It’s that time of year again – it seems like everywhere we turn, there are holiday treats abounding: parties with sprawling buffets, buckets of egg nog, platters of Christmas cookies, even “thank you” candy canes given out for your Salvation Army donation! And while we may hear songs of this being the “most wonderful time of the year,” for some, this isn’t the case at all.
Among the many things that can cause emotional ups and downs during this season, I hope to help you have food not be one of them. Whether it is for health reasons, to avoid unpleasant symptoms or to avoid gaining those dreaded pounds over the holidays, anxiety over food choices can be overwhelming and can ruin what should be a joyful season.
But this doesn’t have to be the case. This year, why not tackle the holiday season with a food strategy that you feel comfortable and happy about? Many of us who try to eat well may feel bombarded by temptation at this time of year. We are typically able to control our food choices in our daily lives pretty easily – we only buy certain foods and many of us prepare almost all of our own meals. But over the holidays, we eat out more and are often visiting family who may not share our opinions about (or limitations of) certain foods and that can be a tricky situation to navigate. If this is the case for you, here are some tips:
1. Get your rest. Even one night of reduced sleep can cause us to have impaired insulin sensitivity, giving us increased cravings for sugary foods (1). Getting a solid 8 hours will leave us functioning at our full potential and will help us to avoid making food choices we later regret.
2. Don’t stop (or even reduce!) your stress-reduction technique. When we get busy, this is often the first thing to go. But keeping our bodies in a calm, relaxed state throughout the day can be the key to losing weight or rather, in the case of the holiday season, not gaining weight. Our bodies hold on to extra pounds in times of stress (2) due to an inflammatory cascade caused by repeated stressful states. And what are the holidays if not “repeated stressful states”?
3. Try not to overdo the sugar. Yes, the 80/20 rule is golden, but, let’s face it, the holidays are a crazy time of year. We often aren’t getting our usual of sleep (although, if we follow Tip #1, we are!), we have people sneezing on us in the office, we don’t have as much time to exercise – and sugar can be the difference between maintaining our weight (and health!) and not. Am I saying to not eat anything sweet for the entire holiday season? Certainly not. But remember that sugar is yet another stressor on our bodies, so a day when you’re already swamped with work and have 4 errands to run before you get home may not be the day for those chocolate Santas (3).
4. Pack healthy snacks. We are often heading to the stores after work at this time of year and may be tempted to grab a quick “something” to tide us over until we get home. Nip this bad habit in the bud by remembering to stash some better options (nuts, seeds, fresh fruit, grass-fed jerky) in your bag or car. You’ll be so happy to see them later!
5. Offer to host. It’s definitely more work for you, but the benefit is that you can assign your guests certain dishes to bring that you know will fit in with your current dietary plan. You can even send them recipes (“Would you be able to bring these almond flour cookies for dessert? They’re amaaaaazing.”)! Or if you know of certain dishes that your friends really like to have (think gluten or dairy-containing items), of course they can bring them – there will still be plenty of other options for you. This way, you get to have a relaxed evening with your friends and don’t even have to consider it a “cheat night.”
6. Always bring something. You can’t host every party – sooner or later you’re going to have to venture into someone else’s kitchen. The best way to be assured of having something nutritious to snack on is to bring it yourself. Isn’t there something so appealing about a platter of cut-up veggies? I’m much more likely to eat raw veggies if they’re cut up and laid out nicely on a tray than I am if they’re just sitting in the crisper. I always volunteer to bring the veggie platter – it’s easy, and often people are very relieved to have a healthy option plopped in front of them amidst the sea of pigs-in-blankets.
7. Eat before you go. The best way to resist those sugary treats is to arrive at the party FULL. If you’ve had a beautiful, healthy dinner at home, it’s very easy to turn away from the sweets. A quick protein shake before a party is another option that works really well to help you make better choices later.
8. Go with the 80/20 rule. Even 90/10 if it makes you feel better. The holiday season is 4-5 weeks long, tops. If you eat well for 11 months of the year, you’re doing better than most, so cut yourself some slack.
The holidays can be stressful in many ways. But worrying about food shouldn’t be one of them. Avoid foods that you know make you feel ill, but lighten up on any other restrictions and enjoy yourself. With a relaxed – yet sensible – eating plan, you can cut that food stress down to what it should be: nothing. And then you can sit back and enjoy “Miracle on 34th Street” knowing you’ve done all you can to ensure your health – and weight – this holiday season.