I love the holiday season. In the fall and early winter, it seems like there is something special to celebrate nearly every other week. The list goes on and on, and I can’t get enough of it.
As a holiday enthusiast, I appreciate it all, from decorating, baking, and gift-buying to curling up and watching holiday-themed movies, not to mention mouth-watering smells, twinkling lights, and feeling like you’re in a magical snow globe at the first sight of flurries. Seems innocent enough, right?
Well, when I’m not watching National Lampoon’s Christmas Vacation or Home Alone 2 for the 80th time, tearing up when “Do They Know It’s Christmas?” comes on the radio, or obsessing over the placement of ornaments on my tree (perfectionism strikes again), you can probably find me eating all the delicious holiday goodies that come along this time of year.
On top of turkey, ham, and the wide selection of casseroles, you get fudge, cookies, cheeseball, cheese dips, and pretty much any other finger food you can imagine. It’s amazing.
This is the time of year a lot of people take a break from their diets and indulge. It’s also the time of year when the days are short and cold, and your couch and TV seem to call your name the minute you walk through your door. (“Nicole, come catch up on The Walking Dead for the next five hours. I already set out your favorite blanket.”) It’s not a good combination.
But there is hope. Whether you overeat because your stress from the holiday grind has reached Clark Griswold level or (like me) you’ve waited all year for your mom’s chocolate crinkle cookies, you don’t have to put your healthy eating and exercise on hold.
I realize it’s hard to control yourself when you’re surrounded by fabulous snacks in every direction. I go into my family’s celebration with the same strategy every year, and it’s not a healthy one.
On Christmas Eve, I skip breakfast, make ham-and-cheese pinwheels (my decade-and-a-half-long contribution to our family’s party), nibble on the ones that don’t quite make the cut, and consider that my lunch.
An hour or two later when I’m extra hungry from skipping two meals, I help my mom set out all our delicious cookies. I’m an expert in taste-testing.
Once my aunt’s cheeseball and grandma’s fudge arrive, it’s game over. I’m usually not even hungry by the time my dad’s secret-recipe glazed ham is ready. But I somehow rally like a true holiday-eating champion and get through that meal and an equally delicious meal the next day with the other side of my family.
How does the two-day affair almost always end? With a stomachache and a tinge of regret.
Holidays don’t have to end in stomachaches or regret. Here are some tips based on my own worst holiday habits to help you stay on track this holiday season.
Don’t cut back on sleep before the big celebration. I like to stay up late any chance I get, whether there’s a special occasion or I’m just watching Netflix by myself. I’m no better than the millions of kids staying up to wait for Santa. But research shows that not getting enough sleep can make you crave the not-so-healthy foods, which isn’t good when the not-so-healthy foods are everywhere.
Don’t skip meals to overeat at the party later. Sometimes I think skipping breakfast and lunch gives me a free pass to fill my body with chocolate. It doesn’t. It not only puts me in the wrong mindset, but an Ohio State study suggests that doing this regularly can also affect how your body gains belly fat.
Don’t stand around the snack table. This is my favorite place to camp out for the afternoon, but it makes snacking a little too convenient. I probably don’t need a 10th piece of fudge, but who’s counting? (This brings me to my next point.)
Keep track of what you’re eating. I started tracking what I eat at the beginning of December as part of a headache diary for my migraines, and my snacking has fallen way off since then. I can only imagine how much this tracking system will help me through the holidays. Any kind of food diary can help you see how healthy or unhealthy your eating habits are.
Eat something healthy. Sadly, despite what Buddy the Elf tells us, the main food groups are not “candy, candy canes, candy corns, and syrup.” Mix some fruits and veggies into your holiday meals and snacking options, and eat the unhealthier options in moderation.
Keep yourself busy with something other than food. Play games (my brother and I are quite the Catch Phrase duo) or set up a tournament. My cousins and I have hosted all kinds of championship events, everything from table tennis to Guitar Hero to rock-paper-scissors (we must have been feeling either really bored or hyper-competitive that year). The more physically active and farther from the food, the better.
