by Thais Harris, NC
Nutrition Education Program Manager, Ceres Community Project
It’s that wonderful time of year when people come together to give thanks, celebrate the year that has passed and welcome the New Year ahead. As beautiful and jolly as this time can be, it can also be filled with stress, anxiety and sadness (which the cold, shorter days can make worse). There are many different ways to cope with whatever the holidays and winter bring us, and one way that we can all relate to is food. When it comes to eating this time of year, we need to be mindful of our daily choices, and be prepared for the parties and offerings from our friends, family and work environment. Having a clear goal to stay well during this time will help us make the best decisions.
A study published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that half of annual weight gain in the U.S. occurs during the holiday period, and much of this weight stays on permanently. Varied studies and surveys show average weight gain of about 5 to 7 lbs between Thanksgiving and Christmas. The cumulative effect over a few years of this weight gain could lead to a number of unwanted health issues, including metabolic syndrome, pre-diabetes and diabetes. With this data in mind, here are some strategies for avoiding seasonal weight gain (especially at parties):
Make sure to look at all of your options before putting items on your plate, and stick to the ones you really love, and to the ones you know will give you energy and assist with digestion. Once you have your plate complete, find a place where you can mindfully take your time to eat, enjoying every bite. Chew your food thoroughly so you can increase satiety and aid digestion.
Have a meal:
Grazing can easily supply more than a meal's worth of calories. Instead, plan to eat one of your three daily meals at the party. Fill at least half of your plate with non-starchy vegetables (such as greens, salads) and then be picky (see #1) when it comes to the richer fare.
Don’t skip meals:
If you are going to a big party or dinner, don't starve yourself all day in anticipation. Doing this only ensures that you will overeat when you get there. According to Ceres’ Nutrition for Wellness Instructor Jenny Helman, NC, “Stick to a reasonably sized breakfast with plenty of protein which will keep you fuller longer and temper the urge to over eat later. However, if you do arrive to a party hungry, drink some water when you arrive. It will fill you up before you fill your plate.”
Leave what you don't want:
My mother wouldn’t be very happy about this one, and I don’t like waste at all… but overeating will not do us any favors either. Be mindful, check in with yourself and stop eating when you are about 85% full.
Don't feel as though you have to say yes to everyone that offers you food and drink. A simple “no, thank you” or “not now” will do. Sometimes, explaining why you choose not to eat a certain food might make the person offering defensive, or they might try to convince you otherwise.
Beware of sugary foods and sauces:
Sugar is hard to avoid this time of year, but there are many ways to have treats that won’t pack on the pounds. Processed sugar also lowers immunity, so this is probably the most important thing to reduce consumption of during the holidays. Opt for whole sugars such as dates, raw honey and maple syrup. Bring a healthy dessert to the party. (I have made almond crust, date-sweetened pecan pies for our Thanksgiving dinners, even though the pies are usually provided by another family member). As for sauces, they can add extra sugar and fat to your meals, so use them in moderation. I am not against fat by any means (healthy fats anyway), but during the holidays we tend to eat foods that are already prepared with plenty of them, so there is no need to add more. Also, because we are likely to eat more calories, it is important to reduce them where they are more abundant.
Have healthy snacks with you:
Especially when travelling and shopping, make sure to keep a supply of nuts, seeds and dried fruit with you. At home, some snack options for taming your hunger before a party could include carrots and hummus, celery sticks and nut butter, or plain yogurt with apple sauce and cinnamon.
Mind your drinks:
Alternate alcohol with nonalcoholic beverages, especially water. Alcohol adds extra unwanted calories and when too much is consumed, it lowers inhibitions, which can lead to overeating. Not to mention that alcohol can hurt your stomach, cause headaches, and affect your best judgement.
Eat bitter greens and/or probiotic-rich foods (ie. sauerkraut) at the beginning of your meals. You can also drink digestive bitters, or even some apple cider vinegar mixed in water before meals. These strategies will aid digestion, which is especially important when eating a wide variety of foods or larger quantity than you are used to (but hopefully not too much!). A third strategy is to invest in high-quality digestive enzymes (in supplement form), which you can take at the beginning of meals.
And chew, chew, chew.
Jenny Helman, NC, suggests adding extra exercise, especially before a big meal. “A walk can improve your mood and help prevent weight gain. Walking with friends or family provides additional time to share ideas and thoughts.” In traditional Chinese medicine, walking is thought to prevent conditions such as heart disease, obesity, diabetes and ordinary indigestion. There is an old saying "A walk of 100 paces after meals equals a life of 99 years,” so why not go for a walk before and after meals?
What matters most is to eat a balanced diet daily. If you can do this, a few parties won’t ruin your healthy efforts. I like abiding by the 80/20 rule: offering myself nutrient-rich, healthy foods 80% of the time, and trusting that my body can properly deal with some treats the other 20% of the time. Holidays are for celebrating, and the last thing we want is to feel deprived, or worse, to beat ourselves up if we enjoy ourselves a little. Stress is more of an enemy to health than most unhealthy foods are, so be kind to yourself. If you splurge at one meal, balance it out at the next one.
Weight gain is not the only concern, of course. We want to strengthen our immune system in order to avoid the flu and other bugs that come around in cold season. We want to feel grounded and energized when it comes to socializing, hosting, and traveling. And we might also want to consider making time for introspection and reflection, as winter brings the opportunity for rest and replenishment, and according to Chinese traditions, it is a time for analysis of one's deepest inner resources.
Stress can contribute to weight gain and lower immunity. Take deep breaths, carve out time for – and be kind to - yourself.
Get plenty of sleep:
Late nights preparing the house for visitors, or wrapping gifts, or just watching favorite movies can contribute to sleep deprivation, which in turn contributes to increased appetite. Not a great combination. Sleep deprivation also leaves us more susceptible to the flu and other bugs, so sleep your way to a strong immune system!
Boost Immune System:
Not only is this cold and flu season, but during the holidays we tend to spend more time in malls, airplanes, and each other’s houses. In order to stay strong and avoid bugs, be sure to get plenty of vitamin D (supplement form might be necessary in the winter) and vitamin C (bell peppers, dark leafy greens, kiwis, broccoli, berries, citrus fruits, tomatoes, peas, papayas, pomegranate seeds). You can also look into herbal formulations that will work for you. I personally like taking an Echinacea & goldenseal tincture when I feel that I my reserves are low or if I am about to get on a plane (another way to protect yourself when flying is to put a little bit of coconut oil in your nostrils, to hydrate them and to create a natural barrier, as coconut oil is anti-bacterial, anti-viral and anti-fungal). Drink plenty of liquids, including herbal teas and broth.
At Ceres we offer Immune Broth to our clients, which contains carrots, onions, celery, potatoes, yams, garlic, parsley, sea salt, bay leaves, peppercorn, juniper berries, kombu seaweed, reishi mushrooms, astragalus root and codonopsis root. You can get the recipe here or in our Nourishing Connections Cookbook.
Cris Kresser, L.Ac.