Suggested Citation: Garko, M. G. (2015, November). Finding a way to stay healthy through the holidays. Health and Wellness Monthly. Retrieved (insert month, day, year), from www.letstalknutrition.com.
Finding A Way to Stay Healthy Through the Holidays
Dr. Michael Garko (Ph.D.)
Syndicated Host & Producer of Let’s Talk Nutrition
Besides receiving that dreaded ugly Christmas sweater, there are any number of other unwanted holiday gifts such as colds and flu, a lot of stress, an abundance of unhealthy foods and beverages, loneliness, depression, traveling nightmares, never mind weight gain, the unhealthy, un-returnable gift that keeps on giving.
Despite these unwanted, unhealthy holiday gifts, finding a way to stay healthy through the holidays is an achievable goal, provided it is made a goal and there is a conscious attempt to put into practice nutritional and lifestyle strategies to maintain and enhance health.
The November, 2015, issue puts the holiday spotlight on effective nutritional and lifestyle strategies to increase the odds of finding a way to stay healthy through the holidays.
Nutritional Holiday Strategies
Practice Conscious Eating
Generally speaking, the phrase “conscious eating” means to engage in mindful eating instead of the mindless consumption of food and beverages. Specifically, conscious eating means becoming informed and creating a plan constituted of the best nutritional choices to make and then to put that plan into day-to-day behavioral action. In other words, think before you eat, especially during the holidays.
Unfortunately, mindless eating is a feature of holiday eating. In contrast to conscious eating, mindless eating more often than not reflects horrible habits of eating such as consuming high caloric, nutritionally void foods and beverages, eating too much, eating too fast and not eating enough, among other unhealthy eating behaviors. The recommendations which follow in this section on nutritional strategies are intended to provide readers with what would be the best nutritional choices to make and why during the holiday season and beyond the holidays.
Practice Portion Control
Make it a special point during the holiday season to practice portion control to help prevent overeating, gaining weight, putting undue metabolic stress on your body and surging blood glucose and insulin levels. Portion control is about serving size and practicing moderation. If you are not accustomed to practicing portion control, it might take several attempts to change the behavior of eating large portions. Nutrition is behavioral and biochemical in nature.
The Department of Health and Human Services National Institutes of Health at http://hin.nhlbi.nih.gov/portion/ provides examples of visual equivalents of what constitutes one serving size of particular foods in the categories of grain products, vegetables and fruits, dairy and cheese products and meat and alternatives.
Here are some examples of visual equivalents from the web site to help determine what constitutes one serving size for a particular food:
- One cup of cereal flakes is equivalent to a fist.
- One cup of salad greens is equivalent to a baseball.
- One-half ounce of cheese is equivalent to four stacked dice or two cheese slices.
- Three ounces of meat, fish and poultry is equivalent to a deck of cards.
Other examples are given at the web site, along with cards on which there are different food categories and visual examples of what constitutes one serving for a particular type of food. The cards can be cut out, laminated and put into a wallet or purse.
Speed racing is one thing. Speed eating is and entirely different matter. Eating quickly tends to block the release of certain gut hormones that create the feeling of satiety or feeling full. It is now recognized that eating too fast leads to the over consumption of food, overweight and obesity.
Researchers have discovered that lower concentrations of appetite-regulating hormones such as peptide YY (PYY) and glucagon-like peptide (GLP-1) are released in the gut after a meal. These hormones act on the brain in such a way as to signal fullness. Thus, if there are lower concentrations of these appetite-regulating hormones in the gut, there will be less of a sensation of fullness and a tendency to eat more. So eat slowly(see Kokkinos et al., 2009). It is important to remember the principle that nutrition is just as behavioral in nature as it is biochemical. It may take several attempts to learn to eat slowly.
Wait Before Going Back For Seconds
In conjunction with eating slowly, wait a few minutes before going back for seconds to help moderate your intake of food, prevent overeating and creating metabolic stress. It takes a little bit of time for the brain to send the signal or create the feeling that you are satiated or full. Engage in mindful eating during the holidays instead of the mindless consumption of calories.
