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It is normal to feel a little stressed about food and nutrition during the holidays, because so many events are focused on food.
If you are anxious about your nutrition and digestive health, mindful eating habits can help you celebrate with confidence.
Getting over anxiety about food is not easy and if you are having difficulties with restrictive eating or any other eating disorder, Swedish nutrition specialists can help.
Sharing food and meals is a central part of holiday celebrations. Those are often the moments when friends and families come together to celebrate, reminisce and carry on beloved traditions — and there’s a lot of love and memories baked into every meal, dish and holiday sweet.
With so many holiday activities that involve or revolve around food, it isn’t surprising that people get anxious about their health and nutrition at this time of year. Not only are we surrounded by many foods that are not typically available in such abundance, but we feel like we need to eat them to be polite.
How can you enjoy the holidays and feel good about your nutrition and food choices heading into the new year? We spoke with Sarah Moore, a registered dietitian at the Swedish Diabetes and Nutrition Education Center, about ways to care for your digestive health during the holiday season—and all year.
De-stress to support your gut-brain axis
The stress of the holiday season can leave us feeling physically exhausted. This combination of physical exhaustion and emotional stress can lead us to reach for quick and easy-to-digest foods with high amounts of simple sugars that serve as a fast fuel source or serotonin boost.
“High amounts of simple sugars alone can cause gastrointestinal symptoms such as bloating and acid reflux,” says Sarah. “And periods of stress can cause gastrointestinal irritation and irritable-bowel-like symptoms. This is because our brains talk to our intestines via the gut-brain axis.”
When our stress level rises, Sarah explains, our microbiome changes and the blood flow to the intestines weakens. If this occurs for brief moments then it is not a long term issue. However, chronic stress like this can have long-term health implications.
So if you find your stress levels rising, try calming techniques to immediately relax your body. These can include deep breathing exercises, short bursts of physical activity, stepping outside for fresh air, or using cold water and ice to lower your body temperature
Take a proactive approach to digestive health
It is not unusual to experience some stress-related digestive issues during the holiday season. Most are temporary and likely to resolve. But because we eat more high-fat, sugar-rich foods and drink alcohol in larger quantities during the holidays, cases of conditions like acute pancreatitis and gall bladder attacks go up. These issues can have life-altering consequences.
To support good digestion during the holidays (or any other time of year), Sarah suggests that you try to:
- Eat slowly
- Avoid overeating
- Pay attention to your hunger and fullness cues
- Drink plenty of water
- Eat high-fiber foods
- Consume probiotics from food or supplements
- Eat in a timely manner that includes intervals of eating, drinking and fasting
“While we may tend to abandon our foundational healthy habits during times of stress or the holidays, these are, in fact, the behaviors that will help us skate through these events feeling like we took good care of ourselves,” says Sarah. “And that will ultimately reduce stress and result in a happier holiday experience.”
Allow yourself thoughtful indulgences
Maybe it’s your mom’s magic cookie bars, your uncle’s turkey and stuffing or your sister’s mac and cheese – we all have a holiday food favorite. But every year, the holidays bring up what seems like an existential crisis: to eat or not to eat.
In reality, Sarah says, this is an all-or-nothing mindset, and it is not a helpful question.
“The better question to ask is: how do I eat this in a way that aligns with my health goals?” she says.
If there is a food you like, you will want to eat it. So if you are only asking yourself if you should eat it, you will set yourself up for shame because you might not be able to resist your craving. Instead, try making a conscious, empowered decision will help get you off of the food shame merry-go-round.
Food and drinks do not hold power over you. If, at the end of the day, you are not happy with your eating choices, make a different choice the next time. Once you’ve identified what’s worth the splurge, you can stay on track with healthy eating before and after holiday events.
Practice saying “no thank you”
Most people offer you food because they want to be kind and show their love. Thanking them and saying no thank you is usually enough.
“If that doesn’t work and you still feel pressured to eat or drink foods that you do not want to, you must make a choice,” says Sarah. “Do you want to stand up to the person pressuring you or divert the unwelcome attention?”
In social situations like holiday parties, the easier choice may be to divert unwelcome attention. You can do this with a little white lie, like saying that you have an allergy or are already full. Or you can act distracted by something and walk away or crack a joke to change the subject.
Remember, what you eat is your choice, and there’s no reason to feel guilty about making a choice that is right for you.
Embrace the principles of intuitive eating
When it comes to how people approach food and beverage intake, there is a broad spectrum of preferences and experiences. For some, the holidays trigger fears of overeating, while others can get caught in the habit of undereating or food restriction, which can become especially difficult when attending parties with copious amounts of food.
“If you deal with undereating and food restriction, the holidays can be a good time to challenge those habits,” says Sarah. “Try having at least one spoonful of everything served. Eating is nourishing, and our bodies need the nutrients in food. So, feel free to please and prime your taste buds with a simple sample meal.”
Sarah also suggests applying the intuitive eating principles of making peace with food and honoring your hunger. These principles can help you reject a restrictive diet mentality.
“Beyond restrictive food habits related to diet mentality, if you believe you have an eating disorder, please seek professional support – it is available,” she says. “There are free support groups, which can be an easy, low-barrier way to get help."
Learn more and find a provider
If you have questions about healthy eating, nutrition or eating disorders, contact Swedish nutrition specialists. We can accommodate both in-person and virtual appointments.
With Swedish Virtual Care, you can connect face-to-face with a nurse practitioner who can review your family and health history. To find a provider, try searching our provider directory.
Join our Patient and Family Advisory Council.
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This information is not intended as a substitute for professional medical care. Always follow your health care professional’s instructions.
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