The key to a healthy holiday is finding the right balance

It may have a nice ring, but having “healthy holidays” can seem impossible. 

Between work, friends and family festivities, it’s no surprise we often find our physical and mental health left waiting in the wings until New Year’s Day [1]. Suppose you’re feeling stressed or overwhelmed during this time of year. In that case, you are not alone. 

A previous survey by the National Alliance of Mental Illness (NAMI) showed 63 per cent of people admitted feeling too much pressure during the holiday season [2]. 

Get to know how to manage a healthy diet while still enjoying all of your favourite holiday desserts and how to create space for your mental health despite the festive rush. 

A healthy holiday season can be simpler than you think. Balance is all you need. 

Illness seems to be served on a silver platter during the winter months. You’ll be sipping the best cocktail for a cold this Christmas if you combine frigid temperatures with irregular sleep cycles, fewer fruits and vegetables than recommended, a whirlwind social schedule, and a few too many glasses of wine [3]. In addition to a stuffy nose, the holidays can potentially harm your health, affecting everything from your blood pressure to your mental well-being.

A Christmas holiday effect

The “Christmas Holiday Effect” has been documented in research over the late-December holiday period in the US (although it applies to all holidays during this time of year). During the holiday season, the cold climate in the US can lead to an increase in cardiovascular deaths, according to a study published by the Journal of the American Heart Association in 2016.

According to the study, 4.2 per cent of cardiac events occur outside a hospital between Decemver 25 and January 7. “Heart disease patients have a tough time during the holidays,” says cardiologist and medical director at Northwestern Medicine Glenview in Glenview, Illinois, Micah J Eimer, MD. There is an increase in patients presenting with issues relating to poorly controlled blood pressure, ischemic heart disease and fluid management. 

Worldwide, the Christmas Holiday Effect is observed. Norway published a study in 2021 noting increased rates of cardiovascular deaths during the holiday season. Sweden and Canada also reported similar trends. 

Christmas holidays are associated with high cholesterol, according to a 2018 Danish study. There is still a need for more analysis to determine a specific cause. Still, experts believe these conditions are linked to elevated heart rates, blood pressure, weight, cholesterol, cardiovascular disease risk and changes in activity level, all of which are common in winter [4].

Establishing balance in your body

In addition to sugar-laden, rich, fatty foods, holiday celebrations come with the worry of gaining weight. There is a myth that Americans gain five pounds every year due to holiday indulgences – but it is totally untrue. 

Holiday weight gain is less dramatic than we think, contrary to popular belief. An effort to control weight did not seem to affect the weight gain or loss between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, according to a study done by the United States Department of Health and Human Services in 2015. 

During the holiday season, participants gained an average of 0.37 kilograms (about 0.8 pounds). However, in a month filled with cocoa and cookie dough, there are plenty of diets and tips to maintain healthy eating habits. 

Could there be a happy, enjoyable middle ground between the January gym rush and the traditional family treats? Mayo Clinic and National Board certified health coach and three-time author Sarah Hays Coomer believes it does. 

Indulge with intention

As Coomer puts it, “if we are always thinking about what we aren’t able to do, then we will lash out.” People worry about their health and weight. We are used to the all-or-nothing mindset, but a balanced life allows room for indulgence.

Choose the indulgences that matter most to you and choose them in their best form, says Coomer. She says you don’t need that much of what you want if you have the richest, truest version of it. 

For those worried about portion size, Coomer recommends pre-making sweets and freezing them, so you’re only consuming one cookie instead of a tray of 12. Don’t be afraid to dream big, though. You should enjoy the indulgence to the fullest, regardless of the size.

According to Judy Ho, PhD, a licensed clinical and forensic neuropsychologist at Pepperdine University and a published author, people often disregard healthy eating habits during this time of year. 

Food is used as a social tool and a reward during the holidays, so people think they deserve a free pass. If others eat, you may eat, too, even if you don’t feel hungry.” According to research, people tend to overeat in groups and sometimes overdrink to keep up.

Dr Ho says that the promise of a clean slate on January 1 is often another reason to abandon healthy eating practices during the holidays. In reality, however, 80 per cent of people who make New Year’s resolutions give up on them by February, making this perspective often need to be more informed. 

As an alternative to resolutions, Dr Ho offers practical solutions to help relieve stress surrounding holiday eating:

  • Slow down and be mindful while eating.
  • Smaller plates are better. 
  • When you’re hungry, it takes about 20 minutes for hunger and fullness cues to become more prominent.
  • You won’t be tempted to eat everything at a party if you have a healthy snack before going.

