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Dietician Julia Zumpano joins the Butts and Guts podcast once again, this time to discuss staying healthy during the holiday season. She shares beneficial eating and activity tips that will help keep you on track with your nutrition goals while still enjoying the holidays.

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Staying Healthy During the Holidays

Podcast Transcript

Dr. Scott Steele: Butts and Guts, a Cleveland Clinic podcast exploring your digestive and surgical health from end to end.

Dr. Scott Steele:Hi again everyone, and welcome to another episode of Butts and Guts. I'm your host, Scott Steele, the chair of colorectal surgery here at the Cleveland Clinic in beautiful Cleveland, Ohio. And today we're going to talk a little bit about something that many of you may struggle with out there, and that's staying healthy during the holidays. And I'm very pleased to have our expert on here, Julia Zumpano, who's a dietician in Cleveland Clinic's Digestive Disease and Surgery Institute. Julia, welcome to Butts and Guts.

Julia Zumpano:Thank you so much for having me, Dr. Steele.

Dr. Scott Steele:So we want to get a little bit about your background, where you're from, where did you go to school, and how did it come to the point that you're here at the Cleveland Clinic.

Julia Zumpano:Yeah, so I began my education at the University of Akron. I'm from the Akron area, and then came to Cleveland Clinic to do my dietetic internship. And then after my yearlong internship, I got hired on and have been here ever since. So it's been almost 18 years.

Dr. Scott Steele:That is absolutely fantastic. And so today we're going to discuss a little bit about eating healthy during the holidays. So to start, what have you found to be one of the greatest concerns that people have when it comes to eating during this time of the year?

Julia Zumpano: So I think really the length of the holiday season is the most challenging because it begins around Thanksgiving time and then it extends past New Year's. So I think the length of the celebration is really important. You're looking at almost two months of time where we're celebrating and indulging and enjoying. And here in Cleveland, the weather is not necessarily in our favor for outdoor activities, and it gets dark very early. So, I think just that whole combination leads to more comfort eating, more socializing, more heartier meals, and then we might be going to bed a little earlier. So we're a little less active during that time of year. So I think it's just that whole combination of that environment that makes it the most concerning and provides the greatest challenge.

Dr. Scott Steele:Julia, I got to admit that I get up early in the morning and I am always hungry. So I hear that breakfast is an important meal of the day. So let's just say I got a holiday brunch. Should I still get up and eat a little bit of breakfast?

Julia Zumpano:Great question. I really think it depends on your body. So you explained that you're hungry when you first get up. My stomach is still sleeping when I first get up, so I couldn't imagine putting food in my mouth when I first get up. I need a good two, three hours to get my body moving to actually feel like I want something to eat and that my body will properly digest it. So I think it's really important to listen to your body and to know what your hunger cues are and what your body's telling you, and look at your sleep habits and your exercise habits. So all of those things play a very big role, but specifically if you are one that's very hungry like yourself, I would say having a high protein snack in the morning or maybe a smaller meal, like maybe a couple boiled eggs, a couple Turkey sausages, maybe a cup of cottage cheese or Greek yogurt, something high in protein that won't cause a spike in your sugar but will be more filling. Of course, then go to brunch and enjoy a fuller meal, a more balanced meal of course. But if you're the type that really isn't very hungry when you first get up, then I would say it's totally fine to just hold off until that brunch.

Dr. Scott Steele:It could be hard to keep a routine during this busy time. What do you suggest keeping in place to maintain proper nutrition throughout the season?

Julia Zumpano:So I think really looking at any extra calories you might be indulging in during this holiday season. So minimizing snacking, minimizing evening eating, increasing lower calorie foods I think is really important. So if you typically have a three o'clock snack just as more of a habitual snack, taking a look at are you really hungry. "This time of year, I'm consuming extra calories, so maybe I can forego this three o'clock snack. Or, I can cut the portion in half or really keep the calories to a minimum. Evening eating I think is a big area where if you are an evening snacker, a lot of times we can consume a tremendous amount of calories then. So, really shaving off calories where you can and then adding more vegetables to your day because they're so low in calories and dense in nutrients. And using the veggies to replace some of the higher calorie foods, like, let's say instead of a sandwich, you make a salad. So using veggies to kind of replace some of those carbohydrates.