Use Smaller Plates and Flatware
Common sense would indicate that smaller plates would prohibit the piling on of too much food and, thereby, help with practicing portion control and eating less. Perhaps what seems less intuitive is that using smaller utensils can also help with eating less.
Nevertheless, in a study entitled, “Ice Cream Illusions: Bowls, Spoons, and Self-Served Portions” researchers discovered that when study participants were provided a 34-ounce bowl instead of a 17-ounce bowl they served themselves 31% more ice cream. Furthermore, their servings increased by 14.5% when they were provided a 3-ounce spoon compared to a 2-ounce utensil. When they were given a large spoon and big bowl, they served themselves 56.8% more ice cream but were unaware of the greater ice cream quantities (see Georgia Institute Of Technology, 2006).
What is interesting, the study participants were nutrition experts. One would think that these folks would be more aware of food serving size and consumption but apparently not. One of the conclusions of the study was use smaller china and flatware because when people over-serve themselves they are more likely to overeat. It is known that people will eat approximately 92% of the food they put on their plates.
Drink Lots of Water
Water is essential for optimal health. The human body is made-up of at least two-thirds water. It is implicated in nearly every major bodily process (e.g., circulation, digestion, absorption, elimination, etc.) essential for sustaining life and maintaining good health. Therefore, if there is ever a time to drink adequate amounts of water (i.e., 6-8 eight ounce glasses a day), it is during the holidays. There are at least three good reasons to make drinking lots of water an essential strategy for staying healthy during the holiday season.
First, water is a natural appetite suppressant. It creates a feeling of satiety/fullness, thereby, functioning as an appetite suppressant to help prevent overeating. One way to maximize the appetite suppressant effect of water is to drink eight ounces of room temperature water right before a meal. It is not recommended to drink cold or ice water before or during a meal because it dampens (no pun intended) metabolic and digestive processes, leading to the deficient absorption of nutrients.
Second, water is also a natural way to help with the detoxifying the body, which really is a holiday strategy in-and-of-itself to stay healthy. During the holiday season there is a tendency to overindulge in alcohol, refined processed foods, sugar and fat laden foods, which are toxic to the cells, tissues, organs and systems of the body. Staying well hydrated will assist the detoxifying systems of the body such as the gastrointestinal system (i.e., liver, gallbladder, colon & entire gastrointestinal tract), respiratory system (i.e., lungs, bronchial tubes, throat, sinuses & nose), urinary system (i.e., kidneys, bladder & urethra), lymphatic system (i.e., lymph channels & nodes) and integumentary system (i.e., skin) to work more effectively in removing those impurities resulting from unhealthy holiday food choices.
Third, drinking lots of water during the holidays can help prevent dehydration. Dehydration can cause headaches, an inability to concentrate, drowsiness, constipation, impatience and irritability, among numerous other effects that can contribute to a poor sense of well-being and spoil the holidays. Dehydration can in at least two ways also contribute to the unwanted holiday gift of weight gain. First, it can cause fatigue which creates the desire to eat in order to feel energized, which in turn can result in consuming excess calories and weight gain. Second, an insufficient amount of water can impede the digestion of food and absorption of nutrients. This can lead to cravings and hunger pangs, which can result in consuming unnecessary calories to be stored as additional weight in the form of fat.
If readers are concerned about weight gain because of drinking too much water, they should not be. It is the dehydration that causes water retention and not the consumption of water because when the body is dehydrated it will tend to hold on to whatever water it has as part of a survival mechanism.
