During these food-focused and often-stressful winter holidays, it’s a great time to learn how to “holiday-proof” your health. A lot of people use the holidays as an excuse to ignore healthy habits and eat too much unhealthy food; then they have to face January 1 like millions of others, needing (and vowing) to lose those extra pounds and get more exercise. Do you really want to be part of this cycle…again?
Here are seven simple strategies to prevent weight gain, maintain fitness, and stay healthy over the holidays.
- Prepare yourself mentally. It’s your life, your weight, your health—and you’re the one who gets to decide whether to treat yourself carefully, lovingly, and consciously, or unhealthfully and unconsciously. There’s enormous power in that brief moment between thought and action, during which you can pause and reflect on the action you’re about to take. Will that action serve your highest good? If not, perhaps you’ll choose to go a different way.
- Let your taste buds help you. Did you know that almost all of the pleasure that derives from taste occurs in the first 2 or 3 bites? After that, your taste buds are less sensitive, and the rest of the dish becomes less satisfying. Why not use this phenomenon to your advantage? Eating is about nutrition and pleasure, so rather than trying to use willpower to stay away from your favorite foods, try using your taste buds to enjoy the heck out of those delectable first few bites of whatever foods you want to eat….and don’t pile more than that on your plate.
- Use the power of your own body’s sensors to direct you to the healthiest foods. You know how you feel after eating too many chocolate chip cookies, or too much pumpkin pie, right? Kind of ill? Bloated with sugar and fat, and wishing you hadn’t eaten it all? Now imagine how you’d feel if that had been a large bowl of fruit salad instead, or cranberries, or even sweet potato (the real stuff, underneath that frightening marshmallow topping). Just start paying attention, and let your body show you the way.
- Stay hydrated. Traveling, especially on airplanes, and disruptions in normal schedules can lead to dehydration, which strains our health on many levels. A lot of what people perceive as hunger is really thirst, so when you start to feel hungry, drink a big glass of water and wait 20 minutes. If you’re still hungry, well, it’s probably time to eat. Alcohol is very dehydrating, plus it messes with your ability to stay conscious in your food and drink decisions, so imbibe slowly, and with care. Alcohol also lowers your immune system, which is why so many people get sick a day or two after they’ve had too much to drink. For best health results, a glass or two of wine, sipped slowly, should be just enough to enjoy the festivities without dragging down your health. A word about sodas: the sugared ones pile on liquid calories; and the diet ones up-level your set-point for sweets so you crave more sugar. A better choice? A splash of orange juice—or a squirt of lime—in a glass of water, regular or bubbly.
- Nip stress in the bud. Anxiety and depression spike during the holidays, for a whole host of reasons, not the least of which are false expectations of harmony and love among people who may or may not feel either of those emotions toward each other. I have 3 suggestions for keeping a handle on your stress levels: (a) Lower your expectations, and don’t sign up to do, or to be, too much. Nobody’s perfect, and no family is not dysfunctional on some level—some more than others. Pepper Schwartz said “Holidays in general breed unrealistic expectations. The minute you start wondering, ‘is it going to be wonderful enough?’, it never will be.” So just “expect” to have some enjoyable moments, to connect with a few people, to learn something new…and leave it at that. Anything more will be frosting on the proverbial cake. (b) Become an observer, and come from a place of service. Rather than let family members push your buttons like they always have done, watch them try, see how they used to do it, and just move your buttons over to undisclosed locations, or turn them off. Fascinating to watch! And think about being of service to anyone who could use a helping hand, or a listening heart. This alone can put the joy back into an otherwise difficult or stressful holiday season. (c) Keep your fun and humor meters turned to “high.” Laughter really is the best medicine. It lowers blood pressure and diminishes stress hormones, and adds important perspective to even the most challenging situations.
6. Move your body every day—outdoors if possible. And get up off the couch at least once every hour; sitting for longer than that increases your risk of sudden death! The benefits of exercise—promoting heart, lung, and brain fitness, supporting the immune system, normalizing digestion, aiding sleep, and greatly lowering stress—are multiplied during the holidays, when we tend to eat, drink, and laze around much more than we usually do. Moving more will also help to keep your metabolism revved up, putting your holiday calories where they can do the most good: into your muscles, heart, and brain rather than around your waist.
7. Be prepared. If you’re heading to grandmother’s house, and it’s over an hour or two away, take a few extra days’ worth of your daily medications with you; and if you have ongoing or significant past medical issues, carry a copy of your latest hospital discharge summary, or a doctor’s summary of your medical conditions and current status—with a list of your allergies—with you. I used to work ER’s on holidays a lot, and of course, ending up in the ER was usually the last place most of my patients wanted or expected to be. And because so many were visiting from out of town, I really appreciated those few patients who came prepared with their medical information, to aid in faster diagnosis, treatment, disposition, and discharge.
So protect your health while you’re enjoying the holidays, and on January 1st, when everyone else is groaning about how they need to lose the extra pounds they’ve put on and get back into shape, you’ll be cruising along full-speed and ready for the New Year.