Healthy Holidays

Holidays traditionally imply joyous times and celebrations with family and friends. However, with the holidays comes the stress of managing chores such as shopping, decorating the house and juggling professional and personal commitments. One of the most stressful phenomenon associated with celebratory times is managing your nutritional goals, while still being able to indulge in your favorite holiday foods and beverages. Studies have shown that the stress of the holidays creates a vicious cycle that results in overeating, not just to cope with the positive feelings associated with the holidays, but also the difficult emotions that may be triggered by such celebrations.

Holiday Food Makes Us Nutty
Foods typically consumed during the holidays can wreak havoc on our hormones and exaggerate our emotional responses to stress associated with celebratory times. While the nature of the stress may be different for each individual, the factors that cause such hormonal chaos are universal. Holiday foods can raise levels of cortisol, aka the stress hormone, in the blood. This elevation not only can result in accumulation of visceral fat (belly fat), thereby adding to the waistline, but also may lead to increased blood pressure, insomnia or sleep disturbances, reduced sex drive and a reduction in the body’s defense mechanism by weakening the immune system, thus making us more susceptible to getting a cold, cough or potentially the flu.

Holiday foods can have a direct impact on blood sugars and insulin levels, leading to the possibility of developing Type 2 diabetes in the long term. Ingredients such as sugars and transfats found in abundance in holiday foods also can affect your mood. Such ingredients are notoriously known for causing depression, inflammation and mood swings.

Holiday Foods Trigger Your Appetite
Although it is a no-brainer that processed foods rich in sugars and saturated fats will add inches to the waistline, the more serious consequences are their effects on the appetite hormones. Holiday foods tend to increase the appetite hormone that triggers hunger (ghrelin) while at the same time decreasing the response of the hormone that signals the feeling of satiety or fullness (leptin), resulting in increased consumption of calories, slowing of the metabolism and ultimately accumulation of fat around the midsection. Such imbalances in hormones can result in the predisposition to heart diseases, hypertension and diabetes in the long term.

How To Survive Holiday Food Mayhem
Here are a few tips to help reset the button on these various hormones that may go haywire during this time of the year:

Before reaching for that slice of pumpkin pie or cheesecake, indulge in lean, high-protein snacks such as Greek yogurt, nuts (almonds, walnuts, peanuts, cashews) or pumpkin seeds. Not only will this practice curb appetite, but also regulate metabolism.

Include healthy fats such as omega-3 fatty acids in your diet. Foods like avocado, tuna, flaxseed and nuts can help stabilize mood swings, reduce aches and pains and help combat emotional stress.

Go easy on the caffeine. Instead, substitute green tea for that sugar-laden latte. Antioxidants in green tea can help fight cancers, reduce blood pressure, help shed belly fat and prevent heart diseases.

When baking at home, use some healthy swaps. For example, if a recipe calls for butter try substituting healthy oils such as olive oil, grapeseed oil or flaxseed oil. Similarly, adding Greek yogurt can enhance the texture and moisture content while adding proteins and probiotics to the final product. In order to cut down on the sugar content, try swapping mashed bananas, dates, raisins or applesauce for some of the sugar.

Adding vitamin C-rich foods such as berries, tomatoes, greens and citrus fruits to the daily diet not only will boost the immune system, but vitamin C can reduce levels of cortisol and thereby shrink the waistline.

Alcohol consumption is synonymous with the holidays. Alcohol increases levels of cortisol, thereby adding fat to the midsection. In fact, alcohol not only results in belly fat accumulation but also causes migraines, depression, mood swings, anxiety and irritability. If you choose to indulge, it is best not to consume alcohol on an empty stomach. Consumption of a lean protein snack 30 minutes prior to alcohol consumption can prevent headaches and migraines brought on by alcohol consumption. Also, be sure to drink plenty of water, as alcohol is a dehydrating agent, resulting in premature aging of the skin.

Dr. Suman Ahuja completed her education at Columbia University College of Physicians and Surgeons in New York and at Texas Tech. She has a doctorate in Clinical Nutrition with an emphasis on obesity treatment and prevention. She defines nutrition as a form of functional medicine without which, chronic diseases cannot be treated or prevented.

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