Eat A Balance of Carbohydrates, Fats and Protein
Throughout the holiday season make a concerted effort to eat a balanced diet consisting of carbohydrates, fats and protein. Diets high or low in one or the other of these macronutrients cause all sorts of health problems and nutritional imbalances and deficiencies. For example, eating a diet high in carbohydrates will trigger insulin release. High insulin levels tend to result in the body storing fat. Eating complex carbohydrates and “good: fats will serve to counterbalance or otherwise offset the carb-insulin get fat effect. Eating a diet high in protein and low in carbohydrates and fat results in other potential problems, some of which one of which are low energy levels and feeling lethargic, constipation from an adequate amount of dietary fiber, an overworking of the liver and kidneys and diminished cognitive functioning from lack of proper nourishment (i.e., glucose & essential fatty acids) to the brain, all of which can be disrupt the flow of having a good time during the holidays.
Use common sense during the holidays and follow the old adage of eating a balanced diet. The Untied States Department of Agriculture (USDA) created the following guidelines for the consumption of macronutrients:
- 45%-65% of calories derived from carbohydrates
- 20%-35% of calories derived from fats
- 10%-35% of calories derived from protein
More information on the USDA’s recommendations dietary guidelines can be found at http://www.health.gov/dietaryguidelines/dga2005/document/.
Divide Your Plate into Thirds
Visualize your plate as being divided into thirds. One third should be lean protein (e.g., turkey, chicken, fish, etc.) and the other two thirds should be vegetables and fruit, with more vegetables than fruit on the plate. Fat can be included in the meal from such foods as olive oil, meat or fish.
Limit Your Intake of Refined Processed Carbohydrates
Consuming refined processed carbohydrates is what gets people into a lot of dietary and nutritional trouble during the holidays. Carbohydrates in and of themselves are not bad. In fact, carbohydrates are essential to a healthful diet. They are the master fuel for the body. Carbohydrates can provide the necessary “good” calories, vitamins, minerals and fiber needed to meet the energy demands of the holiday season and to stay healthy during this time of year.
The nutritional recommendation is to eat the “good” carbohydrates derived from fruits and vegetables. The “bad” carbohydrates are found in foods made from highly processed white sugar and white flour. Highly refined white flour and white sugar in the form of sucrose (table sugar), dextrose (corn sugar), and high-fructose corn syrup are found in many of the foods served during the holiday season such as cakes, cookies, candy, crackers, soft drinks, pastries, potatoes and white rice to name a few. These refined carbohydrate foods contain lots of empty, non-nutritional calories and are high on the glycemic index (GI) scale. Eating foods with a high GI index rating will cause a rapid spike in insulin levels. Elevated insulin levels leads to the body storing more fat than it normally would, resulting in weight gain.
Eat Low-Energy Dense Foods
According to Rolls & Barnett (2002) and their nutritional theory of Volumetrics, the feeling of fullness people experience after eating is more a function of the amount or volume of food consumed than the number of calories or grams of fat, carbohydrate or protein consumed. Rather than the calorie content of what they are eating, it is the volume or amount of food that signals people to either continue or stop eating. Thus, eating low-energy dense foods during the holidays will help create a sense of fullness and, thereby, consuming less food.
Start With A Salad
As it turns out, salad greens and other vegetables put into salads (e.g., tomatoes, zucchini, broccoli, etc.) are low-energy-dense foods. These foods provide fewer calories for larger portions of food and create a feeling of fullness. Starting a holiday meal (or a non-holiday meal for that matter) with a salad will help with eating less food, while consuming less calories.
Manage Your Sugar Cravings
Although this holiday strategy is an elaboration on limiting the intake of refined processed carbohydrates, managing sugar cravings deserves special attention. To say that sugar is toxic to the body is an understatement. The documented deleterious effects of sugar are almost too numerous to list. Nevertheless, some of the harmful consequences of consuming too much sugar on holiday health would include:
- Suppressed immune system
- Elevated blood glucose and insulin levels
- Mineral imbalance (i.e., depletion of chromium and copper)
- Interference with the absorption of calcium and magnesium
- Interference with protein absorption
- Increase in systolic blood pressure
- Acidic digestive tract
- Increase in sodium and water retention
- Hyperactivity and anxiety
- Increase in cholesterol, triglycerides, homocysteine
- Increase in low density lipoproteins (LD)
- Decrease in lipoproteins
- Trigger food allergies
- Weight gain
The B vitamins, vitamin C, zinc, chromium, L-glutamine can help to modulate sugar cravings and assist in sugar withdrawals. Also, a diet made-up of complex carbohydrates (e.g., whole grains & vegetables) and protein will help to stabilize blood sugar levels and blunt the craving for sugar.
