Healthify Your Holidays

Written by Dr. Madalyn Otto

I’m not generally much of a “holiday person”, but this year I’m excited about practicing some holiday cheer in the midst of an otherwise very abnormal season. You’re probably reading this thinking, ‘but this year’s holidays are going to be so different, so unnatural, lonely and sanitized’! It’s true that all of our holiday traditions are going to undergo radical makeovers to reduce the spread of COVID-19, but that doesn’t mean they can’t or won’t be splendid!

My recommendation for this holiday season (and what I am going to practice in my family) is: make this an opportunity to promote health and well-being throughout the holiday experience. Many of us are aware of or have experienced the general pitfalls & unconscious bad habits of the holiday season: increased emotional stress from shopping and planning, increased anxiety, weight gain and increased family tensions. I’ve got a few ideas to help us all healthify our holiday traditions (yes, I made up that word, but isn’t it great?!)

1) Weight gain: I’ve been interested to see how individuals and families fare this winter in terms of weight gain. Unhealthy food-choice temptations at social gatherings & work parties should be lessened this year, especially since grabbable snack foods will be kept off the tables. But at the same time, feelings of stress and isolation could lead to unhealthy coping with comfort foods. Why not take advantage of the fewer temptations and keep your diet steady over the coming months rather than lacing it with snacks and desserts? I also recommended perusing the internet world for healthier alternatives/recipes to beloved comfort foods. The biggest single culprit that hits everybody’s waist-line over the holidays is SUGAR and similar added sweeteners. While it is always better to make your food from scratch than buying pre-made foods (which tend to be higher in empty calories and preservatives and lower in nutrients), even the homemade treats have a deleterious effect on your health! By tackling the sugar content of your holiday diet and opting for natural sweetness of various whole foods like fresh and dried fruits, you can prevent that accumulation of holiday weight that plagues most Americans each year. How can we do this?

  • Pro-tip 1: You can almost always cut the recommended quantity of sweetener in a recipe by at least half and not interfere with the cooking/baking process. If I can’t find a no-sugar-added recipe off-the-bat, I usually omit the sweetener altogether or omit all the dry sweetener and add a few tablespoons of maple syrup to the recipe instead.
  • Pro-tip 2: You can mix or replace typical sweeteners with alternatives – a little Stevia, a little monkfruit extract or sugar alcohol like xylitol. The goal is not to develop reliance on these alternatives, but to use them to help you wean yourself from sugar dependence.
  • Pro-tip 3: ALWAYS avoid the “classic” artificial sweeteners like Splenda, Equal, Sween N’ Low, etc. They may be zero calorie, but they are associated with a host of other health concerns.
  • Pro-tip 4: Take advantage of the natural sweetness of fruits. Blending an orange with a few dates makes a super sweet sauce that enhances the flavor of any pie or crumble filling. Overly ripe bananas and apple sauce in a bread recipe instead of eggs lends sweetness. I’m a big fan of berry compotes, apple crumbles, and anything else fruit-based for holiday desserts (omitting any added sugar) because they satisfy the sweet tooth while still being wholesome.
  • Pro-tip 5: When searching online for recipes, beware of the term “sugar-free” recipe as these most often will provide you with recipes that simply replace the sugar with artificial sweeteners (danger! danger!).

2) Reducing Emotional Stress: This year is… unique. Each individual family has different challenges to face this year whether it’s job insecurity, health concerns, coping with the constantly changing work and school schedules, etc. So, all the more reason to embrace and focus on the healing aspects of existing traditions:

