Healthy Habits Through the Holidays

Science by Temple Stewart, RD

The holidays are here! If you’re like me, you’ve been preparing for a break from work, a little bit of travel, and spending some much-needed quality time with family and friends. While most people look ahead with positivity at one of the most fun times of the year, the reality is that the holiday season can bring on a whole host of health issues if we aren’t careful. Let’s discuss some of these health issues and go through some practical steps you can take to help navigate the holidays while staying on track with your health journey.

While much of our focus typically falls on how to avoid weight gain this winter, Thanksgiving and Christmas can bring a plethora of other physical, mental, and emotional struggles to the surface. Here are six issues Americans commonly combat more frequently this holiday season.

  • Heart Attacks Increase [1]: Research shows us that the most deadly days for heart attacks in the US are December 24, 25 and January 1. Experts have been intrigued by these statistics, and it’s often contributed to the excessive eating and drinking, emotional and family stressors, and cold/flu season.
  • Extra Stress [2]: “Nearly a quarter of Americans reported feeling ‘extreme stress’ come holiday time, according to a poll by the American Psychological Association. Holiday stress statistics show that up to 69 percent of people are stressed by the feeling of having a ‘lack of time,’ 69 percent are stressed by perceiving a ‘lack of money,’ and 51 percent are stressed out about the ‘pressure to give or get gifts.’” This includes spikes in anxiety and depression for some, as well as the time for seasonal depression to sink in.
  • Feelings of Loneliness [3]: In another survey done by the AARP foundation, 31% of respondents said they have felt lonely during the holidays, and 41% have worried about a family member or loved one feeling lonely.
  • “Holiday Heart Syndrome” [4]: This is a cardiac arrhythmia that occurs during the holidays’ specifically linked to binge drinking, especially in those with a prior cardiovascular problem.
  • Holiday Weight Gain [5]: A study from The New England Journal of Medicine shows that the average American gains 1.3 pounds in the days following Christmas. While this may not seem like a lot, for many people some of this weight will never be lost.
  • Symptoms of Overeating: Heartburn, GI issues, higher blood sugar levels and others can all occur after when you overeat.

Staying Healthy during the Holidays

With all these potential health effects of the holidays, here are some some practical steps to make the most of this season without any extra added health stressors. Focus on the few that will make the most impact:

  1. Focus on Protein [6]: At every meal, make protein the priority. Eat it first, then have your carbs or dessert. Protein will help keep blood sugar stable, and keep you full for hours! 
  2. Make Indulgences Intentional: There are some things that are just too good to pass up, and that’s okay! Food is meant to be enjoyed. However, mindless eating leads to more food consumption than you’d realize. Decide what you’re going to have and what you’re going to pass on beforehand and mindfully eat what you decide to consume. Enjoy every bite! 
  3. Plan Ahead: Some of the mental health issues and stress come from the hustle and bustle that are part of  the holidays. Planning gifts, meals, and vacations ahead of time can save some of the stress involved. 
  4. Don’t Skip Your Exercise Routine: Exercise is so powerful when it comes to mental health and stress. Staying with it over the holidays, even during the busiest of days can help ward off stress and anxiety.
  5. Get Outside: We could write a whole blog post on the importance of vitamin D and getting out in nature. With the free time the holiday brings, use some of it outside. 
  6. Practice Some Self-Care [7]: It can be very easy to get distracted with all of the extra activities, but taking some time to practice self-care is a must! Self-care lowers rates of anxiety and depression, improves  mood, etc. 
  7. Be Mindful of Alcohol: Treat alcohol just like you would any other indulgence. Alcohol provides little to no nutrients, but does add up in sugar and calories! 
  8. Prioritize Sleep: As easy as it is to put on the back burner, sleep is crucial to your health, even during the holidays. Lack of sleep can make you hungrier and more likely to indulge in excess sweets and treats! 

Implement these holiday health hacks, and you’ll be able to enjoy your holiday without worrying about health consequences. If some of these aren’t in your day-to-day routine, they may be beneficial for you even after the holiday season! 

References

  1. Olsson, A., Thorén, I., Mohammad, M. A., Rylance, R., Platonov, P. G., Sparv, D., & Erlinge, D. (2021). Christmas holiday triggers of myocardial infarction. Scandinavian cardiovascular journal : SCJ, 1–5. Advance online publication. https://doi.org/10.1080/14017431.2021.1983638
  2. T. (2021, June 17). Holiday Stress. Clarity Clinic. https://www.claritychi.com/holiday-stress/#:%7E:text=Holiday%20stress%20statistics%20show%20that,’%E2%80%9D
  3. Kerman, Sarah. The Holiday Season: Joy, Love & Loneliness. Washington, DC: AARP Research, November 2017. https://doi.org/10.26419/res.00184.001
  4. Brown KN, Yelamanchili VS, Goel A. Holiday Heart Syndrome. [Updated 2021 Jul 11]. In: StatPearls [Internet]. Treasure Island (FL): StatPearls Publishing; 2021 Jan-. Available from: https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/books/NBK537185/
  5. Helander, E., Wansink, B., & Chieh, A. (2016). Weight Gain over the Holidays in Three Countries. New England Journal Of Medicine, 375(12), 1200-1202. doi: 10.1056/nejmc1602012
  6. Campbell, A. P., & Rains, T. M. (2015). Dietary protein is important in the practical management of prediabetes and type 2 diabetes. The Journal of nutrition, 145(1), 164S–169S. https://doi.org/10.3945/jn.114.194878
  7. Puig Llobet, M., Sánchez Ortega, M., Lluch-Canut, M., Moreno-Arroyo, M., Hidalgo Blanco, M. À., & Roldán-Merino, J. (2020). Positive Mental Health and Self-Care in Patients with Chronic Physical Health Problems: Implications for Evidence-based Practice. Worldviews on evidence-based nursing, 17(4), 293–300. https://doi.org/10.1111/wvn.12453