Limit Your Intake of “Lethal” Liquid Calories
Another nutritional trap people fall into during the holidays is to assume that it is better to substitute liquid calories for calories from solid food. Liquid calories are stealth calories in that they add up without you knowing it. Going to a holiday party and just drinking alcohol, soft drinks, juices or other liquids loaded with calories will rack up the calories and make it more difficult for you to manage your weight during the holidays. Moreover, it is important to understand that the bio-chemical mechanisms controlling hunger and thirst are different. As it turns out, liquid calories do not cause the brain to send the signal that you are full. Hence, you will more than likely end up eating anyway and maybe even overeating, leading to the consumption of calories above and beyond the liquid calories you already consumed.
Liquid candy (e.g., soft drinks, juices, etc.) and liquid pleasure (i.e., alcohol) will make you gain weight. Again, it is recommended to remain mindful about what you are consuming in terms of calories during the holidays and know that liquid calories are lethal.
Consume Alcohol In Moderation
Alcohol is not only lethal in terms of the calories it contains but it is also lethal in its overall nutritional and health impact on the body. For example, its diuretic effect promotes dehydration and the loss of nutrients. According to Haas (1992), “alcohol … uses nutrients that it does not provide for its own metabolism, impairs the metabolism of many others, and reduces liver stores of even more” (p. 952). Alcohol suppresses the immune system; it impairs the digestion and absorption of nutrients from the small intestine, especially the B-vitamins (e.g., B-1, B-2, B-6, B-12, choline & folic acid); it impairs the absorption of fat-soluble vitamins (e.g., Vitamins A, D, E & K) by the liver; and it impairs brain function. There are many other deleterious effects of alcohol on the body. Suffice it to say that consuming alcohol in moderation would go a long way in staying healthy during the holidays.
Increase Your Intake of Dietary and Supplemental Fiber
Include fiber rich foods (i.e., grains, fruits, vegetables & legumes) or supplemental forms of fiber in your diet to increase the odds of staying healthy during the holidays. There are two types of fiber, soluble and insoluble. Each type of fiber has its own unique chemical and physical properties, which provide certain health and gastrointestinal benefits that would be of special importance during the holiday season.
Some of the holiday health benefits of soluble fiber would be as follows:
- Helps regulate blood sugar/glucose and insulin levels by slowing down digestion in the stomach and small intestine, thereby, delaying the conversion of other carbohydrates into glucose which in turn delays the release and absorption of sugar and stabilizes blood glucose levels
- Helps increase the uptake of vitamins and minerals and other nutrients by slowing down the digestion in the stomach and small intestine and, thereby, allowing more time for food nutrients to remain in the digestive process and become absorbed
- Reduces blood cholesterol levels by dissolving in water and creating a thick gel which slows digestion and binds with cholesterol and bile salts preventing them from becoming absorbed
- Increases the feeling of satiety or fullness, thereby, helping to prevent overeating and weight gain
Some of the holiday health benefits of insoluble fiber would be as follows:
- Promotes regular bowel movements
- Helps to move bulk through the intestine
- Facilitates or speeds up the transit time in the colon by adding bulk to the stool allowing for a faster passage through the intestine, removing toxic waste material in less time and allowing for fermentation to take place along the entire length of the colon including the end
It is recommended that at least 35 grams of fiber be consumed daily. It is recommended further that a variety of whole grains, fruits, vegetables and legumes be eaten daily during the holidays so as to incorporate the two different types of fiber into one’s diet. In order to achieve the greatest health benefits from fiber, soluble and insoluble fiber need to be eaten daily in a ratio of 50:50. The following foods are good sources of insoluble fiber:
- Cereals made from bran or shredded wheat
- Crunchy vegetables
- Rye flour
- Wheat bran
- Whole wheat pasta
- Whole wheat products
Good sources of soluble fiber include:
- Citrus fruits
- Dried beans
- Oat bran
- Raw cabbage
- Rye flour
Many people do not eat enough fiber rich foods to reach the goal of 35 grams of fiber a day. Therefore, using fiber supplements is a useful way to include fiber in the diet. Be sure to drink plenty of water when eating fiber to prevent constipation and improve digestion and elimination.