Dr. Scott Steele:Yeah, there's nothing like veggies to think of the holiday season, huh?

Julia Zumpano:Yeah.

Dr. Scott Steele:Is that what most people think of?

Julia Zumpano:Absolutely not.

Dr. Scott Steele:So a lot of us either are invited to or host the big holiday dinner and go to a party, it's a Friday, Saturday night. So can you talk a little bit about the timing of a large meal during the day and how that affects maybe the way that your body digests the food that you ate?

Julia Zumpano:If you're going to evening parties and heavy meals, your body takes some time to digest heavier meals. Meals around the holidays and social events tend to be higher in fat, and fat takes the longest for our stomachs to digest. So, you really want to try to eat heavier meals during the daylight hours. So you really want to try to focus on that as much as possible. Now, sometimes we have events and we can't really control that, but what you can control is how much you eat. So, you can control the portion of the foods you eat, you can try to have a nice snack before to curb your appetite if you feel that's helpful for you. But really looking at what other meals you've had during the day and how dense they were and trying to really front load your calorie and diet intake, meaning frontloading in the beginning of the day.

Dr. Scott SteeleSo, truth or myth, overall, it's just as important for children to maintain good nutrition during the holiday season as adults?

Julia Zumpano:I absolutely think that's true. So, children are growing, they're growing and thriving more than we are. So, nutrition is almost more important for them than it is for us. And I think it's important from an internal standpoint and their growth and their development and their nutrient intake, but also from a standpoint of habits. So, a lot of the habits that we develop and practice started in our childhood or adolescents or early adulthood where if we can instill good habits in children now around the holidays, it will be a lot easier for them to maintain that throughout their life.

Dr. Scott Steele:One of the things that you mentioned is kind of these extra calories and calorie shaving. So, in the holidays, there's the candy jar here, the cookie plate there, all the other thing. So, what's one tip for offsetting any extra indulgence during the holiday season?

Julia Zumpano:Well, my number one tip would be increased activity. Any little time, any little walk you can squeeze in, any 10 minutes of pushups or sit-ups in the morning, even if you have a break between patients if you're in healthcare or a break between meetings, anything you can do to add activity is going to be key for you because of course avoiding the candy jar and the cookies and the holiday treats would be, of course, a great first start, but, you know, it's also fun time. And a lot of times we do get joy from eating and we don't want to take away that joy, but of course we don't want to accumulate extra calories that will incorporate weight gain.

So, I think activity is key. And a lot of people think of exercise as, "I have to go to a gym, get dressed, drive there, do at least 30 minutes." I mean, five minutes every single day in between meetings or in the morning or before you leave work or before you go to bed, whatever the case might be, if you can squeeze, let's say three 5-minute exercise increments, you're at 15 minutes. If you do that every day, you've really accumulated a great exercise routine and have burned, you know, at least 100 or 200 calories while doing it. So I think that's key.

Dr. Scott Steele: So I have a lot of friends and family members that constantly drinking ice cold water and talking about hydration and the benefits of that. So, can staying hydrated during this extended meal period prevent you from overeating?

Julia Zumpano: For most people it does. Some cases it doesn't, it's not as effective as others, but I do think water can be very filling. So, some people do like ice cold water. If you do drink your water room temperature or slightly cool, you tend to drink more. So, the cold water can be cold on your teeth. It's tough to chug it and tough to drink a lot of it. So, it has been shown that people who drink more of a room temperature or slightly cold water consume more. So, even if you struggle getting in enough water, maybe try that and see if that helps you increase your water intake. It's also a little bit easier for you to your gut to handle.

