Maintaining Health during the Holidays

© 2014 Dr. Sharon Norling

The holiday season may bring gifts and good tidings, but it will also deliver calorie-laden feasts, leftovers and snacks that add up to small, but significant weight gains that continue well into the New Year. Needless to say, the holidays are definitely a special time. However, these days, most people wonder whether “special” means happy… or stressful. Do you know anyone who doesn’t feel more stress than usual during the holiday season? One thing is for sure: stress is a six-letter word that can spell added trouble for many who struggle with food, eating and weight. A slew of social gatherings, a profusion of chocolates and desserts and a sense that indulgences are more forgivable during the holidays all factor into an undesired result.

Though the holidays can be stressful, any time of the year can be taxing on your emotional wellbeing! And, unfortunately, many people reach for food as comfort. It is estimated that 75 percent of overeating is caused by emotions. Emotional eating occurs when you eat in response to feelings rather than hunger, usually as a way to suppress or relieve negative emotions. Stress, anxiety, sadness, anger, loneliness, relationship problems or poor self-esteem can trigger emotional eating. Holiday activities can further trigger strong emotions, memories and poor habits. When emotions determine your eating behavior rather than your stomach, it can quickly lead to overeating, weight gain and guilt.

How can you tell the difference?

According to the University of Texas Counseling and Mental Health Center, there are several differences between emotional hunger and physical hunger.

1. Emotional hunger comes on suddenly; physical hunger occurs gradually.
2. When you are eating to fill a void that isn’t related to an empty stomach, you crave a specific food and only that food will satisfy your need. When you eat because you are actually hungry, you’re open to options.
3. Emotional hunger feels like it needs to be satisfied instantly with the food you crave; physical hunger can wait.
4. Even when you are full, if you’re eating to satisfy an emotional need, you’re more likely to keep eating. When you’re eating because you’re hungry, you’re more likely to stop when you’re full.
5. Emotional eating can leave behind feelings of guilt; eating when you are physically hungry does not.

During emotional eating, we crave “comfort” foods that are often high-calorie, sweet, salty or fatty. Women are more likely to reach for sugary foods, such as chocolate, candy and cookies. Men are more likely to crave pizza, steak or casseroles.

Low blood sugar (hypoglycemia) can also cause mood swings, irritability, cravings, anxiety and fatigue. So remember to eat six mini-meals a day of healthy foods that include protein to help maintain a normal blood sugar. Seek a qualified health care practitioner or a nutritionist with a customized health program that can help you obtain normal sugars and weight through support and education. Elevations in blood sugar may also increase levels of cortisol, which can create stress and anxiety.

Low levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter, can also cause cravings, lack of motivation, difficulty sleeping, anxiety, depression and even pain. Imbalances in the complex neurotransmitters can cause stress and stress can cause neurotransmitter imbalances, a vicious cycle. Neurotransmitter levels can be determined by a blood test. Normal levels of these hormones can help you get through the holidays and enjoy them!

As a result of indulging your cravings, it is not uncommon to experience physical symptoms relating to feasting during the holidays. Individuals may notice headaches, indigestion, nasal stuffiness, joint pain, muscle stiffness, fatigue, heartburn and skin itching or rashes. These symptoms can be IgG delayed and/or hidden food allergies. A lab test can determine the foods you may be allergic to and need to avoid. And relieving these physical symptoms can be a joy in itself!

As previously mentioned, studies have shown that during the holidays, individuals gain weight, and on average of one to two pounds. Fewer than 10 percent of subjects gained more than five pounds during the holiday season; those obese or overweight to start with were most likely to fall into this category. But that small amount of weight gained each year during the holidays does not come off over time, according to a study conducted the National Institute of Child Health and Human Development (NICHD) and the National Institute of Diabetes and Digestive and Kidney Diseases (NIDDK). Excess weight, of course, is not just a holiday phenomenon. Nearly two-thirds of U.S. adults are overweight and nearly one-third of U.S. adults are obese, according to the National Institutes of Health. However, if you turn to food often when your life becomes an emotional roller coaster, you are not alone. There is hope to put an end to the vicious cycle, so resolve now to take charge of your emotional eating using these tips.

Tips to Survive Holiday Eating:

1. Ask yourself, “Am I hungry?” and be honest with your answer.
2. Eat a healthy snack before going to holiday parties or while preparing foods for your own party.
3. Find alternatives to eating such as doing something for yourself or calling a close friend.
4. Make a commitment to first eat three, specific healthy foods (for instance, an apple, a handful of baby carrots and a yogurt), before starting on comfort foods.
5. Choose your beverages wisely. Alcohol is high in calories. Liquors, sweet wines and sweet mixed drinks contain 150 to 450 calories per glass. By contrast, water and tea are calorie-free. If you choose to drink, select light wines and beers. Limit your intake to one or two alcoholic drinks per occasion. And, watch out for calories in soda, fruit punch and eggnog.
6. Exercise regularly. Daily exercise relieves stress and puts you in a positive mind set. This provides you with greater strength to resist the unhealthy fare.
7. Get enough sleep. Research shows that sleep deprivation can increase hunger by decreasing leptin levels, the appetite regulating hormone that signals fullness.

Make sure your holidays are filled with joy, good times and healthy food. The winter season is a time to reunite with good friends and family, to share laughter and cheer, to celebrate and to give thanks so focus more on these guilt-free holiday pleasures. The important thing to remember is balance and moderation. Above all else, make yourself a priority. Now there’s a great gift – this is not pampering, this is good health.

Written by: Dr. Sharon Norling, MBA