Healthy Holiday Survival Guide, Part 1

Reader Sarah wrote in with a great question:

“With the holiday seasons coming up, a lot of us are looking at spending time not only on the road, but in the extended company of family, friends and others who haven’t tuned in yet to benefits of a primal diet. This means lots of time in restaurants, but also many meals prepared in people’s homes. Your gas station primer was great, but I’ve still got lingering questions about what to do in situations where my options are even more limited.

While I try to make the best choice out of what’s available in any given situation, sometimes I still get confused about what the best choice actually is. For example, should I go for the maple & brown sugar whole-grain cereal and/or pancakes that have been lovingly prepared by my host, or do I just opt for a cup of tea and later sneak the leftover protein bar in my purse, which is likely to have hydrogenated oils, corn syrup and/or other fake stuff lurking amongst its long laundry list of ingredients?

In a world where it seems like there are so many dietary evils out there, how do you personally rank which options are ‘not quite as evil’? Whole grain + sugar? Processed grain + protein? Low carb + transfats? What’s a girl to do?”

snowy field

Clear the holiday health hurdles with ease and grace.

Holiday Survival Guide, Part I

This month we will be bringing you a series of holiday “survival” tips. This week, let’s explore Sarah’s question and discuss some good options for this inevitable dilemma of holiday visits.


1. The lesser of three evils?

Sarah puts the problem succinctly: what to do when there really isn’t a great choice for those of us on the Primal Health plan? When there are no ideal choices, we do have to make compromises. Though we recognize what is healthy according to our genetic blueprint, living in the modern world, it’s simply not always possible to follow the plan. I personally would not recommend going with the protein bar. While it does potentially have some artificial ingredients and processing, I suppose this is O.K. in a pinch as you won’t drive your blood sugar through the roof. However, the holidays are about renewing friendships and family connections, and you certainly won’t do that if you’re wiping away protein bar crumbs from the corners of your mouth.


2. Portions do matter (and that’s a good thing).

In difficult nutrition situations such as holiday settings, I really believe that portion control is your ultimate weapon. Humans are not meant to consume grain, but eating a small portion of whole-grain, minimally processed and lovingly prepared food will show your appreciation without ruining your diet. Focus on eating according to the Primal Health plan – perhaps being more disciplined than usual at your other meals – so that you can have a small portion of a less-than-ideal food in order to spare feelings. In our modern world we do have to recognize that compromise will be necessary from time to time, and it’s not healthy to stress about this too much.

3. Relationships.

Part of the difficulty – at any time of year – in following a diet that is not in keeping with the standard sugary American fare is that you do not want to inconvenience your host or offend someone you care about. We’ve all been around the lecturing vegetarian or the boorish carnivore. Again, I recommend portion control. For example, Carrie always presents a lavish cake on my birthday, even though neither of us are dessert people. But the celebration is important and so we each enjoy a bite or two of the treat to honor the occasion. You can graciously inform your host – and especially family members – ahead of time as to your dietary preferences. Accept what they prepare. Even Buddhist monks will eat a bite of meat if it is prepared for them (of course, I happen to think they ought to eat more).


4. Informing with grace.

Often, a simple phone call placed or attractive little note sent ahead of time is all that is necessary to make everything pleasing to all involved. Don’t wait until the last minute or the actual event to tell your host or friend that you can’t eat their pumpkin pie and mashed potatoes. Give your friend as much time as possible – preferably a week at minimum. Most importantly, however, make it clear that you do not expect them to rework their meal plans just for you. Grace is really essential. Though health is our most precious gift, if we can’t also enjoy time with those we love in a kind and caring spirit, what’s the point?


5. Offer to make it easier.

One of the easiest ways to alleviate any stress to your host is to offer to help. Don’t be pushy; you don’t want to offend your host by insisting on bringing too many items as this may interfere with the planned menu or theme. But offer to help with alternatives so that you aren’t making an already stressful situation – the planning of a holiday event – more stressful.


6. Put things in perspective.

During the holidays you are bound to come across unhealthy fare. Do your best to choose the most natural, whole, unprocessed, and low-sugar foods that you can, and for everything else, a small sample will please your host without ruining your health or your diet.


7. Turn up the volume on other healthy activities.

Though diet is responsible for 70-80% of the health rewards we can expect, when it is compromised slightly, there are other activities that can help pick up the slack. I think the most important things to do during the holidays are exercise and stress management. The holidays are a whirlwind of activity, parties, commitments, appointments and shopping. It is essential to manage your stress. It’s also important not to forgo your workouts, and in fact, you should probably exercise more during the holidays. The trouble with the busy schedule of the holiday season is that exercise is often the first thing to go. Add in sugary treats and huge portions of gravy, potatoes and other holiday fare, and it’s no wonder we gain weight and suffer mood swings. Find a way to maintain or even increase your exercise time so that the few bites of that whole grain pancake have a limited impact. I like to find ways to make exercise a part of the holiday fun, rather than an additional thing to worry about fitting into the schedule.

