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Top 10 Ways to Stay Healthy for the Holidays

Strategies for eating well during the holidays

As the holidays approach, the first thought on many people’s minds isn’t how to pick the perfect gift or find time for every holiday party, but rather how to get through the next couple months without gaining weight. For everyone in this camp, I have two pieces of good news.

First, studies show that most people gain just one to two pounds over the winter holidays, a far cry from the eight to 10 people are warned about in media reports. And while this amount may be significant over time, what you do the rest of the year matters more. Second, if you focus on staying healthy instead of the number on the scale, you’ll enjoy the holidays more and you’ll be more likely to maintain a healthy weight. Here are the top 10 ways to keep yourself healthy over the holidays:

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1. Practice Stress Management

The holidays plus family equals stress. When you’re stressed, your body can’t function at its best. To manage stress effectively, stay active, use relaxation techniques, and get out and do the things you enjoy. Also, talk to your health care practitioner about supplementing your diet with ginseng, rhodiola rosea and other herbs to help your body deal with stress.

2. Indulge in Moderation

We’ve heard all kinds of advice about holiday eating: eat lots of this, never eat that. Here’s a novel approach: Eat the foods you love and enjoy every minute of it. What’s the catch? Limit your intake of less nutritious foods you don’t thoroughly enjoy, and stay mindful as you eat. This means slowing down, paying attention to the way your food looks and tastes, and eating until you are satisfied, not stuffed. It also means acknowledging if you’re eating for emotional reasons and taking steps to address the underlying emotions rather than numbing them with food.

To prevent yourself from overdoing it, don’t go to restaurants or parties when you’re ravenous. Instead, have a nutritious snack beforehand and check the menu online so you have a wholesome choice planned in advance. If you’re going to a potluck, bring a healthy dish you know you’ll enjoy.

3. Don’t Diet

Dieting isn’t an effective weight management tool. A study in Appetite found that women who followed strict diets were more vulnerable to overeating and weight gain than those who indulged on occasion. Instead of dieting, enjoy small portions of your favorite foods so you’re less likely to feel deprived and then binge.

4. Don’t Skip Meals

Many people “save” their calories all day and then binge at night. Rather than aiding in weight management, skipping meals leaves you feeling tired and depleted, resulting in overeating. The truth is you can’t do too much damage in one or two meals—the real damage occurs when you decide you blew it and may as well keep going.

5. Get Plenty of Sleep

Between the shopping, entertaining and other commitments, sleep can get pushed down on the list of priorities. We need seven to nine hours of sleep per day, but new evidence shows that it doesn’t all have to be at night. By scheduling a 15- to 30-minute “power nap” during the day, you can stay refreshed even in hectic times. If you’re struggling to get quality sleep, kava kava, valerian and other herbs may help.

6. Drink Alcohol in Moderation

Drinking too much alcohol not only increases your intake of empty calories, but it diminishes your ability to stay mindful of what you’re eating. Whenever possible, substitute alcohol with water, tea, club soda or other light beverages.

7. Make Time for Exercise

When our schedules get hectic, exercise is one of the first things to go. But regular physical activity is essential to maintain energy levels, relieve stress and get a good night’s sleep. Of course, you can overtax your body if you do too much exercise, increasing your chances of fatigue and illness, so moderation is key. Taking a brisk 30-minute walk each day is a good start.

8. Stay Flexible in Your Relationships

Close ties with family and friends are part of what makes the holidays memorable, but they can also add to your stress level. Often, the source of conflict is the judgments we impose on ourselves and others. Instead of rigidly thinking there’s a right way and a wrong way to do things around the holidays, try to embrace other points of view and incorporate traditions of your own.

9. Know When to Say No

Around the holidays, it’s more important than ever to know your priorities and set boundaries to avoid burnout. If you tend to be a people-pleaser, practice saying no and refrain from volunteering for extra tasks. A “yes” that really means “no” just leads to anger and resentment on both sides.

10. Take the Focus off Food

With all the emphasis on food, it’s easy to forget what the holidays are all about. This year, create new family traditions that don’t revolve around food. Make wreaths or ornaments, plan fun activities, like a holiday light tour, or volunteer in the community. If you’re going to a party, focus on having interesting conversation, dancing or meeting new people rather than what you will or won’t eat.

To truly enjoy the holidays, you need more than a scrumptious meal or decadent dessert. You need to feel good physically by staying active, eating well and sleeping enough, as well as mentally by doing activities you enjoy, setting boundaries, and appreciating the people and traditions that make up the true joy of the holidays.

Carolyn Ross, M.D, M.P.H., is an expert in Eating Disorders, Addictions, and Integrative Medicine, and author of The Binge Eating and Compulsive Overeating Workbook

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