The holidays are a happy time but they can be challenging for many people in terms of time, finance and health. Increased financial and time commitments can increase the stress in our already over committed lives. This stress in addition to a multitude of challenging eating situations can really pack on the pounds and compromise our health throughout the holidays.
Unfortunately, stress causes a hormone cascade that causes us to crave sugar and carbohydrates. Eating sugar and refined carbohydrates then causes blood sugar alterations in the body. These blood sugar alterations then mimic the stress response and you find yourself in a vicious cycle that often results in over eating and poor food choices. This cycle is often what leads to an average weight gain of 5 to 10 pounds throughout the holidays
So what can you do to end this cycle, stay healthy through the holidays, and prevent the typical weight gain so many experience?
The first step is to avoid blood sugar fluctuations by avoiding refined carbohydrates and eating proteins and healthy fats with each meal. Refined carbohydrates like white starches (bread, rice, chips, potatoes) and sweets (cookies, cakes, pies, candy) lead to blood sugar fluctuations and cause us to crave more of these foods. Carbohydrates are very important in maintaining your health as your brain’s primary source of fuel and main energy source for your body. Vegetables, legumes, whole grains and fruits should be your primary source of carbohydrates to minimize blood sugar fluctuations and provide an excellent source of many nutrients like potassium, fiber, and B vitamins.
Protein maintains health by providing balance when excess carbs trigger excess insulin thus causing blood sugar fluctuations. In addition, it stimulates fat burning instead of fat storage, shuts down cholesterol overproduction and discourages water retention. Good sources of protein like fish, eggs, legumes, grass fed meats, and organic dairy products are excellent sources of protein and other nutrients like B vitamins, zinc, phosphorus and iron. Including protein in every meal helps to stabilize blood sugars by slowing down the absorption of carbohydrates and producing counter regulatory hormones important in blood sugar regulation. This is especially important in the morning as refined carbohydrates for breakfast can cause a cascade of endless sugar cravings all day long, which can really lead to packing on the pounds over time.
Fat, often labeled the “bad guy” because of its caloric density, is your last weapon in combating the blood sugar blues. Fat helps you feel full and satisfied while providing many important nutrients like fat soluble vitamins (A, D, E and K) as well as omega 3 fatty acids that help reduce inflammation in your body (another source of stress). Unhealthy fats like trans or hydrogenated fats and too much saturated fat (any fat that is solid at room temperature) can cause inflammation so it is important to eat healthy fats. Avocado, nuts, olive oil, organic full fat dairy and fatty fish like salmon provide healthy fats to assist your body with cell development, hormone production as well as blood sugar regulation.
The following are suggestions from our presentation were from a presentation I did many year ago called “Surviving the Holidaze” to assist you in maintaining your health while enjoying the holidays:
- Be Realistic – Setting a goal to lose weight over the holidays is unrealistic. Strive to maintain your weight and not gain.
- Don’t Skip Meals – Even on party days! Skipping meals will cause your blood sugar to drop, making you irritable, while causing you to burn calories less efficiently. You are also more likely to overeat if you arrive at a party famished. However, I am a fan of intermittent fasting but this might not be something you want to start around the holidays if it is not already a regular habit.
- Eat a Light Snack – Having a small piece of fruit, yogurt, cheese or almond butter on an apple or banana before going out will make you less likely to binge on fattening or sweet foods.
- Eat Slowly – Chew your food thoroughly so you can taste it and aid the digestion process. Remember – it takes up to 15 minutes to feel the effects of satiety.
- Be Selective – Take small portions of all your favorite foods emphasizing protein, vegetables and high-fiber foods. Don’t eat sweets or carbs alone, and keep your protein intake regular throughout the day.
- Forget the All or Nothing Attitude – Depriving yourself of holiday foods isn’t part of a healthy eating strategy and it’s no fun! It will make you more likely to overeat other foods and less likely to feel satisfied. Allow yourself a small portion of your favorite food and enjoy it.
- Make a Plan – Decide when you are done. When you have tried a little bit of all your favorite foods and feel satisfied, put your napkin on your plate, have a mint or a piece of gum and pour yourself a glass of water to sip.
- Choose Your Beverages Wisely – Alcohol is high in calories, 7 calories per gram. Liquors, sweet wine and sweet mixed drinks (holy eggnog!) contain 150-450 calories per glass. Alternate your alcoholic beverage with water or a fruit juice spritzer.
- Exercise! – With all the extra eating and drinking around the holidays, it is important to include exercise in your daily routine. It’s your key to maintaining a healthy weight – and it will help your mood, too. Before or after a large meal, grab a family member or the dog and go for a walk.
- Maintain Perspective – Overeating one day won’t make you gain weight. Choose your foods wisely, eat healthful foods more often and limit fatty foods, sugars and alcohol.
If you overindulge at a party, put it behind you. The most important things to remember are balance and moderation
Lastly, when cooking for the holidays, food requests and desires tend to lend towards foods that are often high in refined carbohydrates, saturated fat and calories. Discussing comfort food ingredient substitutions can be a real challenge. Most people typically think about chemical substitutes for sugars and fats. All you have to do is a Google search for ingredient substitutes to find a plethora of chemical alternatives. Sugar and fat are not bad, they just require moderation. The following ideas are substitutions or “trade-offs” for your holiday meals:
- Olive oil for butter in soups, casseroles and mashed potatoes.
- Applesauce or other pureed fruit in baked goods.
- In most baked goods you can reduce the amount of sugar by one-half and intensify sweetness by adding vanilla, nutmeg and/or cinnamon.
- Grade B or Dark Amber maple syrup can be used for sweets
- Baking chocolates – bitter or semi-sweets can be replaced with cocoa powder.
- Brown rice for white rice, or even better an ancient grain like quinoa.