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For many of us, the holidays are a time for celebrating with friends and family — but between the happy hours and the cookie swaps, you might feel like the season has thrown off your usual healthy-eating routine. There’s nothing wrong with allowing yourself to relax and enjoy some of your favorite treats or food traditions this time of year. Still, you might find that developing a strategy for approaching festive gatherings and celebratory shindigs can help you savor the season while staying connected to your health goals and values.

Try some of these tips for eating mindfully during the holidays.

1) Plan Ahead

Phoebe Lapine, author of The Wellness Project: How I Learned to Do Right by My Body, Without Giving Up My Life, suggests nixing caffeine in the morning to prep for your festive evening plans. “The holidays can turn into a vicious vice cycle if we’re not careful,” she says. “Instead of depending on coffee to add pep back in your step, try something like a golden milk latte with turmeric, which can help limit inflammation and won’t set you up for another crash by lunchtime.”

You might also be tempted to skip breakfast to “save” those calories for later, but having a balanced morning meal that includes protein and fiber is a better strategy for reducing cravings and keeping your blood sugar steady.

It’s also more supportive for your long-term metabolic health, according to Marcelle Pick, MSN, OB/GYN, NP. When you don’t eat enough calories, she explains, “your brain sends a message to your body to slow the metabolism. As a result, the cells cling to calories, rather than burning them quickly, and your metabolism downshifts.”

Pick notes that intentional nourishment is especially important for those with increased stress.

2) Honor Yourself

Because food and relationships are so deeply connected, you might feel a little extra pressure from your loved ones to indulge in certain treats during the holidays. Aunt Ellen’s cookies are a family tradition; Grandpa Ed would be offended if you didn’t dig into his roast beef.

“At the holidays, you’re often with people who mean a lot to you, and whom you don’t see all the time,” notes Jane Ogden, PhD, professor of health psychology at the University of Surrey in England and author of The Psychology of Eating. “As a result, you may be inclined to use food as a connecting point.”

You could counter a bit of that pressure by deciding ahead of time that you’re going to eat in a way that pleases and serves you, “not in a way that meets the social or family expectations of others,” Ogden explains.

3) Make It a Potluck

If you’re attending a party where you know the menu won’t align with your needs, consider contributing a dish that will. “If you come from a big family, holiday meals are likely a massive undertaking,” says Lapine. “Offer to bring a dish to the party, and make sure it’s something that you will feel good about eating. Especially for those of us with food allergies, it’s important that there’s at least one option at the table that’s safe (and delicious!).”

Best-selling cookbook author Danielle Walker concurs. “It can be difficult to navigate the holidays when you have food allergies and/or intolerances to specific ingredients,” she explains. “My best tip is to always bring something delicious that fits within your dietary restrictions and share it with everyone so there’s not a shred of doubt that eating well can still be possible.”  (Share one of these festive, Paleo-inspired recipes from Walker at your next gathering.)

4) Find Your 10

James Beard Award–winning food-and-wine writer Dara Moskowitz Grumdahl’s advice for balancing healthful eating and emotional indulgence is simple: Rank the food offered on a personal scale from zero to 10, with higher rankings going to the fare that will make you feel most satisfied. You might decide that anything below a certain number simply isn’t worth tabling your health goals for the evening.

For example, “If you go to the company Christmas party and a greeter at the door offers to hook a feedbag of powdered sugar over your ears, you can quickly decide: On a scale of zero to 10, I give this a zero,” Moskowitz Grumdahl explains.

This strategy could allow you to savor the spirit of the holidays without feeling deprived of all your favorite fare — while also minimizing the bloat, lethargy, and blood-sugar crash that might come after eating a plate of highly processed treats. “Sugar cookies at the in-laws might rate a four,” Moskowitz Grumdahl says. “As for my grandma’s Jell-O cake? That gets a nine or 10, no matter the day.”

5) Swap It Out

You may find that some of your favorite food traditions from holidays past simply don’t fit into your current lifestyle — at least, not with certain ingredients. Luckily, we’re living in a golden age of healthy food swaps. Whether that means going gluten-free or choosing a sugar alternative, you could find a way to include your favorite dish in the festivities with a few simple tweaks, like choosing a nut flour instead of all-purpose or sweetening your cookies with maple syrup rather than with white sugar.

“I might occasionally look at an old treat and feel a pang of nostalgia,” Walker admits. “But I’d rather focus on what I can enjoy. I’ve come up with re-creations of nearly every celebratory food that I once missed, so I no longer feel like I’m missing anything.”

6) Stay Hydrated

Good hydration is essential to your health: It aids digestion, helps you stay energized, keeps blood pressure and cholesterol in check, and so much more. If your happy hour is mostly booze and snacks, you could be setting yourself up for a seriously thirsty after-party.

“Having a glass of water after every drink can help lessen the blow to your liver and slow down your total consumption by giving you something else to sip on between eggnogs.”

“Even if you’re drinking in moderation, alcohol causes dehydration,” says Lapine. “Having a glass of water after every drink can help lessen the blow to your liver and slow down your total consumption by giving you something else to sip on between eggnogs.”

On top of using this strategy at gatherings, Lapine suggests keeping a reusable water bottle within eyesight the next day to encourage you to stay hydrated after the party’s over. “This will give you a visual reminder to drink water during the day, which can help ease a hangover headache or prevent one in the first place,” she explains.

7) Ditch the Guilt

Whatever food choices you make during the holidays, try to enjoy them without the side of shame or regret. Beating yourself up about occasional indulgences is bound to make any potential ill effects much worse. “Yes, the sugar is going to be bad for me,” says wellness educator Kenton Whitman, cofounder of ReWild University. “But having a stress response layered on top of that sugar is going to make it doubly so.” (See “The Metabolic Power of Thought” for more.)

This is partly because of your autonomic nervous system, according to Marc David, founder of the Institute for the Psychology of Eating and author of The Slow Down Diet. “The same part of our brain that turns on stress turns off digestion,” David explains. Likewise, he notes, “the part of the brain that turns on the relaxation response turns on full, healthy digestive power.”

So once you’ve made your food choice, also choose to savor it. That mindset will support your digestion and your enjoyment of a healthy, satisfying, and, yes, indulgent holiday season.

Experience Life magazine
Experience Life Staff

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