Happy and Healthy Holidays: Nutritional Strategies for Less Stress

A low-stress nutrition plan absolutely must allow you to enjoy birthdays, holidays, and seasons where food tends to be an expression of celebration or a focal point of family gatherings. Your challenges during this time may be unique to you, but you will only find what works through planning and experience. We’ll give you some information and a few tips for before, during, and after the parties. Your job is to work out a plan and then enjoy yourself without feeling guilty.

Happy and Healthy Holidays: Nutritional Strategies for Less Stress

Holidays and celebrations cannot, by themselves, ruin all the other days where you stuck to a plan and made good choices. You can face the holiday season with the confidence that all your best-laid plans for training and nutrition will still be intact on January first. In this article, we’ll talk about the best ways to enjoy yourself and avoid the post-holiday demotion of your once-lofty goals or, worse still, the end-of-the-year, uncle-cry that you will just “get back on track in the new year.”

A low-stress nutrition plan is sustainable in the long term. That absolutely must include a plan that lets you enjoy birthdays, holidays, and seasons where food tends to be an expression of celebration or a focal point of family gatherings. Your challenges during this time may be unique to you, but you will only find what works through planning and experience. We’ll give you some information and a few tips for before, during, and after the parties. Your job is to work out a plan and then enjoy yourself without feeling guilty. Even if they don’t work out completely, good plans tend to point us in the right direction, and a healthy holiday season shouldn’t rely on perfection.

How You Indulge Matters

A calorie is a measure of energy. Specifically, it is the amount of energy required to raise the temperature of one milliliter of water by one degree Celsius. (“Calories” listed on food labels are actually kilocalories or the amount of energy required to heat one liter of water one degree Celsius. Common usage is to call kilocalories of food simply calories or food calories.) To find how much energy is contained in different foods, scientists will burn the foods in an isolated system (called a bomb calorimeter) that directs the energy from the burning food to water. The temperature change allows them to measure the food’s caloric content.

Our bodies, unsurprisingly, are not as efficient at extracting energy from food as a bomb calorimeter. Depending on the type of food and the person, the amount of energy the human body extracts from something passing through its digestive system varies. Wilbur Olin Atwater came up with the system used to determine the calories humans get from food by collecting and also burning what came out the other end of the digestive tract. The basic formula is that the available energy to humans is equal to the gross energy in food (what you get when you burn it in the bomb calorimeter) minus the energy lost through excretion (feces, urine, and gases). The Atwater System derived the averages that we use today: humans can get about nine food calories from a gram of fat, four from carbohydrates, and four from protein. And it’s this compilation of averages—average calories in different categories of foods and average calories that never again saw the light of day after entering the body—that gives us food labels.

Already, we should be a little bit suspicious. The body is like a black box, where we’ve measured the inputs and the outputs (quite literally) but have not addressed the complexity of the internal workings of the digestive system. Newer studies suggest that the factors that affect how many calories we can absorb from food are legion—from the species of the plants and animals we eat to the composition of our gut bacteria.

So, the numbers that tell us what our bodies might do with the food we eat are not totally accurate, but what we are really concerned about here is what happens when we overeat. Again, it matters what you eat.

Of our main macronutrient sources—fats, carbs, and protein—each gets broken down for energy in different ways. And any time your body makes energy, it uses energy. The percentage of calories that help to make energy is called the thermic effect of food or TEF. So, where a gram of fat provides the body (on average) with nine calories of potential energy, its TEF is 0-3%, meaning up to 3% of fat calories consumed will go toward extracting energy from it. Carbs have four calories per gram and a TEF of 5–10%. And protein has four calories per gram and a TEF of 20–30%. More of the potential energy from protein goes to just breaking it down than for carbohydrates or fat.

So, your body has extracted the energy and, because you are feasting, you’ve eaten more than your body needs right now. What happens to the excess? Our usual concern is that unused energy will be stored as fat. Again, here, the make-up of those calories matter because the body stores some macronutrients as fat more easily than others.