Dr. Scott Steele: So, then the dirty little secret of holidays, and that's alcohol and maybe some of the hidden calories in alcohol. Can you talk a little bit about that? Obviously that's parties you're out, you're festive, but can you talk about those hidden calories? Is that real? Is that something that's out there?

Julia Zumpano: Yes, absolutely. You certainly can indulge in a lot of calories from alcohol. We have eggnog during the holidays and a lot of seasonal drinks that tend to be made with maybe apple cider with whatever your liquor is. Those are such high calorie drinks that I always advise my patients to consider those almost as a dessert. If you've given yourself, let's say, you've kind of made a goal of not exceeding three desserts a week during the holidays, I would count those heavy drinks as almost a treat or as a dessert. And if you do just really enjoy those heavy drinks, have one and then offset with lower caloric beverages if you're going to have more than one. Or again, offset with more non caloric liquids like water, iced tea, hot tea, coffee, something of that sort. But just really offsetting the calories by minimizing the portion and accounting for it as you would other indulgences around the holidays.

Dr. Scott Steele: So, maybe one of the other things that is out there, and it's both on a daily basis that I've even had friends on a weekly basis and they talk about it, "This is my binge day." So they're doing great on money through Friday, and then they crush it with calories on a Saturday. Or conversely, on a daily basis, should we have six small meals a day, or can we not eat all day so that we can really have that dinner that we want with that large meal? What about those two things?

Julia Zumpano: So, I think this is, again, case dependent. I'm not a fan of the concept of bingeing. I think it leads to unhealthy eating habits. So I like to look at it as I'm going to eat healthy throughout the week and I'm going to indulge on this meal. I don't like binge days. I like to maybe say, "I'm going to just enjoy this meal. I'm not going to overeat. I'm just going to eat an acceptable portion of maybe a heavier meal, maybe a dessert as well, maybe I'll also have a cocktail." But I like to look it as an enjoyment, an indulgence, and then it's done and then you go back to normal healthy eating habits. I'm not a huge fan of the binge concept.

Dr. Scott Steele: So, now it's time for our quick hitters where we get to know you a little bit better. So first of all, what's your favorite sport to watch?

Julia Zumpano: Soccer.

Dr. Scott Steele: Favorite sport to play?

Julia Zumpano: Probably soccer.

Dr. Scott Steele: Fantastic. And what's your favorite food?

Julia Zumpano: So, in an indulgence standpoint, it's definitely dark chocolate. As like a meal, I love salads, fresh salads.

Dr. Scott Steele: What's a spot that you've liked to travel to that you would encourage people to go to?

Julia Zumpano: Oh gosh, I'm a world traveler, so that is a tough one. But, I was born in Northern Macedonia, so I would say that that area, which was part of Yugoslavia at one point. Eastern Europe would be my spot.

Dr. Scott Steele: That's fantastic. And so, what's a final take home message for our listeners?

Julia Zumpano: So I think it's important to understand that holiday season and the length of time you are going to have a challenge of maintaining healthy eating habits. So, just planning ahead for that and really enjoying yourself, enjoying the moments when you're socially with friends and celebrating the holidays. But really try to get right back on track when those events aren't occurring. And also keeping in mind overall caloric intake, so just looking at balancing your calories and knowing that if you indulge, you can offset it by a little bit of exercise or a couple lower calorie meals.

Dr. Scott Steele: Well, this has been some excellent advice from you. And so, to learn more about nutrition therapy here at the Cleveland Clinic, please visit That's You can also call 216-444-3046. That's 216-444-3046. Julia, thanks so much for joining us on Butts and Guts.

Julia Zumpano: Thank you so much for having me.

Dr. Scott Steele: That wraps things up here at Cleveland Clinic. Until next time, thanks for listening to Butts and Guts.

Butts & Guts

Butts & Guts

A Cleveland Clinic podcast exploring your digestive and surgical health from end to end. You’ll learn how to have the best digestive health possible from your gall bladder to your liver and more from our host, Colorectal Surgery Chairman Scott Steele, MD.
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