By: Nancy A. Palermo MD
The holiday season can be difficult for anyone trying to make healthy choices.
With the added time constraints, many of us struggle with getting in exercise, maintaining healthy sleep habits, or limiting the intake of processed and sugary foods that abound at this time of the year. The added burdens of 2020-2021 – COVID, political and social stressors-have cracked our resolve and discipline even more. Many will be entering the holiday season with some extra padding. The pandemic lockdown has introduced bad habits into our everyday life.
Many of us are entering the 2021 holiday season with an extra 10-20 pounds and still blaming it on COVID. Americans already gain an average of 5 -10 pounds between Thanksgiving and Christmas and rarely lose this weight so the extra baggage we are carrying is not good. The weight adds to the slow gain many can experience in adulthood. We cannot control whether it will be a White Christmas, if our flight will be delayed if there will be traffic at the mall, or what food our families might serve over the holidays. We can only focus on what we can control. We can control how we take care of ourselves 90% of the time with a few mindful interventions every day. In fact, these daily practices, when implemented daily, will have you entering 2022 with some positive momentum! And remember, ANYTHING YOU DO IS BETTER THAN NOTHING!!!!
- START THE DAY IN A MINDFUL WAY: If we can begin each day with time for ourselves, we can set an intention for self-care and presence throughout the day. This is always a good idea but maybe more impactful during the holiday season. Go on a walk or run or start your day with an exercise or yoga video (www.fitnessblender.com is free!), Try adding a morning meditation to your routine. Five minutes can make a big difference in your day. (Check out the Calm app www.calm.com) Start your day off with healthy choices that get your blood moving and clear your mind. Not only will these things help you feel your best, but you will also be able to deal with stress more calmly and the tempting selection of food more mindfully. Do not put pressure on yourself to put in an hour then decide you do not have time. Anything you do is better than nothing!
- DRINK WATER: Water is essential for good digestion, energy, focus, and many other health benefits. Water is also involved in regulating your appetite, so be sure to drink throughout the day as well as before and during meals or parties. Make it a regular habit to start the day off with 8-16 oz of filtered water then make sure you start each meal with at least 4 oz of filtered water. Try a natural sweetener such as lemon or a twist of lime or orange to make the water a little tastier. Adding a tablespoon or two of apple cider vinegar to 8 oz of water may not only aid in digestion-studies have shown it also has the added benefit of blocking the absorption of carbohydrates possibly supporting weight maintenance. Consider adding 2 tablespoons of apple cider vinegar to your premeal routine. Of course, you should never drink apple cider vinegar directly.
Make sure you have a reusable BPA-free container. You can easily refill and track your intake this way.
- CHECK-IN WITH YOUR HUNGER: Think about how you want to feel at the end of the meal before you sit down. We prefer to feel satisfied and happy rather than overly full and lethargic. Ask yourself where your hunger levels are before you start eating and continue to check in throughout the meal. It may seem basic, but this simple exercise can make the difference between a food-coma and enjoying the rest of the evening. You will feel better the next morning as well!
- CHOOSE WISELY: Start with non-starchy vegetables and load at least half of your plate, then add the protein and healthy fats for satiation and to reduce carb cravings. Non-starchy vegetables like leafy greens are rich in fiber and nutrients that will fill you up without regret. Starchy vegetables like sweet potatoes and butternut squash can still be part of a well-balanced plate, just try to stick to ½ cup portions of these to aid in blood sugar balancing. Enjoy the carbohydrate-rich foods but save them for last!!
- EAT SLOWLY: It may seem obvious but paying closer attention to the pace at which you chew your food can have a huge impact on the total amount of food you consume. This is also a great way to mindfully enjoy your food. You will be amazed at how easy it is to eat less and feel completely satisfied when you pay attention to the tastes and textures of each bite. Remember, it can take 20-30 minutes for the “that’s enough” signal to be triggered, so take your time and enjoy. This practice will also prevent the regret that occurs when rapidly consumed food hits and you feel overly stuffed. Put your fork down between all bites, talk to your company, enjoy the flavors, drink water between bites, chew at least 10+ times…. all these tricks will help.
- MOVE YOUR BODY: Maintain a fitness routine during the holiday season. Many people exercise less during the winter, which makes excess calories more apt to stick to our waistline. Just because it is cold does not mean you cannot layer and go for a brisk walk. Even a 15-minute walk will have benefit and may keep you from mindless grazing. Consider an exercise video if the weather is not conducive to outside activities. Exercise cards are a great way to fill 20 minutes with a good sweat. Pick a few cards and before you know it you are done! Remember-ANYTHING YOU DO IS BETTER THAN NOTHING!
