It's the time of year where sing-along holiday songs play as you shop, festive home decor gives you all the fuzzy feelings, and evergreen aromas fill the air. The overall vibe is pretty chipper and cheery ... or is it?
Despite the good intentions of spreading joy and peace during the holiday season, sometimes it feels all but joyful and peaceful as our to-do list grows. Whether it's the colossal amount of gifts to give, an inbox filled with invites for parties to attend, or the amount of obligatory dishes to bring to every festivity, the elements of the holiday season can become stressful. (Side holiday dish tip: pick one dish that becomes your staple for every single gathering — it becomes such a go-to dish that you can make it in your sleep. For me, it's this 10-Minute Prep Chili.)
Not to mention, what's become a full time holiday job is in addition to an already busy schedule of work, kid care, dog walks, grocery shopping, and on and on. Then, as you scroll through social media, your fave health influencer tells you to take some time daily for daily self care to manage holiday stress. (You unfollow them.) No wonder holidays have shifted from one of joy and peace to one of worry and stress.
Not to say that everyone has this experience. Perhaps you know people who seem to handle holidays in stride—or perhaps it's you! (Tips are welcome, please share your strategy.) For example, one of my colleagues recently exclaimed (before Thanksgiving), "I'm done my shopping!" (I was happy for her ... really, I was.) Another example is that I have a friend who, whenever I ask what dish she's bringing to her family dinner, she responds with a minimum of three and up to six dishes that she's bringing. I mean, she seems to have this holiday strategy down.
There's also holiday food, which may contribute even further to physiological stress from excess sugar and saturated fat that typically accompanies sweet treats and rich savory dishes. Don't get me wrong — enjoying the festivities, including holiday treats, is important and won't derail all of your health goals for the year. However, if you find yourself not feeling well after indulgences, just know that it's not you, and could be a true response from the food. For example, sugar can cause your blood sugar to increase and then plummet, leaving you feeling anything but jolly. Also, saturated fat and sugar have both been implicated in disrupting the gut microbiome, which communicates with the brain. The gut microbiome works directly with the nervous system, sends signals to the brain, and shapes sleep, stress, and mood. Disrupting the gut microbiome through processed foods, or excess sugar and saturated fat, can disrupt signaling to keep you happy and well.
To avoid an article that sounds like it was written by the grinch, I'd like to share great news with you! There are ways you can engage in the festivities and still feel good both physically and mentally with minimal effort. Whether we're talking about your to-do list or holiday cookies, it's all about balance. I can't shave down your gift-giving list, but I can offer some tips on how to engage in holiday play while still feeling your best.
1. Practice the one for one rule.
For every glass of wine, drink one glass of water. For every sweet treat, grab a handful of fruit. For every rich and savory dish, eat some veggies (or add veggies to the savory dish!). The goal is to incorporate more hydrating, fiber-rich, and nourishing (plant-based) foods so they fill you up more quickly and you're less likely to over consume foods that aren't serving your best health. What's more, these plant-based foods can keep inflammation at bay during the holiday season.
2. Swap plant ingredients for dairy and egg ingredients.
Creating the same textures and flavors in baked goods is easy now with all of the plant-based options. Swap out dairy milk with plant-based milk (oat, soy, almond, cashew — any will work!). Use a flax or chia egg in place of traditional eggs. Use plant-based yogurt or cream in place of dairy yogurt or cream. By replacing plants for dairy or eggs, you remove much of the saturated fat and, depending on what you're adding, may add healing anti-inflammatory fiber and phytonutrients.
3. Find plant-based alternatives to your traditional dishes.
Cultural and family traditions are important during the holidays and throughout the year. The good news is that you can keep those traditions alive and well while serving yourself and your family nourishing foods. Make a plant-based version of your favorite traditional meal to continue traditions while staying healthy. (Thankfully, in today's internet world, there is a plant-based version for just about any meat- or dairy-based dish!)
4. Hydrate well.
Try to hydrate as much as possible as you stay busy this holiday season. Carry a refillable water bottle with you, add lemon to water, and/or drink a large glass of water upon waking. Do more of whatever tips and tricks help you stay hydrated as dehydration can disrupt mood, hormonal balance, skin health, physical and mental performance, and more.
5. Practice mindful eating.
The holidays are a time of celebrating and connecting. When socializing, it's easy to graze off the table and chat while ignoring hunger cues. If your intention is to be uninhibited with holiday food, then go for it. Your routine will be waiting for you after the holidays and one evening is not going to break your health. If your intention is to enjoy the atmosphere and the food, but to also feel your best through balance, then try checking in with yourself as you graze. Do you really want the extra piece of pie or do you feel satisfied by the one piece? Checking in with hunger cues, setting intentions, and choosing which options will serve your physical and mental health is an empowering process.
6. Try to get 7–8 hours of sleep.
Sleep affects what you eat and what (and when) you eat may affect how you sleep. When you don't get enough sleep, your stress and hunger hormones increase, causing you to crave more processed foods that won't support your best health or mood. Research supports eating more fiber and plant-based to help you sleep better. Visit this blog for more details on what to eat to sleep well.
7. Move your body.
It's not uncommon, nor surprising, that workout regimens get derailed during the busy holiday season. If going to the gym or taking an hour out of your day is too much time to commit to right now, consider letting go of the pressure to workout and simply do what's possible. Maybe the dog walk becomes your daily activity. Or maybe you put on walking shoes while you power walk from store to store to purchase gifts. Or perhaps you dance while you're making the third batch of holiday cookies. Movement doesn't have to be a set time or strict schedule. Any movement that you love, even if practiced for only a few minutes, may help to alleviate stress and jumpstart your mood.
8. Say no to what doesn't light you up.
I recently worked with a life coach who gave me the greatest piece of advice when I asked her how to do all of the things. She said, you don't do all of the things. You assess each thing by closing your eyes and noticing how each one makes you feel. If the thing in question lights you up from head to toe and lights your heart with joy, it's a definite yes. If it doesn't feel good, it's a definite no. If it's somewhere in between ... it's a no. This practice really helped me and I hope it helps you too. (Of course, there may be things that you have to do, but, try this practice for moments where you have a choice.)
9. Add mood-boosting foods.
Nootropics are foods or supplements that provide nutrition to the brain, improving cognition, promoting relaxation, and boosting mood. Some of my personal favorites include dark chocolate, green tea, berries (especially blueberries and blackberries), nuts and seeds (especially walnuts, chia seeds, hemp seeds, and flax meal), pumpkin seeds, avocado, and leafy greens. Include them daily for brain and physical health.
10. Practice your A B C's when you (responsibly) drink.
A=Alternate between your drink and water, giving time and staying hydrated between drinks.
B=Get your B's (B vitamins). Alcohol can deplete as well as block absorption of B vitamins, which are essential to many functions in the body, including metabolism, cognition, and mood. Either enjoy some B-rich whole grains, beans, or leafy greens with your drink or consider taking a B complex before you go to bed after an evening of drinking (with another glass of water!).
C=Consider mocktails, like club soda or seltzer water with a splash of cranberry or citrus for some festive bubbly. Substituting mocktails for the rest of the evening, after you've had one or two drinks, will help to hydrate and nourish both your brain and your body, preparing you for an energized and happy morning after.
I'd love to hear how the holidays resonate with you. Do you love or loathe them? Are there any effective healthy habits you practice during the holiday season? Are you a holiday maven with a shareable strategy that will help us all? Comment below!
Watch my segment, "Healthy Eating During the Holidays" on The Weather Channel.