Coomer encourages people to put these practices into place now, even as cookie cravings begin to set in. She adds that indulgence should be year-round. Indulge and enjoy and not feel deprived for your entire life, and then you won’t need to throw it all out in this one month,” she explains. 

Embrace your “gut instinct”

In the holiday season, we eat more than just to gain weight. The weather is turning bitter and viruses are on the rise, so we need to find balance and ensure our bodies’ nutrition and defenses aren’t compromised. Gut health is at the heart of that protection. 

In Danone North America, Miguel Freitas, PhD, vice president of health and scientific affairs, says 70 per cent of the immune system resides in the gut. It is clear from that fact alone that the foods we eat interact with our gut bacteria and immune cells. 

According Freitas, gut health is increasingly recognised as the foundation of overall health. Among those surveyed, 43 percent recognized a link between gut health and immunity, according to a recent study conducted by Danone (a food company concentrated on probiotics and gut health research) [5]. 

As part of its efforts to prevent, diagnose, and treat disease and infections in the public health field, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) recognizes the importance of gut health. You don’t have to compromise on your gut health even if you enjoy holiday fare. You can find balance by following these tips:

  • Eat a small meal
  • Consume fermented foods
  • Eat foods with fibre
  • Drink plenty of water
  • Get enough sleep

When it comes to supplements, keep in mind that probiotics aren’t an all-in-one solution for perfect health, but instead are part of a larger gut-focused program that promotes overall health. 

Embrace movement with joy

With holiday travel and traditions, it’s easy to feel that you have no time for normalcy, especially with your fitness routine. According to a four-year study tracking Americans’ exercise habits, Americans exercise less in winter, particularly in December, because of the pile-on of events and tasks that must be done before the holidays arrive. 

In spite of this, the holidays can be a short time to put all your efforts into physical fitness to waste. As long as you stick to your exercise routines, you’ll feel better than you did before the holidays.

You can also walk in a group when time is tight and family activities take precedence over gym sessions. Just grab your sneakers and go.

Identify your touchpoints

Coomer suggests using a helpful technique she calls “touchpoints” if you’re trying to maintain a fitness routine or break some unhealthy habits ahead of the new year. “These rituals or interruptions let you choose from a conscious place, so you don’t just do things on autopilot.” 

You’re more likely to make a conscious decision when you’re confronted with touchpoints. “They are buttresses, adding an awareness step before the action,” says Coomer.  

Coomer recommends asking yourself the following questions to figure out your touchpoints:

  • How can you improve your day by bolstering and reinforcing it? 
  • How do you spend your mornings, afternoons and nights? 
  • How do you stay in touch with your body? 

We all have different touchpoints. Some people hop out of bed and want to run, while others are barely functional and their practice may be a cup of coffee.

As Coomer points out, touchpoints can also be triggered by dissonance or pain. Create a touchpoint to keep you on track, such as setting a time for a snack or stretching in the afternoon, if you feel brain fog in the morning. 

Consider what makes you feel good, awake, engaged, and at peace as a way to identify your touchpoints. “Play with these options on this menu so you can see which feel like a chore or a relief you could do every day,” says Coomer. You’ll crave it if it’s truly something that feeds you.

Take touchpoints on the go – to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving or a parent’s house for Hanukkah. Your touchpoints will be there to ground and relieve you no matter the holiday. 

A touchpoint can also be a quick, small action that helps you regain focus when you’re in a hurry. Here are some examples:

  • Holding a cube of ice
  • Putting your hands under cold water
  • Performing a plank
  • Snapping or stretching an elastic or rubber band

No matter the season, touchpoints allow you to be present and clear-minded to make the best decisions and set your day up for success. 

Many people don’t realise that when they fall into patterns that don’t serve them, they generally feel worse. If you’re truly in tune with your body, it will be clear when something isn’t working.

[1] https://www.forbes.com/health/body/healthy-holiday-guide/
[2] https://hangerclinic.com/blog/for-patients/a-guide-to-healthy-holidays/
[3] https://pubmed.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/9200634/
[4] https://www.tandfonline.com/doi/full/10.1080/17439884.2021.1941098
[5] https://www.foodnavigator.com/Article/2022/12/09/danone-supports-research-exploring-covid-19-s-microbiome-impact-food-and-nutrition-can-have-an-important-role

Photograph: Impact Photography/Shutterstock
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