than I am, because if I have a little plate and a napkin and a drink in my hand, I actually find that I have difficulty eating at all, you know!
Jamie DePolo: Ah! Maybe that’s the key. Maybe I have to have something in both hands so I can’t eat.
Diana Dyer: So, I do end up actually often thinking, “Oh!” So, what happened yesterday is I took actually a good deal of what I had left on my little plate that I had chosen intentionally, you know, I took it home and shared it with my husband. So actually, I ended up eating half of what I had intended or even thought that I might at the start. Oh, it was all good, it was all beautiful, a lot of things were like flashbacks from my past that my mother even has always made for us, and things like that, so it was really fun.
Jamie DePolo: Okay. That’s a good idea. I’m going to fill up both hands and not my mouth when I’m talking to people. Now, I know another sort of trouble spot for a lot of people: We know that drinking alcohol increases the risk of a first-time breast cancer as well as the risk of recurrence, and drinking, if you have maybe a couple drinks, sometimes you can lose your focus on eating mindfully, it makes it much… the desserts look much more attractive when you’ve had a couple drinks...
Diana Dyer: And the portion sizes much smaller than they are!
Jamie DePolo: Exactly. Yet so many holiday events, and actually almost any social event, always seem to revolve around alcohol. And sometimes it’s hard for people who are hosting, they don’t really know what to do with somebody who doesn’t drink or chooses not to. They may not have appropriate mixers or appropriate non-alcoholic things, or they have a special punch and there’s only punch glasses. I remember, I was at an event once, and I just asked for some seltzer water and the people were so stymied they just brought it out in a plastic cup. And I thought, “Well, you know, you could put it in a nice glass.” But are there, you know, are there strategies or tactics that people can use if they choose not to drink alcohol around the holidays or really at any social event?
Diana Dyer: So, I hear everything you’re saying, and again, at this party I was at yesterday, they had made actually a lovely fruit juice punch, pear juice and pomegranate juice, it was delightful, it wasn’t too sweet, and there was no alcohol in it, so that you could choose to add some or not. So, that was an option that these hosts had already set up. So in addition to wine and beer, they had some mixed drinks also. What I actually like to serve or have available at parties, is sparkling water, and sometimes… and I’ll add, in a beautiful little white wine glass so that it is lovely and festive, just even a few frozen raspberries or something to make it pretty, to add some color to it and even, of course, some extra fruit if you actually want to eat those at the bottom of your drink.
So, there are all kinds of options, just flavored seltzer waters and sparkling waters. And again, the presentation is everything and so the plastic cup, unless it was decorated, that really sounds like, oh, yes, we were caught off guard, but it’s so easy to make it easy for people. And in addition, there’s… I would recommend if there are people who are concerned that maybe they’ll be in a situation where that’s not available for them, to bring their own bottle of sparkling water. I mean, people think nothing of bringing a bottle of wine or a six-pack of beer to a party. Bring your own something that you can drink that you feel comfortable and happy with. Then you’re offering it to everyone, too.
Jamie DePolo: Oh. That’s a good point. That’s a good point. Now, do you have a favorite mocktail recipe? I have to ask?
Diana Dyer: Well, I mean, it’s really so simple and it’s just what I said, it probably doesn’t even come under the category of mocktail, it’s not complicated. But I just love some San Pellegrino sparkling water with some raspberries in it. I think there’s nothing prettier and nothing that feels better, you know, in my mouth.
Jamie DePolo: Sure. Sure.
Diana Dyer: And like I said, in a beautiful white wine glass.
Jamie DePolo: Okay. And now, you mentioned this, too, a lot of people do advise to eat something before you go out to a party so you don’t get tempted by anything that’s perhaps not so healthy. Do you do the same thing if you’re actually invited to a dinner party where you know there’s going to be a meal?
Diana Dyer: When I’m invited to a dinner party, I mean, no. I don’t eat ahead of time. But what I do do is I avoid the appetizers. Everybody overeats at dinner parties, everybody over prepares food, there’s just food in abundance for people. And it all really goes back to portion control, portion control, and sort of being very selective. I eat everything. I know people are sometimes cautious about inviting me to dinner parties! I put the word out, “I’m easy, actually,” but I will not have my plate overflowing, and I would never… it would be unusual if I went back for seconds or thirds for anything, but I’ll sample little bits of everything. Because again, people are serving you out of love, and it’s one meal. It’s not your whole month or your whole lifestyle, you know, I mean, this is really… food is more than biochemistry, and so here’s an occasion where, perhaps, as I said, I’m easy.
