Are you enjoying the final stretch of 2018? It’s a fantastic and fun time of the year. Unfortunately, it’s also a difficult period for maintaining healthy habits. Check out my list of the top 10 ways to stay healthy and happy over the holiday season.
- Reframe your holiday expectations.
Consider this: If you think of the holidays as an exhausting test of your endurance, and holiday treats as evil temptations to be resisted with all available willpower, how will your body react? That might be a bit of an exaggeration, but many patients come into the office at this time of the year showing signs of anxiety and tension. In fact, one study found that 90 percent of adults feel stressed over the holidays. Isn’t this supposed to be a joyous time?
These high stress levels may be at least partly attributed to the fact that many of us simply have more to do at this time of the year. Because we have more tasks to keep track of (even if those tasks are going to parties, buying gifts, and other fun stuff), our prefrontal cortex (in our brain) is overtaxed. This can affect our memory and overall ability to cope. Add in the extra pressure of maintaining a perfect diet and workout schedule, and you have a recipe for sleep problems, digestive difficulties, and tense muscles – all of which can add to our stress. And when we’re stressed, we tend to overeat. You can probably see why holiday stress can create a vicious cycle of guilt.
Reframing our expectations that we need have a “perfect” holiday while staying disciplined can end the frustration. So don’t beat yourself up if everything doesn’t go as planned. In the long run, our happiest memories are sometimes the ones when things didn’t go as we’d pictured them, or the times we slowed down to take in the moment. Letting go of expectations of perfection (from ourselves and others) will ultimately help our health.
- Play games.
If you get together with family or friends in the next weeks, why not introduce a low-tech way to have some old-fashioned fun by playing board games? Board games can also offer cognitive benefits – not that you need an excuse to start rolling the dice.
- Be grateful.
The holidays don’t always go as planned. Sometimes we have to go to work instead of eating great meals. Sometimes we miss people who are no longer in our lives. It’s normal to experience sadness at this time of the year. Acknowledge your feelings and be gentle with yourself. Take some time to think of the good things (even if they’re not always picture-perfect). Grateful people experience better sleep, more optimism, and improved relationships. And we could all use a bit of that at this time of the year.
- Get moving.
Fitting in some exercise can be easier when you mix it up through physical social activities with loved ones. Snowshoeing, making snowmen, skating for those in the cold climates: there are plenty of options. If you’re not a cold-weather person, try bowling or a trip to the pool. You may not end up with six-pack abs, but might start a new holiday tradition. Suggesting fun activities for social gatherings also helps take the focus off food.
- Learn to say no.
This is a tough one for many patients who come to the office. However sometimes refusing a social invitation or a request to do work is the healthiest choice for everyone involved. If you find it hard to turn down an invitation or request, remember that you don’t have to apologize. Decline right away and resist the urge to make up an elaborate excuse. Suggest an alternative activity or a later date – but only if you really want to.
- Stay mindful.
A mindfulness practice has obvious benefits when we’re extremely busy. Even if you’re not a regular meditator, just five minutes a day of meditation can help you cope with holiday stress. And why not share the love? Suggest a short meditation before holiday meals. It can set the tone for a peaceful celebration. Studies show that group meditation can have powerful results.
- Go green.
When you’re thinking about ways to keep your body healthy over the holidays, don’t forget that the planet deserves some love too. It’s easy to have a green holiday season (even if it’s snowing). Use recycled wrapping paper, serve food on real plates (not paper), and consider turning the heat down a degree or two for large gatherings (maybe you’ll encourage guests to bring out their tacky holiday sweaters). To conserve electricity, use LED lights only, and defrost your freezer before you load it up with holiday baking.
- Cook up some love.
Looking for a unique gift idea? Want to stay away from the mall and its atmosphere of seemingly relentless consumerism? Try baking some holiday gifts. For example, put some homemade sweet and spicy holiday almonds into a fancy jar (you can find a good recipe here: https://mywholefoodlife.com/2012/11/28/sweet-and-spicy-holiday-almonds/). Or wrap up a box of vegan hazelnut cups (this recipe is amazing! https://www.mindbodygreen.com/0-16557/like-nutella-try-these-vegan-hazelnut-cups.html). You can even start making some natural soaps as gifts, it’s easy, natural and fun!
- Keep your gut healthy.
Sugar laden holiday treats, cocktails and parties galore can really put a damper on your gut health. Rightfully so an imbalance of extra sugar lowers both your immune system and can lead to an imbalance of healthy bacteria in the gut. Take some high quality probiotics and some digestive enzymes prior to meals to give your gut a healthy boost and some likely much needed assistance!
- Start some healthy food traditions.
The internet is bursting with healthy holiday recipes. Think about your loved ones’ food preferences and find some delicious dishes to bring to gatherings. For example, here are some outstanding vegan dishes: https://minimalistbaker.com/christmas-recipe-roundup/. Other guests might thank you for providing an alternative to your Aunt’s special salad! Try replacing carb heavy side dishes with healthy ones like Rutabaga and carrot mash or creamy butternut squash and thyme! Remember it’s OK to say no!
Dr. Patrick B, ND