Next week, look for my tips on how to increase fitness during inclement weather and holiday schedules. And Sara and Aaron will be bringing you delicious, rich, decadent meals that are still (mostly) healthy throughout this season.

Further reading:

The Only Diet on Earth That Actually Works

My Dietary Recommendations

13 Simple, Timeless, Eco-Friendly Kitchen Hacks

Photo credits, in order of appearance: Jabzg, Digiyesica, Jslander, Orimo, Blugrn, Old Shoe Woman, Spike55151, Bombhead

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About the Author

Mark Sisson is the founder of Mark’s Daily Apple, godfather to the Primal food and lifestyle movement, and the New York Times bestselling author of The Keto Reset Diet. His latest book is Keto for Life, where he discusses how he combines the keto diet with a Primal lifestyle for optimal health and longevity. Mark is the author of numerous other books as well, including The Primal Blueprint, which was credited with turbocharging the growth of the primal/paleo movement back in 2009. After spending three decades researching and educating folks on why food is the key component to achieving and maintaining optimal wellness, Mark launched Primal Kitchen, a real-food company that creates Primal/paleo, keto, and Whole30-friendly kitchen staples.

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7 thoughts on “Healthy Holiday Survival Guide, Part 1”

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  1. I find intermittent fasting to be invaluable during the holiday season. Most holiday meals are centered around dinner, so if you can eat nothing or almost nothing until dinner, then go ahead and have the dinner and your intake will stay relatively balanced and you’ll still get to enjoy meals with your family.

    Fortunately, most holiday foods are meat-heavy(turkeys, hams, roasts, etc), so it’s easy to load your plate with meat and just add a little bit of the extra stuff without snubbing your host. If your family gathering is big enough, people might not even notice that you only took a couple bites of potatoes or did not have a biscuit! As diet-conscious people, we often notice what others eat, but most people never think twice about it.

    The holiday season is a great time to do intermittent fasting thanks to the immunity benefits as well. At holiday gatherings there is always something “going around” and by fasting a bit, you’re far less likely to catch it.

  2. Ya know, people need to get a grip. I really fail to see how enjoying the holidays is such a big deal. This is the only time of the year when you see some people, and it might be the last time you ever get to have that slice of grandma’s pie or one of her home made cookies. Are you really going to let that slip by just so you can eat on plan? Unless you are in contest prep mode or something whats the problem with gaining a couple of pounds? Assuming you normally eat right and exercise anyway, once the holidays pass the weight gain will go away with out any special effort. I actually embrace the over indulgence and alter my strength training to take advantage of it by going heavy, and adding a little muscle. In closing, worry less, enjoy more, life is short.

  3. Kevin-I agree. We should be able to have special treats on the holiday days. The problem is people start eating at halloween and don’t stop until New Years. This long stretch is difficult for many people because temptation is everywhere and we associate sugar with the holidays(every business makes sure of that). Then, on New Years Day we are shamed by the media for gaining weight and we must now but gym memberships, equipment, and weight loss products.
    Some of us are starting to associate the holidays with feeling sick, depressed, and fat. This is not what the holidays are all about. So, enjoy grandma’s pie and treats on thanksgiving, christmas, and new years or whatever you celebrate. Remember, it’s 3 days of eating, not halloween through New Years.

  4. “Remember, it’s 3 days of eating, not Halloween through New Years.”

    A brilliant synopsis from Crystal.

    Nonetheless, instead of gorging, I, as well, now favor samples of the variety of delectable taste treats, which will be the methodology I will continue to practice throughout the Holidays and the entire year.

    I suppose the proverb, “Live to Eat,” has been replaced by “Eat to Live” in my vernacular.

    Certainly glad the article to this point didn’t mention imbibing in spirits like tequila. In that case, nothing like three days of drinking! 😉

  5. Way to be resourceful! Impressive. I am in the seed biz and have seen the food shortages beginning. That is why I am beginning to save non hybrid vegetable seeds.
    No family should be without an emergency survival garden plan. It is easy, affordable and will put your mind at ease. Remember to only use non modified (gmo)untreated (for chemicals) seeds. And MOST IMPORTANT, and I cant stress this fact enough!! your garden seeds MUST not be a HYBRYD. The dna has been altered with a terminator gene that essentally makes the seed sterile after its first use and therefore cant be used to produce viable seds for the following years. This is important if we run into a food shortage in the next year or two. You should start growing and saving seeds NOW. If you dont need them in the future you are only out $50 and you have eaten well all year.
    We sell a full garden of seeds at Also canning varieties, herbs and medicinal herbs. Think ahead and prepare. It cant hurt.

  6. I believe, especially at holiday time just eat what you like best but in moderation. It is so easy to gorge out purely for the sake of it being available. I say enjoy what you eat but in smaller portions.

  7. I’m new at this and want to make a healthy gravy to go with my turkey. Anybody have an idea of what to use to thicken it. I don’t want to use flour obviously!!!