Keep up your exercise routine (or something close to it). If you fall off, don’t feel discouraged (and don’t eat more cookies to console yourself). Just start exercising again. It’s easy to make excuses, but if you’re like me, you’ll feel better physically and mentally if you don’t ditch the physical activity.
I hope to follow at least some of these tips this holiday season and hope you do, too. I’ve already tried pretending celery is chocolate. It didn’t go so well, but I have high hopes for these other more reasonable tips.
It’s been a busy year for my team at Health Alliance, so I hope you’ve been enjoying Nicole’s Chasing Health series while I’ve been too busy to post!
When life gets busy and stress takes over, the first thing that always goes for me is sleep. I’ve never been very good at getting a lot of it, even though it’s one of my favorite things in the world, especially when stress sets in.
Unfortunately, that’s not doing my health any favors:
Start a bedtime routine. I used to have one, but that’s all but disappeared the last 6 months. I need to start again, and I’m going to try adding drinking something warm (and decaffeinated) to that schedule.
Listen to soothing music. Normally, I leave something playing on Netflix as I fall asleep, but soothing music or a sound machine, without the light, would be a much better idea. Maybe I can make use of Adele’s new album or apps like Rain, Rain, which makes thunderstorm noises.
Cut back on electronics. This and making my bed a work-free zone are nearly impossible for me, but I do need to work on cutting back. Setting a curfew when I set down my phone or laptop, like at least a half hour before bed, could really help.
Make up for lost sleep. Adding an extra hour when I didn’t get enough sleep the night before could help me with my sleep debt.
Don’t toss and turn. I do this a lot, and if I can’t fall asleep for more than 20 minutes, I should try getting up and doing something relaxing (NOT work), like knitting or reading.
One thing I can tell you I won’t be trying off this list? Kicking my pet out of my bed.
While I know this must be a problem for some people, I don’t think it’s a problem for me. And I’m not alone. A new study finds that 41% of people think having their pet in the room helps them sleep better.
I know that I would worry about her if she wasn’t in my room. Plus, cuddling her is about the most relaxing activity in my life. In fact, that’s frequently how I fall asleep now. I mean, how can you resist that?
The holidays are supposed to be a time for family gatherings, parties, traveling, and opportunities to laugh and relax with the ones you love. For some, though, the holidays have different associations, like stress, anxiety, and isolation.
Caregivers can often feel stressed during the holiday season. While others are enjoying this time of year, caregivers may feel isolated as they focus on the care of a loved one. Caregivers selflessly provide around-the-clock, unpaid care to seniors and people with disabilities. They are tasked with accompanying their loved one to medical appointments, managing their medications, and handling their financial affairs, all while balancing their own obligations.
Caregivers also often overlook their own mental, emotional, and physical health. As a result, they can feel a sense of isolation, like they’re alone on an island. This feeling is called caregiver fatigue.
Mitchell Forrest, a social worker at Central Illinois Agency on Aging in Peoria, provided insight into caregiver fatigue. “Caregivers who feel a sense of hopelessness, are socially withdrawn, not sleeping, and experiencing illness and weight loss, may be suffering from caregiver fatigue and should seek out supports to help them manage their stress,” he said.
If left untreated, caregiver fatigue can take such a physical and mental toll that they can no longer care for their loved one.
But caregivers can find a network of encouragement through support groups. National organizations, like the Alzheimer’s Association, offer local support groups for caregivers of people with different diagnoses.
Respite services can be another vital resource. For a fee, nursing homes and adult day services offer a safe, supportive environment where the loved one will be in trusted hands for a few hours or longer, so the caregiver can rest. In-home personal aides can also provide additional assistance to the caregiver.
While no resource is a remedy for the anxiety of caring for a sick loved one, caregivers should know that they are not alone. Talking to someone is invaluable, and there are many counselors who specialize in the needs of caregivers.
Area Agencies on Aging offer resources and referrals to support seniors, people with disabilities, and their caregivers. If you feel alone on the island, send a signal and help will find you.
Chris Maxeiner is a community liaison with Health Alliance. His background is in the fields of healthcare and government programs. His favorite superhero is Batman, and he is an avid Chicago sports fan (Bears, Bulls, Blackhawks, and White Sox).