Take Nutritional Supplements
It is important to take nutritional supplements during the holidays so that you can provide your body with the nutrients its needs to stay healthy or otherwise be at optimal nutritional status. At a minimum, it is recommended that you take a good multiple vitamin and mineral formula. Use the multiple as the foundation of your supplement protocol. Among other benefits, a multiple vitamin and mineral supplement will help restore those nutrients depleted by sugar (e.g., chromium & copper) and stress (e.g., Vitamin A, E & C, the B vitamins, zinc, selenium, calcium, magnesium, iron, potassium, sulfur & molybdenum) and assist in keeping the body at an optimal nutritional level.
The multiple vitamin and mineral can be augmented with a greens supplement. This will assist in keeping the body in an alkaline state and providing the body with those phytonutrients, vitamins, minerals, trace minerals, enzymes and other nutrients found in energizing green foods.
Augment the multiple vitamin and mineral formula with probiotics, digestive enzymes and a fiber supplement to help create a healthy digestive system. You are not just what you eat. You are also what you absorb. An unhealthy digestive system prohibits the proper absorption of nutrients to maintain an optimal nutritional status.
It is also recommended to take a potent antioxidant formula, immune formula and Omega 3 fish oil to keep the nutritional status of the body at an optimal level.
Don’t Show Up Hungry
Avoid falling into the trap of starving yourself, especially on those days when you will be attending some sort of holiday festivity. It is better to eat at least three and preferably four to five small meals during the day. This will keep your metabolic rate up (thereby burning calories), create a feeling of satiety/fullness and help moderate blood glucose and insulin levels. Skipping meals is a sure way to trigger an increase in appetite leading to binge eating and feeling lethargic or as if you do not have any energy. In short, it is nutritionally smarter to eat less and more often throughout the day. If by chance you get hungry between meals, try eating raw fruits, berries and vegetables, along with some nuts. Also, meal replacement bars are an excellent way of eating small meals throughout the day. They are relatively low in calories and contain a good balance of macronutrients (i.e., protein, carbohydrates & fats) and micronutrients (i.e., vitamins & minerals).
Avoid Starting a New Diet
One of the biggest mistakes people make is to start a weight-loss diet during the holiday season, a time when food is in abundance and the opportunities to eat are many. Wait until after the holidays to start any new diet program.
It is easier to manage and maintain a current weight than to lose weight. Common sense dictates that it is better to wait to start a new diet until the holidays are over. Even if you are overweight, the holiday season is not a good time to begin a diet program. It will put you under too much biochemical, emotional and psychological stress. The better and healthier strategy is to maintain your present weight and not to attempt to lose weight.
Don’t Abandon Your Healthy Eating Habits
You may already practice many of the nutritional recommendations outlined above. If you do, then keep on practicing them this holiday season. If your diet and approach to eating do not include the recommended nutritional strategies, then it would be of great benefit to try and include as many of them as you can into your day-to-day nutritional life. Instead of trying to implement all of them at once, you might consider trying one or two at a time.
Keep Your Body Moving
Do not abandon your regular exercise routine. Find ways to keep you exercise regimen going. As Plato said over 2,000 years ago, “Lack of activity destroys the good condition of every human being, while movement and methodical physical exercise save it and preserve it” (Plato). Regular physical activity, whether in the form of a structured exercise program or just part of daily living routines, will help to keep your body energized and healthy during the holidays.