  • Focus on the kiddos: Let’s face it, kids make the holidays truly magical. Their innocence, enthusiasm and energy rub off on us adults and make our spirits bright. I have been impressed with the creative ways people have made Halloween special and fun for their own kids or the neighborhood kids this year, and no doubt we can get creative this November & December as well and feel joy ourselves through promoting it in our little ones.
  • Create anticipation: I love the idea of extending the holiday season or “marinating in it” by having something special planned weekly. Our natural feel-good hormones called endorphins can be increased simply by feelings of anticipation of something we are looking forward to (that’s why it’s a bonus to plan vacations way ahead of time when possible). Plan some (low-maintenance) holiday fun into Friday or Saturday night each week. Things like holiday movie night, making homemade ornaments, working on a holiday puzzle, reading holiday stories together, decorating the house and tree, piling into the car for a holiday lights tour of your town, are simple activities that you can “marinate in” the anticipation of all month long.
  • Volunteer: One of the most effective ways of increasing one’s own happiness levels is to do something for someone else. There are countless ways to volunteer both within and outside of the holiday season. One of my methods of giving since COVID is donating blood as often as I’m allowed. I have been inspired by a number of my patients who leapt out of their chairs to provide support to others during the COVID era in a number of ways like providing tutoring services, volunteering to distribute food to those in need, making masks for hospitals during PPE shortages, and other kind acts. The benefits of these actions to our community are enormous, but they also reduce stress and feelings of despair within the person who is doing the giving making it a great way to combat holiday stress.
  • Sing!! Remember all the benefits I harp on and on about engaging the parasympathetic response (rest and relax) and disengaging the sympathetic response (fight or flight)? Well, here it is again! But this time, I’m adding a holiday twist. Believe it or not, humming and singing are effective ways of reducing the physiologic stress response by stimulating the vagus nerve, turning on the parasympathetic state and increasing heart-rate-variability. The effect is reduced stress, lower anxiety and increased relaxation and calm. So pull out (or download) the lyrics of your favorite holiday classics and start singing!
  • Remember what the holidays are actually about: remembrance of historical or religious figures and events, sacrifices, our values and our gratitude. This is a season that invites personal and cultural reflection and combines well with a quest for simplicity. Make a commitment to to practice gratitude and reflection for 30 days this season to increase your sense of well-being, your mindfulness or your spirituality. This could include engaging in a more consistent way with your faith, initiating a meditation practice, mindfulness journaling, practicing daily gratitude, or any other method that connects you with the value system that often eludes us when we get caught up in the bustle of daily life and external chaos.

3) Gift-giving: Some people love thinking about gift shopping and gift giving. I am not one of those people. I find gift-giving excruciatingly stressful most of the time and have even sat on the floor of a boutique and sobbed on more than one occasion while attempting to buy gifts for people out of a sense of holiday obligation. Eventually, I found a basic solution to this problem: stop doing gifts. This has worked well for me in that, while I still buy gifts, my list of people to buy for has shrunk down and I find it easier to focus on the task at hand and even enjoy it to some extent. My struggle with this experience over the years has enlightened me with a few strategies to minimize the pain and maximize the experience of gift-giving which is really the whole point of it anyway.

  • Many people enjoy gift-giving when they have more time to focus on the receiver. Instead of buying for lots of people, see if your friend or family group would be happy with a “Secret Santa” approach.
  • Give a gift to someone who isn’t expecting it, and especially consider gift giving to a person or a family in need this year. Donations and charitable giving are great ways to celebrate the values of the holidays and provide internal feelings of happiness as well.
  • Gift things second-hand. We have so much in our homes that we don’t use, don’t need, or don’t even realize we own while other people would absolutely love those things or could really benefit from them. Make a pact with friends and family to gift something that you already own that you know someone else would appreciate.
  • Make your gifts this year. Homemade gifts I have given and/or received over the years that stick out include homemade granola, a gift basket, an ornament, a photo album. With fewer extra-curricular activities and social events this year, we have a little more down-time to get creative at home and send our creations with love to others.
  • Focus on just a few small gifts for the family rather than a huge pile. I mentioned my own loathing for shopping already, so living in America has made Christmas-time extremely anxiety-provoking for me since entering adulthood due to our country’s “go big or go home” attitude towards Christmas gift-giving. Then I learned that you don’t have to do things that way. I spent Christmas with a friend in Germany a number of years ago and will never forget how deeply satisfying it was in its simplicity. Christmas gifts were exchanged on Christmas Eve rather than on Christmas Day, and each family member got no more than a single gift from anyone, including Father Christmas. Each and every gift was so special and greatly enjoyed as a result.

4) New traditions & alternative experiences: Pandemics and other crazy life-altering events cause strife, but are also instigators for positive change. Maybe some new and enjoyable traditions will surface this year that you otherwise would never had had the impetus to experiment with.

  • Celebrate healthifying holiday recipes! Why not gather a few new healthy recipes and have a bake-off or cook-off with your kids and whatever family or friend pod you are quarantining with this season?! The worst that can happen is that you have a good laugh over a recipe failure.
  • Do you normally travel for the holidays like we do? We were initially a little bummed about the fact that we won’t be spending time overseas this year for Christmas, but have since re-routed our holiday tradition to a quiet cabin-in-the-woods getaway and we can’t wait!
  • I literally never used Skype or Zoom to talk to family before this era. And now I absolutely love the opportunities to connect one-on-one with people I normally only had a small bit of small-talk with once a year at a family reunion. Instead of having one big holiday family party, we can start a new tradition where we connect for a longer period of time virtually with a single family member at a time throughout the holiday month.

Healthifying your holidays is about increasing your personal health and the health of your traditions holistically throughout the process. Ask yourself: How can I eat better, move more, connect with loved ones, and reduce stress this season?

Your holiday experience during strange and unprecedented times is the color that you paint it. My summary of tips for this year: 1) Think outside the box, 2) Remember what truly matters and celebrate that, and 3) Embrace opportunities for new and wonderful ways to celebrate, connect and have peace.

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