For many people, this “season of wonder” includes wondering if you can cheat on a healthy diet. How much can you indulge in rich, salty, or sugary holiday cuisine without risking weight gain, heart and blood pressure problems, or high blood sugar?
“Some people are more sensitive than others to salt, saturated fat, or added sugars. We sometimes see diet affecting blood pressure or cholesterol in as little as a few weeks after people splurge,” says registered dietitian Kathy McManus, director of the Department of Nutrition at Harvard-affiliated Brigham and Women’s Hospital.
That makes dietary cheating a bit risky. But for generally healthy people, McManus says there is a formula that allows you to bend the rules this holiday season and beyond.
First, the healthy guidelines
Ideally you should always follow a healthy eating plan, such as a Mediterranean-style diet. In addition, you need to limit the following.
Added sugars. Eating too much sugar can cause repeated blood sugar spikes and increase your risk for diabetes. Limit intake to no more than 24 grams per day for women and 36 grams for men.
Salt. In some people, consuming too much salt can increase blood pressure. Healthy people should limit intake to 2,300 milligrams (mg) per day.
Saturated fat. Eating too much of this type of fat — found in red meat and full-fat dairy products — can increase “bad” LDL cholesterol and raise your risk for heart disease. McManus advises limiting saturated fat to 7% of your daily calories. To figure out how many grams of saturated fat that would be, take 7% of your daily calories and divide it by nine (one gram of fat has 9 calories). For example, if you’re eating 1,500 calories a day: .07 times 1,500 equals 105; 105 divided by 9 is about 12 grams of saturated fat.
What about calories?
Daily calorie needs depend on many factors, including your age, activity level, body composition, overall health, and weight goals (such as weight loss).
If you’re a healthy person who exercises 30 minutes per day, you can estimate how many daily calories you need to maintain your current weight by multiplying your weight (in pounds) by 15