Well, the greatest, busiest, and arguably most delicious time of year has descended upon us. The holiday season is fun and fulfilling, there’s no doubt about that, but it takes a lot of planning and effort. It’s party after party, ugly sweater after ugly sweater, and turkey washed down with booze washed down with pie. And while booking flights, buying gifts, and planning meals (and eating them) aren’t the hardest tasks individually, combined they can start to overwhelm you.
So you need to go in with a gameplan. With the help of Dr. Pete Sulack, the founder of StressRX.com and Dr. Felicia D. Stoler, America’s Health & Wellness Expert™ and registered dietician, we came up with some holiday don’ts so you can enjoy the coming months completely guilt-free. So if you want to stay healthy this holiday season, NEVER...
...Starve yourself before a big meal
Let’s just forget about presents and “holiday cheer” for a second (whatever that is) and focus on what’s really important: the food. Turkey, stuffing, ham, sweet potatoes with the mini marshmallows on top, brisket, latkes -- are you drooling? From now through the end of the year, it’s just one big meal after another, but Stoler says you can’t starve yourself before the day’s biggest meal. “Binge-eating [during dinner] is ultimately what we’re trying to avoid. So if you eat throughout the day your body is being fed and you’re getting the nutrients you need,” she says. Without those nutrients, your body will lack the energy to do even the most basic activities of daily living.
Instead, try to eat at least three times a day. And Stoler says if you know what you’re going to be eating for dinner (which you usually do during the holidays), try and counterbalance that meal throughout the day. “Let’s say you’re going to be eating turkey on Thanksgiving or some other form of protein,” she says, “then maybe you’ll eat more plant-based earlier in the day in order to offset that.” Now that takes “meal prep” to a whole new level.
...Eat like it’s your last supper
If you want to avoid overeating, Stoler has one important tip: “Remember, it’s [just] a meal. We eat 365 days a year.” That’s not to say you shouldn’t enjoy every flavor that makes the holidays the holidays, but there are some guidelines you can follow. First, Stoler recommends you taste everything (seriously, this isn’t a joke) -- but just a spoonful. This way you’re not limiting yourself to what you can and cannot eat and still getting to taste all the flavors that make this time of year so special.
Here’s the important part: Once you finish those small spoonfuls, see if you’re full before taking more food. “We fill up our plates so high [and] want so much of everything because we know it tastes so good.” Instead, take a moment to digest, relax, and make sure there’s room for dessert. Gran made pecan pie.
...Isolate yourself from family and friends
If you’re not big on the holidays or the traditions that come along, that’s okay. It’s a joyous time of year and you should do whatever makes you feel joyous. That said, learn to recognize signs of depression and anxiety and don’t isolate yourself if you’re feeling like you need a little support. “Depression and anxiety lend themselves to other forms of illness,” Stoler says. “So a lot of people who struggle with anxiety, depression, and other mental illness then have other health issues as a result of that.”
Instead of letting those feelings compound, the Mayo Clinic suggests you don’t spend time alone if you don’t really want to. Reach out to family and friends, or even a religious or social community if you feel like it. However, if it becomes overwhelming to you, know that saying “no” is fine, too. Everyone loves a little “me time” -- especially the folks in Louisiana who seem to always be searching “how to make bath bombs.” But everything in moderation -- especially during the holidays.
...Book last minute flights
You’re pretty sure you shouldn’t book last minute flights to go see your family in Missouri, Indiana, Ohio, or wherever you hail from, but do you really know why? It’s because the iPhone 7 costs, like, $700, and you need to save every...single...penny you can to afford it. But really, it’s because if you book a flight 14 days out or less you’ll spend $111 more on average, according to CheapAir, who scanned 15,000 flights and prices. Tickets purchased within a week? $174 more. The sweet spot for domestic flights is 54 days, according to the experts.
Of course it’s not just about price. If you wait to book you’ll limit your options as well -- and no, we don’t mean your in-flight entertainment. (You’re almost always guaranteed last summer’s box office flops.) Though you’ll be paying more money, you’ll end up stuck with the “less attractive” flight options, meaning long connections, inconvenient times, and probably the middle seat between a screaming baby and a guy who drank way too much eggnog before he boarded.
...Use the break as an excuse to sit around and do nothing
If you’re a hard-working adult with a full-time job, you probably kissed summer break, winter break, and pretty much every other break goodbye when you graduated college. You also probably revel in the chance to sit on the couch for 10 hours straight watching Stranger Things. (Long live Barb.) And who can blame you? “One day of not moving isn’t gonna hurt anybody,” Stoler says, but the holidays aren’t an excuse to put your physical activity on hold.