Jamie DePolo: Okay. Okay. That’s good. And I know sometimes with families, too, as you said, food is more than just biochemistry, it becomes almost a… what do I want to say? Not rudeness, but it’s just like, “Oh, you know, oh please eat this, I made this all for you, eat it, eat it.” It’s almost like if you reject the food, you’re rejecting the love or the caring. So yeah, for me, that’s when it gets more tough, it’s like, “No, really, I’m full, I can’t eat anything else,” but then people just like, “Oh, really, have more, I made this just for you, no one else likes it, eat it.”
Diana Dyer: Well, hopefully you already had some.
Jamie DePolo: Yeah. Yeah.
Diana Dyer: “Oh, it was delicious,” and maybe then you can offer to take some home.
Jamie DePolo: Yeah. I do come with a…
Diana Dyer: And then whether you eat it or not is, you know, only you know.
Jamie DePolo: Right. Right. A lot of take-home containers. Now, if someone is undergoing chemotherapy during the holidays, are there any foods that should be avoided or any foods that you would recommend to sort of focus on just for health or healing?
Diana Dyer: First of all, every chemotherapy is different in terms of how people respond, how the typical profile of how the drugs interfere with taste or smell or nausea, diarrhea, all kinds of things. So, it’s very difficult to generalize.
Jamie DePolo: Okay.
Diana Dyer: But having said that, if chemotherapy is something that you’re not tolerating well for any number of reasons, and as I said, there’s a broad spectrum on how people tolerate chemo -- there’s a broad spectrum in terms of what this word means anymore, in terms of drug therapy for a cancer diagnosis. But if you are having side effects that impact your nutritional intake, particularly I think I would suggest avoiding foods that are your favorite foods, even though they are your favorite foods of all time or traditional, whatever. Because sometimes you can… your brain pairs associations, makes associations, and so it actually may perhaps spoil a favorite food for you for the future.
Jamie DePolo: I see.
Diana Dyer: And so, it’s whatever you can tolerate, okay, in that sense holiday eating isn’t different per se for healing purposes, for trying to minimize side effects than any other cycle, whether it happens in the holidays or not. But just keep in mind that there can be this association in your mind between what might happen if you happen to be eating something during a part of your cycle where you may vomit that may spoil that food for the future as one of your favorite foods. And just put it off, wait until you’re done, and then have it again and have it be sort of something you look forward to for a celebration when you’re done.
Jamie DePolo: Okay. That’s a good strategy. Yeah. Because you certainly wouldn’t want to have your favorite food ruined for you by chemotherapy. Okay.
Diana Dyer: Right. Yeah.
Jamie DePolo: That’s a good point. Now, I believe you’ve done this, but I just want to double check. Have you taken, I guess, sort of traditional holiday foods or family foods that may not be so healthy and made them healthier? I’m thinking of, particularly, fried foods or things like that. You know, have you experimented in that way?
Diana Dyer: Oh, yes. And I think we’re doing that all year long, you know, with foods, as I’m always cooking and thinking about things. First of all, with almost every food you can reduce the amount of sugar that’s in that recipe. As a general rule of thumb, no matter what it is, I cut the sugar in half, and see what happens on that first time through with a recipe. And truly, most times it’s just fine and it tastes great, too. It’s not like, “Oh, where’s the sugar?” No. it still feels and tastes and looks like just everything that you’re expecting. That’s the first thing.
Our family has all… to go back to thinking specifically holidays and traditions and our family, our family has always had, on Christmas Eve, a fondue meal, and we’ve actually never done the cheese fondue, we’ve just always done the oil and frying foods in that.
Jamie DePolo: Chocolate?
Diana Dyer: And having, you know, ten, twenty sauces to dip them in, and things like this. We have now added another fondue pot that is just broth and so we’re heating broth, like a vegetable broth, and then actually sort of like flash steaming, I suppose, you know, some of our shrimp or our scallops or meats or even vegetables, things like that, so we have some options that are lower in fat and we still might have all the sauces, you know, all the sauces that are fun to get food into. So that has worked fine. So we’re pretty happy with that, and that’s now part of our holiday tradition.
Jamie DePolo: Okay. Do you have a chocolate fondue? I have to ask.
