Some people love the holidays, and others dread this season. Most people are somewhere in between. Whatever camp you’re in, they almost certainly add stress to your life in some capacity simply because they add more THINGS to your already full calendar, and there is 80 years’ worth of medical literature citing the negative impact of stress on disease formation and early mortality. If you’re a stress eater, this can be a problem season all by itself; but adding in all the indulgent party food can be a recipe for disaster. It’s way too easy to let healthy habits go in the midst of all the festivities, but this is when they are even more important!
Below are my top 8 Holiday Health Hacks
- Stop saying yes when you mean no.
You don’t have to say yes to every party, so consider what your physical and emotional bandwidth is for social events. Time is definitely my most precious commodity, and overscheduling social events adds to my stress because I don’t wind up having enough time to nurture myself in the ways I know are best for me.
So, if you’re like me, consider if you would be attending because it will fill your heart, or because you feel obligated or have FOMO. Think back — do you typically come home from parties energized or exhausted?
Attending SOME social events (even if you don’t enjoy this season) is important because isolation is worse for your health than smoking, obesity, and high blood pressure (~30% increased risk of premature all-cause mortality). And yet overscheduling can cause stress which is also terrible for your health. So, like most things, it’s about finding the balance and the number of events right for YOU.
Scheduling self-care in your calendar each week will help make sure you don’t get socially overscheduled.
2. Limit and plan your meals out.
Not everyone is like me — some people are fueled and energized by large social events, and they would be delighted to attend a party every day this holiday season. But life is about choices, and balance is key.
Regardless of what season it is, I recommend preparing meals at home the vast majority of time because when you’re eating at restaurants (or holiday parties) you really have no idea what you’re consuming in terms of chemicals, sugar, calories, or macros.
Consistently eating at home can be more difficult over the holidays because social events abound and we are already busy, so planning will be especially important. Otherwise, I can almost guarantee that home cooking will slide down the priority list and takeout will creep in more and more. This can take a toll on your health because one meal out can easily be the # of calories eaten in an average entire day at home even if you’re not eating to the point of being stuffed.
Don’t let that scare you though. Social eating is an important part of life, especially around the holidays. Additionally, your body actually wants to stay in balance at its current weight, and there’s actually quite a wide allowable calorie consumption range (different for everyone). Barring any medical complications, if you’re eating predominantly home-cooked whole-foods, ½ your plate is consistently veggies, and you’re paying attention to signs from your body, you should stay in that range even without tracking. But if you go outside that range in either direction long enough, your weight will change. I can guarantee you that.
The more meals you eat out, the more opportunity you have to throw your average ranges off, and you’ll have no idea how far you’ve thrown them off because you don’t know what is in the food. I do go out to eat, and I enjoy every bite, but not usually more than twice a week.
3. Choose wisely and ask for healthier swaps
Even though you won’t know exactly what’s in the food, there are usually healthier options on most menus. If you have options, order something with a lot of veggies and protein.
- Salads and steamed veggies are great options.
- Opt for grilled instead of fried and whole grains instead of pasta.
- Skip the breadbasket, or at least skip the butter.
- Ask them to go light on the oil in your omelet.
- Stay away from heavy cream sauces.
- Get your dressing on the side.
- Ask for extra veggies instead of noodles.
Don’t feel bad about asking for swaps. You’re paying for the food, so be an advocate for your health.
4. Indulge wisely
There’s nothing wrong with an indulgent meal once or twice a week, just make sure the rest of your meals are healthy and nutrient-dense with plenty of veggies and protein.
Plan those indulgences and be prepared for the consequences. Sometimes I go out for a burger and fries, or an ice cream, but I’ve planned for that event, so I usually eat a lighter (but very nutrient-dense) breakfast and lunch those days. This does NOT mean I don’t eat — that would only lead to even more intense cravings and over-eating later on.
Also, be prepared for the physiological consequences the next few days. When you eat relatively clean, you will feel better, but you may also have bigger the consequences when you do indulge. Sometimes the indulgence is worth it, but I know I won’t feel my best the next day. I probably won’t sleep well that night, I’ll struggle with cravings for the next few days, and I definitely will need extra water.
Bottom line — However often you decide to eat out, and whatever you choose to order, plan for them, so they don’t creep in unexpectedly. Be consistent so you can get your body in a routine. It’s the impulsive decisions around food because of poor planning that are really the culprit. So, if you typically eat two meals a week out of the home, and you want to go to 2 holiday parties, I suggest you make those your two meals out. As always, drink plenty of water, but maybe even have extra on the day of and the day and “indulgence”.
And, if you have a giant question mark above your head because there’s no rhyme or reason to when you eat at home vs. away, and you have no idea how many meals on average you eat out of the house, we should probably talk!
5. Don’t go to the party hungry.
This just makes sense. If you show up hungry, you’ll eat more.
Remorselessly eating chips/dips, charcuterie, and savory desserts at 6 or 7 holiday parties this season can take a physical and emotional toll. But so can denying yourself completely. Social engagement is important for our health, so if the party centers around food, it would be important that you give yourself permission to participate. But if you eat a nutrient-dense meal before you go, the party nibbles will be just that…nibbles for the sake of socializing rather than for fuel.
6. Choose healthy swaps – at parties and at home
- a. Swap the chips for nutrient-dense, fiber-rich options that will fill you up like carrot or celery.
- b. Bring something homemade that’s healthy. Worst case scenario, you can eat a lot of whatever you bring!
- c. Watch the cheese (or really all )portions – Moderation is key, and cheese is very calorie-dense and can be inflammatory. There are about 100 (depending on the cheese) calories per ounce, which is only about the size of a domino! And if you’re anything like me, it’s very easy to wind up with 6 pieces of cheese on the plate. Throw in a few pieces of salami, some chips and guac, and a cookie or two and you are easily sitting at 1500 calories. For light hors d’oeuvres that barely filled you up! So, you may wind up hungry two hours later and pack away an entire meal!
- d. Swap the wine for club soda
- e. When cooking your meals at home consider some up-healthed options.
- Use nonfat Greek yogurt instead of butter and mayonnaise,
- Double the veggies in all your recipes,
- Use chickpea flour instead of white flour,
- Use coconut sugar, honey, maple syrup, or Swerve instead of white sugar,
- Use palmini noodles or spaghetti squash instead of white noodles,
- Skip the bacon or cut it in half,
- Skip the oil in the pan and use a splash of water instead,
- Mash up cauliflower instead of potatoes,
- Aim for fresh veggies instead of canned.
- Do you really need all that oil in the dressing? Most recipes are 2/3 oil. I usually at least cut that in half and double the vinegar or lemon juice.
7. Don’t forgo your exercise or meditation.
In fact, increase it. It’s tempting to cut out both of these when we feel overwhelmed or overscheduled. That’s when it’s even more important.
Track your steps and try to double them. One simple way to do this is to incorporate post-meal walks into your routine. Not only will this increase steps if this isn’t already in your practice, it can also help digestion and provide time to recharge emotionally. It’s a great stress management tool!
8. Try to stick to your sleep schedule.
This is always the hardest one for me; there’s only so much time in a day and when I get busy with all the “extras” required over the holidays (see #1), sleep is the first thing to go. If family is in town or you’re out later than normal at parties, sticking you’re your routine can be difficult. But, when you interrupt your sleep pattern it can take time to get it back, and we know that irregular sleep schedules can lead to poor sleep quality, fatigue, weight problems, cravings, and poor eating habits. None of those will serve us in staying healthy this holiday season. So, I’ll be trying to wake up and go to bed at the same time I usually do. Wish me luck!