Master Holiday Health Pitfalls

The holidays are upon us. If you’re one of the people who has a love-hate relationship with this time of year, you’re not alone. The season brings family and friends together, and they’re a time for celebrating and observing family traditions. On the other hand, the holidays can spell danger for those who are trying to lose weight, maintain their weight or stick with a healthful eating and activity routine. And given that the holiday season now seems to begin at Halloween, you’ve got a long way to go until it ends. This year, make a plan to master those holiday pitfalls so that, come January 1, you’re on track with your health goals.

Holiday shopping

Unless you’ve started your holiday shopping in July, chances are you’ll be making at least one trip (if not 10) to the mall. And if you’re like many busy, harried shoppers, you might be waiting until the last minute to get gifts for everyone on your list. If you’re stopping by the mall after work, or spending countless hours roaming from store to store, you’re bound to get hungry. Before you know it, you’ve ended up at the food court or a fast-food joint, and the aim of eating a healthful meal or snack quickly flies out the mall door.

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Strategies

• Ideally, plan your shopping strategy ahead of time. If you usually wait until December 23, try spacing out your shopping much sooner, starting in September or October. Doing so can lessen stress and keep you focused on eating healthfully.

• Don’t shop on an empty stomach. If you don’t have time to eat a healthful meal before you battle the crowds, grab a piece of fruit and a handful of nuts, or eat an energy bar that contains protein to fuel your shopping spree.

• If you’ve been marathon shopping, take a break to re-energize. Try to steer clear of fast-food restaurants, and instead aim for a sit-down restaurant that offers healthier fare such as soups, salads, sandwiches on whole grain bread or veggie pizzas.

Goodies in the workplace

Working in an office generally means that boatloads of fattening, sugary treats make an appearance in the breakroom or on your co-worker’s desk. Leftover Halloween candy, homemade cookies and brownies, holiday-themed doughnuts…you name it, it’ll be there.

Strategies

• Depending on where you work and taking into account “office politics,” consider chatting up your co-workers, boss or even the human resources director to map out a plan for dealing with holiday treats at work. Options include keeping all treats in a separate room or area that’s not readily accessible or visible, limiting the amount of food that people bring in or asking people to bring in something that’s healthier or lower in calories such as fruit or vegetables with a low-calorie dip.

• If this tactic isn’t an option—or goes over like a lead balloon—focus on making your own plan. This may include keeping healthier snacks at your desk, such as fruit, nuts or whole grain crackers. Keep a water bottle at your desk to remind you to drink enough water during the day. Stay on the move whenever possible—walk over to talk with your colleagues rather than sending email, take the stairs and take a three-minute activity break every 30 minutes.

• Still tempted? Allow yourself a treat, but just one—decide what’s worth the calorie splurge and take a small portion. Then, enjoy.

Cocktail parties or happy hours

Celebrating is the name of the game during the holidays. In fact, this season practically guarantees that alcohol will be flowing. While enjoying a drink or two is perfectly reasonable, it’s also easy to get carried away when you’re caught up in the holiday “spirit.” However, along with nursing a hangover the next day, you may be dismayed that the pounds start to pile on after indulging a little too often. It’s all too easy to forget that alcohol contains calories, especially when drinks go down so smoothly. Also, if you have diabetes, be prepared for ups and downs in your blood sugars.

Strategies

• Choose your drink wisely. White wine, prosecco, champagne, light beer and vodka are lower-calorie options. Flavored vodkas are another good choice. They’re infused with a variety of flavors ranging from green apple to cucumber to pomegranate to vanilla, but without syrups. Shy away from sugary cocktails such as piña coladas, margaritas, chocolate martinis or frozen mudslides, which can cost you close to 400 calories per drink. If a gin and tonic is your favorite, find out if diet tonic water is an option. Save 100 calories by mixing your rum with a diet cola rather than a regular cola.

• Be aware that drinking alcohol can jumpstart your appetite. Also, with a few drinks under your belt, it’s easy to blow off your good intentions of curbing portions and making better food choices. While it’s smart to never drink on an empty stomach, it’s even smarter to seek out more nutritious options if they’re available, including fruit, vegetables, nuts, pretzels, popcorn or whole-grain crackers. Better yet—eat something healthful before you head to the party.

• Limit your libations. Alternate an alcoholic drink with a nonalcoholic one. For example, sip on a glass of white wine; when that’s gone, switch to a glass of seltzer with lime. Doing so will limit the amount of alcohol and calories that you ingest and help you to stay hydrated (and avoid the pounding headache the next morning).

Eating away from home

Hosting a holiday meal is a lot of work for anyone, but doing so does give you a certain amount of control over what and how much you serve. However, if you’re headed elsewhere for dinner, you might find yourself in a dilemma—after all, you’re at the mercy of what your host will be offering and what others will be bringing.

Strategies

• Scout out the menu ahead of time. If your holiday host/hostess is a family member or close friend, find out what dishes will be served so you can plan out your food choices.

• Offer to bring a healthful dish that you can eat and others can enjoy, too. Salads, a veggie platter, mashed “potatoes” made with cauliflower, a noodle dish made with zucchini instead of pasta, or a crustless pumpkin or fruit pie are a few ideas.

• Buffet-style meals can be either a help or a hindrance. Before you dive in and make your way down the line, do a quick survey of the offerings to help you decide how you’ll fill your plate. Hone in on salads, vegetable dishes that aren’t swimming in butter, cream or cheese, seafood, chicken or turkey (minus the skin) and broth-based soups. Use the plate method, which entails filling half of your plate with vegetables, a quarter with a lean protein, and a quarter with a healthy carb such as brown rice, sweet potato, beans or fruit. Skip the fattening gravies and sauces.