Some of the short-term benefits of exercising and staying physically active during the holidays would include: More energy, a better sense of well-being, increased self-esteem and self-confidence, greater ability to cope with stress, healthier sleep and better able to fall asleep, burning of calories and weight management, along with better focus and concentration.
Get Adequate Sleep and Rest
It is vital to get an adequate amount of sleep and rest during the holidays. Sleep is when the body rejuvenates and repairs itself. Some of the health benefits of sleep that could be especially important during the holidays include: Strengthened immune system, reduced stress levels, reduced inflammation, more alert, better memory and better sense of well-being.
Staying healthy throughout the holiday season is an achievable goal, provided it is made a goal and there is a conscious attempt to put into practice nutritional and lifestyle strategies designed to maintain and enhance health, especially during times of stress such as the holidays.
Twenty-one different nutritional and lifestyle strategies were described and explained in this November, 2015 issue of Health and Wellness Monthy. They were:
- Practice conscious eating
- Practice portion control
- Eat slowly
- Wait before going back for seconds
- Use smaller plates and flatware
- Drinks lots of water
- Eat a balance of carbohydrates, protein and fat
- Divide your plate into thirds
- Limit your intake refined processed carbohydrates
- Eat low-energy dense foods
- Start with a salad
- Manage your sugar cravings
- Limit your intake of “lethal” liquid calories
- Consume alcohol in moderation
- Increase intake of dietary and supplement fiber
- Take nutritional supplements
- Don’t show-up hungry
- Avoid starting a new diet
- Don’t abandon healthy eating habits
- Keep your body moving
- Get adequate sleep and rest
There is no single nutritional and lifestyle strategy that will guarantee good health throughout the holiday season. Nevertheless, all of the discussed nutritional and lifestyle strategies can in combination increase the chances of staying healthy during the holidays. Some of the strategies may be easier than others to adopt. Some may even be part of your daily health regimen. The objective would be to put into practice as many as possible on a consistent basis throughout the holiday season. Even if there are days when you may falter, do not abandon your goal of achieving holiday health and keep putting into daily practice those nutritional and lifestyle strategies that you believe will help keep you healthy throughout the holiday season.
The holiday season is a time for family, friends, food, festivities and faith. Stay healthy and allow yourself the opportunity to enjoy all of these wonderful holiday gifts.
Kokkinos et al. Eating slowly increases the postprandial response of the anorexigenic gut hormones, Peptide YY and Glucagon-Like Peptide-1. Journal of Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 2009; DOI: 10.1210/jc.2009-1018
Garko, M.G. (2007). Losing and managing weight by replacing high-energy-dense foods with low-energy-dense foods. February. www.letstalknutrition.com
Garko, M. G. (2008a). Keep the body moving – Part I:
It’s all about the energy. Healthful Hints. February. www.letstalknutrition.com
Garko, M.G. (2008b). Keep the Body Moving –Part II: Dietary and nutritional principles and practices to energize and maximize physical activity. Healthful Hints, March. www.letstalknutrition.com
Garko, M.G. (2008c). Keep the Body Moving – Part III: Dietary supplements
to help energize and maximize physical activity. Healthful Hints. April. www.letstalknutrition.com
Georgia Institute Of Technology (2006, August 3). Smaller Bowls And Spoons Key To Eating Less. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 15, 2009.
Rolls, B & Barnett, R.A. (2002). Volumetrics weight control plan. New York: Harpertorch.
Suggested Citation: Garko, M. G. (2015, November). Finding a way to stay healthy through the holidays. Health and Wellness Monthly. Retrieved (insert month, day, year), from www.letstalknutrition.com.
 For a complete discussion of Volumetrics and the kinds of foods in the low-energy density category see the February, 2007, issue of Healthful Hints (see Garko, 2007).
 For a complete discussion on the exercise and physical-activity see the three-part series in Healthful Hints on Keep The Body Moving (see Garko, 2008a; Garko, 2008b; Garko, 2008c).