Diana Dyer: We don’t actually do that, and I would say we… this is our one big extravaganza with scallops and shrimp and chicken and beef, and we cook it all up, and then we’re still eating it all a week later or freeze it, freeze what we’ve cooked, and pull it out at different times throughout the year. But we really, this is done with our children, now they’re adults. We started when they were 3, and I was still worried, actually, that, “Oh gosh, are we going to tip over this hot pot.” Our kids learned food fun and food safety and intention pretty early with this, and now they’re 31 and 37, and we’re still doing this and still having fun and enjoying the tradition.
Jamie DePolo: Yeah. That’s great. That’s great. Now I know, I think I read somewhere where you talk about certain dishes that you bring to, say, a potluck holiday party, because then you know you’ll have something to eat.
Diana Dyer: Yes.
Jamie DePolo: And I believe some of these recipes are on your website, but if you could just share a couple of those dishes with us?
Diana Dyer: Oh, thank you, and when we were talking about bringing your own drinks, you know, your sparkling water or juice, whatever you wish, to a party, I was thinking the same thing. Everybody thinks it’s perfectly normal to bring your own…to bring something to a potluck dinner and to a buffet. So I typically bring a black bean and rice salad. Everybody knows, I mean, it’s just something I know I’ll eat, it’s beautiful, you can add red peppers and green peas, and all kinds of things to that, and it’s just beautiful, tasty. The dressing makes the salad, and it’s cold, you don’t have to worry very much about foodborne illness with a dish like that.
And another thing, I make three different kinds of hummus -- traditional hummus from chickpeas and then a hummus from carrots and a hummus from roasted beets. And again, these are beautiful things that you can take. And I make some kale balls -- you know, people can bring sausage balls, but I bring kale balls that are absolutely gorgeous and delicious and are fun and they add a lot. People enjoy them, and again, they are things that I feel perfectly comfortable eating, I know the ingredients.
Jamie DePolo: Exactly.
Jamie DePolo: Okay. Perfect. Perfect. And then finally, I guess, before we head out, beside the fondue, what’s on your holiday menu this year?
Diana Dyer: Well, you mentioned in the lead-off, of course, that we started an organic garlic farm. So of course there will be garlic in multiple different dishes there. But to be perfectly honest, our big meal for the holidays is the Christmas Eve with fondue, and then on Christmas itself we’re actually fairly flexible. This year we’ll be doing kid transfer. My younger son will be over in one part of the state and just like when they were all in college, you know, his in-laws will be driving him halfway, we’ll be driving up halfway to make the transfer, that sort of thing. So we haven’t planned that yet as far as what our Christmas meal will be. And the other aspect that we now take into consideration, our family is larger. Both our sons are married and you know, everybody brings new traditions and things that they can’t eat. We have one daughter-in-law who’s a vegan and with food allergies on top of that, and so we take everybody’s needs into consideration. So we’re getting kind of down to the wire in terms of planning it, but we’ll get there.
Jamie DePolo: Okay. Well, that’s good to know, and it’s interesting, too, as you said, your family is larger, you have one family member who has a particular way of eating as well as some food allergies, but it doesn’t sound like that’s going to be any big deal. And I guess if we could leave folks with sort of a take-home message, per se, it’s that it really isn’t a big deal. You can do this. You can eat healthy around the holidays, and if you have a couple things that maybe aren’t so healthy, just enjoy them. And if you’re going to eat them, eat them intentionally and really enjoy -- like if it’s a piece of chocolate or a piece of pie, appreciate all the love that went into that by the person who made it. And really, that’s part of the special time of the holidays.
Diana Dyer: Yes. I think that that’s true, and we do say a food blessing before we eat. And we have many different ones that we say, but our shortest one that I think encompasses all of them is that we thank all hands and all hearts who brought us this meal, every aspect of it, from the seed growers to the farmers, to the people who got it to the food co-op, and then the people who actually bought that food, made it, brought it, and shared it with us. You know, there are a lot of hands and a lot of hearts and a lot of love that goes into that food, and so I think that’s the important thing to remember.
Jamie DePolo: That’s a good take-home message. I like that. Diana, thank you so much for joining us, and hopefully we’ll have you back, I don’t know, very soon. I always enjoy talking food with you. Thank you so much.
Diana Dyer: You’re welcome. Thanks for the invitation.