• If you’re unsure of what meal awaits you, fall back on the strategy of eating a snack or even a small meal before you go. A bowl of chicken noodle or minestrone soup, plain Greek yogurt topped with berries and a handful of almonds, or some nut butter spread on apple or pear slices will give you both carb and protein to keep hunger at bay.

Pressure to eat

Holidays mean special treats and traditions. Yet, many people face this time of year with trepidation or even dread because of peer pressure to eat. This pressure can be completely innocent: “Have a slice of my homemade fruitcake.” It can also be tied to sabotage, with family or friends coercing you to eat or telling you that, “You don’t need to lose weight” or “Come on, lighten up and have some!” And then there’s the guilt factor: you certainly don’t want to offend your aunt who slaved all day to make your favorite dessert. Whether well-meaning or mean-spirited, peer pressure can put a damper on your holiday spirit.

Strategies

• Practice saying, “No, thank you.” Some people cave in to peer pressure and have difficulty saying no, so try it out ahead of time, at home or in the car. Even better, say, “No, thank you” in front of the mirror, using a firm but pleasant tone.

• Be honest. You don’t need to divulge your weight struggles, but it’s perfectly fine to offer up a polite “No, thank you” with a brief statement about your focus on eating healthfully. Softening your refusal with a bit of humor can help, too. For example: “My goal is to still fit into my clothes on January 1!”

• If being honest isn’t doing the trick, and if you feel comfortable doing so, stretching the truth a bit may be in order. You might briefly explain that as much as you’d love to have a second piece of pie, your doctor or dietitian has advised you to go easy on sweets. Or share that you’ve been experiencing heartburn, for example, and that you’re watching your portions. Providing more of a “medical” reason for your refusal can help others to back off.

• Give in—but with boundaries. Sometimes it’s just easier to accept food that’s pushed on you. You can still stay in control if this happens. Take a small bite, proclaim how delicious it is and then excuse yourself. Or tell the food bearer know that you can’t wait to try it and that you’re going to take it home to enjoy later.

No time to be active

Holidays can be crazy busy for people, who are often forced to let something go to shop, cook, decorate and party. What tends to slide is the commitment to being physically active. Who has the energy to go to the gym after a day of shopping or cleaning the house to get ready to host dinner? Yet, making time to be active is one of the best ways to keep your weight and blood sugars under control, relieve some stress, beat the holiday blues and even sleep better.

Strategies

• Get your family and friends involved. Everyone jokes about needing a “post-Thanksgiving dinner nap,” and the temptation is very real. However, before you snooze the day away, encourage your family to get up from the table and go for a walk, toss around a football or even sign up for a community race.

• Sneak activity in when you can. For example, if you’re out shopping, park your car far away (you may have to anyway) to get some steps in. Try to walk a few laps around the mall. If you’re cleaning your house, put some elbow grease into it.

• Carve out time to be active. It’s not always easy to do, but if you put it into your calendar and treat your active time like any other appointment, you can stay on track with your fitness goals.

• Ask a friend, your spouse or your kids to be active with you. Let them know how important it is that you make time to exercise.

• Work out in the morning, especially if you know you have a busy day ahead of you. Get up half an hour earlier and go for a walk, jump on your exercise bike or turn on a workout video.

• Banish the “all or nothing” thinking. Maybe you can’t get to the gym three times a week, but that doesn’t mean you can’t do something. Come up with a list of alternative activities that you can do, and remind yourself that doing even 10 minutes of physical activity at a time definitely counts.

Lack of sleep

Parties, shopping, work deadlines, cooking…the list can be endless, and there never seems to be enough time to get things done during the holiday season. As a result, you end up burning the candle at both ends, short-changing yourself of much-needed sleep. Lack of sleep does more than just make you feel groggy. It can wreak havoc on your health, leading to a higher risk of heart disease, diabetes, obesity and cognitive impairment. According to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC), more than a third of Americans don’t get enough sleep on a regular basis. Add the holidays to the fray, and almost 80 percent of Americans suffer from sleep deprivation, according to a 2014 National Geographic Channel survey. Try not to be included in that statistic, and make sleep a priority.

Strategies

• Set up a sleep schedule and stick to it. As hard as this can be, it helps. Go to bed and get up at the same time every day, including weekends. Doing so helps your body get into a healthy sleep pattern.

• If you have trouble falling asleep due to all of those sugarplums dancing in your head, don’t force it. Get out of bed and do something relaxing, such as reading a book, listening to some soothing music or taking a warm bath.

• Create a restful sleep environment. Turn down the thermostat, make sure your blinds or curtains block the light, and power-down your smartphone, tablet or laptop at least an hour before hitting the sack. Also, invest in a quality mattress and pillows.

• If your partner’s snoring sounds like a chainsaw, address the issue. Suggest he or she sleep on his or her side (prop pillows between you to keep him or her from flipping back), sleep in separate bedrooms or gently bring up the possibility of a sleep disorder, such as sleep apnea.

• Catnaps during the day are great—unless they stretch longer than 30 minutes. Too much daytime shuteye can make it hard to fall or stay asleep at night.

• Put your worries aside. It’s easier said than done, but try to make your bedroom a worry-free zone. Finish what you need to get done before bedtime, and jot down any worries that linger, then set them aside.

“Eating well during the holidays comes with challenges,” says Jennifer Chadbourne, MS, RD, LDN, dietitian with Good Measures. But with a little planning, portion control and prioritization, “you can stay on track with your goals without feeling deprived. If things don’t go exactly as planned, don’t panic.” Instead, learn from each experience and move forward. Happy holidays!

Want to learn more about maintaining your health during the holidays? Read “Have a Relaxing Holiday: 7 Tips to Relieve Seasonal Stress,” “The Holiday Meal Survival Guide” and “Creating New Holiday Traditions.”

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