- MAKE SLEEP A PRIORITY: The optimal goal for sleep is 7-8 hours per night for most people. The holiday season brings a longer “to do” list as well as social events and alcohol that can interfere with our sleep. Studies have shown that we are more prone to hunger, less apt to be satiated, have stronger cravings particularly for carbohydrates and give in to them more when sleep deprived. We are also less likely to head to the gym or make a healthy meal when we are tired. Sleep helps maintain a positive mood, leading to less emotional eating. Getting optimal sleep will make it easier for you to stay on track with your health goals.
- USE YOUR SKILL POWER: Cravings can be powerful and unintentional mindless eating happens. When we snack and end up eating six pieces of candy rather than one it is not necessarily an issue of willpower. The neurotransmitters in our brains that say “this is good” can take control. We need to set ourselves up for success by preventing or avoiding difficult situations. Do not give up on meal planning. Keep it simple so you can maintain healthy eating between celebrations. After holiday events, throw away unhealthy leftovers (Is it better to eat them?). Do not bring sweets into your home and remove any tempting foods from your home. Do not tell yourself you will have control. If you have to run to the grocery store to get ice cream, you will be less likely to do so but if it is in the freezer it will be consumed. Order groceries online and use the drive-thru service to avoid temptations in the store displays. Keep your fridge full of healthy foods that you like. Have sweet options for when you need them – decaf flavored tea, a square of 70%+ cacao chocolate or some berries with flavored cashew cream.
- BE THANKFUL AND PRACTICE GRATITUDE: The real meaning of this time of year is often shoved aside with all the advertisements, gift-shopping, Christmas card-writing, decorating, parties, and yes… the food. Though the word “holiday” is supposed to connotate relaxation and peace, for those who are battling their weight and trying to make healthy choices the holidays can bring a minefield of obstacles that create anxiety, guilt, and dread. The events of 2020-2021 have many struggling with isolation, depression, and mental disease. Try to focus on the silver linings 2021 has provided. We can lower stress by focusing on the many things we have to be thankful for. Though it sounds cliché, it helps to remember how lucky we are to have our jobs, our homes, our health, the shoes on our feet, the availability of healthy food to nourish our bodies, and the friends, family and acquaintances that make our lives richer. Focus on the feelings of thankfulness, keep your mindset positive, this will help keep the focus where it should be and not on the cravings that may try to take over. Consider a holiday gratitude journal to keep yourself focused on what is most important. List three things every night for which you are grateful.
An impactful way to make a difference and feel better about the holiday is to consider donating your time or dollars to those who are in need. There are an abundance of options to do this. Even a small donation can be a great reminder of what is most important in this season. These small acts help to give us purpose and remind us that there are much less fortunate than ourselves.
While holiday events may still be less common, this year we will more than likely be attending a few. Even small gatherings with friends and families can lead us astray so here are a few “party tricks” to help you successfully maneuver.
- “Pregame” at home – eat some veggies, a Greek yogurt with 1-2 Tbs chia seeds or ground flaxseed, a small salad or a handful of nuts before you go – the hunger that leads to unplanned eating will be more controlled. Many of us tell ourselves not to eat throughout the day so we can feel less guilt at events. The reality is when we attend with an empty stomach we consume more and are more likely to include the less favorable options. Eating some fiber, healthy fat and protein before alcohol and carbohydrate rich foods can help to curb the absorption of the unwelcomed calories. Consider drinking the water and apple cider vinegar cocktail before you leave the house.
- Drink a glass of seltzer or soda water with lemon/lime at first, put alcoholic drinks down while talking so they last longer, alternate nonalcoholic beverages with alcoholic and stick to an upper limit (i.e.- 1-2 drinks/night).
- Do not loiter in the same room as the food, catch up with friends anywhere else.
- Stand at least an arm’s length from the food table. When you are near the table you will mindlessly eat-especially when stuck in a conversation with Aunt Sadie. Try to keep your back to the table-simple enough and yet amazingly effective.
- Fill your plate with veggies, a few slices of meat or cheese, shrimp – avoid piling on the flour/sugar/baked goods.
- Watch the dips and sauces – they often have hidden sugars and fats. Spoon a small amount on your plate to control these.
The holidays should be an enjoyable time, but we must continue to focus on self-care and be mindful of what is important – our health. Allowing the holidays to be a 4–6-week distraction can not only be damaging but can make us less likely to get back on track for longer. A few small interventions can help you enter 2022 in optimal shape.