This time of year, family dinners, cocktail parties, and get-togethers pack our calendars and fill us with festive fare. But while the season is a welcome and joyous time, it is all too easy to overindulge.
Along with sticking to your exercise regimen and taking time to rest and de-stress, a little planning and the following simple nutritional strategies can help you stay healthy and maintain your weight.
Holiday Health Strategy #1: Beware of Hidden Hydrogenation
Buttery pies and flaky-crusted appetizers, piping hot from the oven, are oh-so-alluring. That is, until you find out they are loaded with trans-fats. Unless you are hosting the party or made the dish yourself, it’s safe to assume the baked goods being passed around are of the store-bought variety, which are typically packed with partially hydrogenated oils. If you’re going to avoid any food during the holidays, you should skip the puff pastries and pies. Reach, instead, for whole foods like shrimp cocktail, crudites, and baked sweet potatoes.
Holiday Health Strategy #2: Don’t Fall Victim to the Drink Dilemma
Most cocktails have around 150 calories, but many festive sips can pack a whopping 300 calories and more than 20 grams of sugar (like traditional egg nog). Because your body doesn’t register liquid calories the same way it does calories from food, this can easily equate to an extra pound of fat on your body. And it’s not only the calories, but also the way in which we process alcohol. When you drink alcohol, your body will burn through acetate – a byproduct of alcohol metabolism – instead of body fat.
To ensure that you don’t fall victim to the drink dilemma, consume in moderation. To reduce sugar and calories, choose light, non-sweet cocktails and “cut” fruit juices with sparkling mineral water. (And if you drink, be sure to see Strategy #7 below on folate.)
Holiday Health Strategy #3: Stay Off the Hormone Roller Coaster
Foods rich in refined carbohydrates spike your blood sugar and put your body on a hormone roller coaster, triggering more hunger and more eating.
To avoid this destructive cycle, focus your holiday plate on lean proteins (including organic poultry, wild fish, and grass-fed meats), healthy fats (like nuts and olive oil), and nutrient-dense veggies (especially leafy greens and crucifers). Beware of the refined carbs lurking in not-so-obvious places – like sauces and gravies made with white flour.
Holiday Health Strategy #4: Choose a Smaller Plate for Less Weight
With a large spread, it’s tempting to grab a big plate and try everything the host has to offer. A good strategy is to scope out the buffet line first and choose the items you’ll be having (opting for the roasted Brussels sprouts instead of the creamy casserole, of course). Then, when it’s time to dine, use a small plate to help keep portions (i.e., calories) under control. And remember… nothing tastes as good as thin feels!
Holiday Health Strategy #5: Makeover Your Old Desserts
Did you know that one piece of pecan pie has more than 500 calories, 65 carbohydrates, and 32 grams of sugar? And that eating 100 grams of sugar can reduce your immune system’s ability to kill germs by a whopping 40 percent! Not only does sugar depress your immune system, it meddles with your endocrine machinery, encourages fat storage, promotes cancer, and physically ages you through the production of advanced glycation endproducts (AGEs).
The good news is that now you have a sweeter option – erythritol. This “almost sugar” is all-natural, has no calories, and has a glycemic index of zero. Use it cup for cup in all of your favorite recipes to safely sweeten and delight your guests. (They’ll never know the difference!)
Holiday Health Strategy #6: Chew on This
Have you ever been “done” eating, only to make your way back to the buffet line one last time? Here’s a surefire way to send your body the message that the kitchen’s closed: Chew a piece of all-natural, sugar-free gum. Not only does peppermint taste terrible with mashed potatoes, but chewing gum has been found to reduce hunger and specifically stave off cravings for sweets (according to recent research published in the journal Appetite).
Holiday Health Strategy #7: Bolster Your Immune Arsenal
We often don’t think of our immune system – until it fails us. And stress, alcohol, sugar, and lack of sound sleep and sunshine – known immune wreckers – are par for the course during the holidays.
The good news is that you can strengthen your defenses and get your immune system in tip-top shape to guard against many common winter woes. Along with a high-quality whole-foods multivitamin/mineral and a fish oil supplement (both of which you should be taking every day), here are some of the best-known immunity boosters to keep on hand:
- Vitamin C – Boosts the production of infection-fighting white blood cells and antibodies and also increases interferon – the antibody that coats cells’ surfaces and makes them impenetrable to viruses. While 200 mg per day is what many experts recommend, you may want to increase your intake to 1,000 mg per day.
- Vitamin D – An essential part of a healthy immune system. Vitamin D receptors are found in most cells of the immune system, and this “sunshine vitamin” is now known to reduce the risk of many diseases (including cancer, diabetes, and heart disease). To optimize your vitamin D levels, opt for 10-15 minutes per day of unprotected sunlight or between 2,000 and 4,000 IU daily in supplement form (as recommended by Jon Herring and Dr. Al Sears in Your Best Health Under the Sun).
- Folate – Helps to protect against alcohol-induced DNA damage. Recent studies show that 650 mcg of folate per day negates the increased risk of colon and breast cancers associated with alcohol consumption.
- Selenium – Increases natural killer cells and mobilizes the body’s cancer-fighting cells. And just one Brazil nut provides a hefty 100 mcg (about 150 percent of the RDA) of this immune-boosting micromineral.
- Garlic – Stimulates infection-fighting white blood cells, boosts natural killer (NK) cell activity, increases the efficiency of antibody production, and acts as a natural antioxidant and adaptogen.
- Zinc – Boosts the number of infection-fighting T cells, especially in those with weakened immunity. Aim for 15-25 mg per day.
- Adaptogens (astragalus, andrographis) – These plant-derived agents help your body adapt to and defend against stress by enhancing your immune artillery. Take adaptogens during the prodromal phase or initial onset of illness (for example, as soon as you feel that slight tingle in your throat or tightness in your chest).
Following these simple nutritional strategies can help you stay healthy now, so you don’t pay a big price later. But don’t be afraid to savor a taste of your favorite holiday food and splurge a bit. Remember, wellness is all about balance!