Dietary fat is the closest form to adipose tissue (they’re pretty much the same molecules), making it a relatively easy process for the body to store excess dietary fat as fat around your waistline. Fat grams either get burned for energy or stored, with a 90–95% efficiency rate.

However, carbohydrates and protein are less likely to be stored as adipose tissue. The efficiency of carbohydrates to be stored as body fat is estimated to be around 75–85%. In order of priority, carbs are 1) burned for energy, 2) stored as glycogen, 3) burned off as heat, or 4) turned into fat.

Proteins are even less likely to be turned into fat. In order of priority, protein is 1) used for protein synthesis and many other metabolic purposes, 2) burned for energy, 3) turned into glucose or fat.

(From: Time to Feast)

Taken all together, a person could minimize the impact of holiday meals by skewing their indulgence toward protein and fiber and drinking lots of water. But that’s just information, and information does not make a plan. Let’s look at practical strategies for dealing with these perennial feasts—planning ahead and in-the-moment strategies that can help you worry less.

Make a Plan

These tips are adapted from Gillian Ward’s strategies posted here earlier this year and build on her nutrition strategies for sustainable results and lasting behavioral changes.

Put Your Events on a Calendar

Gillian says that listing out your events will give you “the sum of the challenges you will have” during the season. Every other day or meal during that season is an opportunity to nail your nutrition plans and create a budget for the challenge days. Note that the opportunities will always far outweigh the challenges. Being extra cautious, budgeting calories by cutting back slightly on those opportunity meals, or occasionally skipping meals completely may backfire and cause you to overeat at one of the challenging times. Instead, focus on precision—be on target on your opportunity days; don’t shoot to be way under your caloric budget.

Help Plan or Host

Take some initiative to help plan menus and include options that work for you. It’s likely that others will be grateful to see veggies, fresh-cut fruit, low-fat salads, and lean, minimally processed meat choices.

Pre-Game Your Food

Don’t show up to your event famished. Have a small, balanced, hunger-curbing snack before you leave the house:

  • A small handful of nuts and a piece of fruit
  • A small bowl of cottage cheese or yogurt with some slivered nuts and berries

Set Boundaries for Yourself

Have a plan before the party starts. Ask yourself, “what do I want/need to eat, and what can I forgo?” Set some rules for yourself and share them with someone that will hold you accountable. If you have to, write a note on your phone with your rules for the day. In addition to main meals, your rules could encompass alcohol consumption, desserts, and so on.

Plan Some Activity

Some people like to begin their holidays with extra activity—a turkey trot 5k, a football game, or a special training session at the gym. That’s great. But also consider activity after you eat. Planning a leisurely walk after a big meal has some benefits beyond the obvious. You will be more likely to eat to a point where you still feel comfortable going for a walk. You will also feel better about the meal and choices you made overall. It’s much better to digest, enjoy the rest of your day, and move on than to sit, uncomfortable on the couch with a bottle of antacid within arm’s reach.

Drink a Lot of Water

Thirst is often mistaken for hunger, and many holiday favorites contain tons of sodium. In addition to preventing dehydration, drinking enough water can prevent fluid retention. If you plan to drink alcohol, consume two glasses of water for every alcoholic beverage you drink. Basically, use water to hydrate, not beer, sodas, or cocktails.

Eat Your Meat Naked!

Consider skipping the sauces, gravies, buns, etc., and pile on the veggies instead. The added fiber will help you feel satisfied, and many people don’t miss the extras, especially if the meat is tasty enough to be worth eating in the first place.

Take Leftovers

You want to try all the delicious dishes, or you don’t want to offend someone by choosing Aunt Bessie’s pumpkin pie over Uncle Scott’s pecan. Spread the goodness out a little bit. Have what you can during the meal and take home a sampling of everything else you want to try. Your caloric budget for two days is a lot bigger than it is for one.

Plan for After the Celebration, Too

Having some nutritious go-to staples ready for the next few meals can help prevent snowballing one fun meal into a few days or even weeks of overeating. Focus on breakfast foods and some ingredients for easy-to-make meals. If you are traveling, stock up before you leave, so that good stuff is waiting for you when you get home.

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