“We need to exercise for so many reasons. We need to move and do physical activity for so many reasons -- for our mental health, to help us sleep better, to help us process our food, to work on range of motion and strength, balance. There’s just so many reasons why we should always be moving,” she says.
Earlier this year, we dug into just how damaging sitting really is for you. That’s right, sitting for more than three hours a day leads to almost 4 percent of deaths worldwide. Now, sure, that’s extreme, but sitting for more than three hours a day increases your risk of all those scary fates like heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and depression, among others. So just watch TV while you’re doing these easy at-home ab workouts.
Stoler suggests these apt holiday season workouts for when you’re stuck slaving over a hot stove. “If you’re just in the kitchen, use some downtime between dishes to do some squats, do some lunges, do some pushups off the side of a counter. If you’re using heavy cans of stuff, put those in a bag and do some bicep pulls. Just really trying to use your large muscles and do things to keep yourself active.”
The holidays were so much simpler when you were a kid. Take Christmas, for example. You made a list for Santa of all the things you wanted -- a new Hess toy truck, an Easy-Bake Oven -- and then you just tried not to be a little twerp so you’d actually get them. But it’s not that easy anymore: You need to get gifts for your brother, his wife, his wife’s mom’s live-in nurse -- that stuff’s complicated. Luckily, there’s a silver lining.
“Any time you give to others, it makes you feel good -- actually makes you feel good about yourself,” says Sulack. “And positive thoughts are actually proven to affect the stress centers of the brain and boost the immune system, allowing the body to deal with stress more effectively.”
So let’s say you volunteer in a soup kitchen or organize a toy drive, you’ll boost your immune system, increase your antibodies, and decrease inflammation in the body, giving you the ability to fight off this winter’s grossest flu like a champ.
...Forget to practice gratitude
Everyone has that one cousin, niece, or nephew who sits in front of the TV all night instead of socializing with the family. You think, Why did I buy this little brat the newest Just Dance and, honestly, can I keep it for myself instead? First of all, yes, we heard it has Justin Bieber’s “Sorry,” so save it for the next time your friends come over. And instead of a present, gift your spoiled little family member with THIS knowledge, courtesy of Sulack:
“People who practice gratitude have stronger immune systems,” he says. Sound familiar? In fact, several studies including this one from the University of Berkeley, California and this one from University of California Professor Paul J. Mills show that you’ll feel happier and your physical vitality (and heart health) will improve -- all by saying thank you more often. (You got that, people who think doors just magically stay open for them?)
“Be grateful for the things that you have, practice gratitude, and you’ll be amazed at how far that goes,” Sulack adds.
...Take your relatives’ annoying questions and concerns to heart
At almost every family function your relatives ask you the same intrusive questions: “So, uh, when are you gonna settle down?” “Meet any nice girls lately?” “When is your band gonna get famous?”
Sure, you could dodge those questions gracefully, or you could recognize your relatives’ true intentions. “The questions most of them are asking are simply because they want to have a conversation with you,” Sulack says. “Maybe they’ve lost touch with you and they’re trying to find common ground.” Once you realize this, however, it’s easy to keep the stress in check. You kind of go in thinking, Hey, someone’s gonna annoy me, but I’m gonna grab a beer and keep my cool. And guess what? You will.
“Stress affects the irrational and primitive part of the brain,” he explains. “So all of a sudden you start saying stuff you don’t usually say, and you spout off when you don’t usually spout off. But we can control that with our conscious mind.” Just take a step back, realize what’s happening through this new perspective, and you’ll be able to manage that stress a hell of a lot better.
...Go zero to 60 when you’re trying to work off the holiday pounds
And thus concludes the holiday season full of movie marathons and forced family fun and all of mom’s best dishes -- all of them. This time of the year is about indulging and enjoying, and there’s nothing wrong with that. But don’t overexert yourself with exercise or dieting. “Going zero to 60 is a bad idea because that 60 might not have been what you were doing before,” Stoler says. “I look around and I see folks [dieting] and I think, ‘If you made small changes every day you wouldn’t feel like you needed to do something extreme.’ So if people made changes they could live with then they’d be more likely to stick to it.”
Instead of going to extremes, just try and incorporate healthier choices into your daily life -- choices that reflect your food preferences. For example, Stoler suggests cooking with Malaysian palm oil instead of butter. It’s derived from plants, so it’s better for you than all that fermented cream and milk, but it’s buttery taste will leave you satisfied. Subtle changes like this, Stoler says, are more sustainable. “If it’s not something that you can do 90 percent of the time, let’s say, then it’s not gonna work,” Stoler advises.