Five Steps to a Happier and Healthier Holiday Season

Step One: Tame the Munch Monster
The holidays are coming! You know what that means: family gatherings, office parties, the sharing of gifts, joyful celebrations…and the most stressful time of the year. Shopping, feasting and visiting take their toll and the days between late October and early January can line up before us like the hurdles of an obstacle course. To make the last holiday season of this millenium your healthiest yet, prepare for Y2K and make your New Year’s resolutions now. Implement them now. Remember how you felt on January 2 of ’99? It doesn’t have to happen again. You don’t have to enter the Third Millenium worn out and over-stuffed. You can come through the next ten weeks feeling invigorated, in control and looking forward to the year ahead. The key ingredient is planning. Don’t let the holiday spirit catch you off-guard. Know your enemy and set your goals. It doesn’t take an iron will. It takes understanding.

What you eat has a major impact on how you feel, especially at this time of year, because food is such a major part of the holidays. It’s not usually the meals that do you in. It’s the snacks, sweets, appetizers, eggnogs and other alcoholic beverages. The U.S.A. is without a doubt the land of the Munch Monster. One-third of the food consumed in this country is nutrient-poor junk food, mostly eaten as snacks. The math is pretty simple. If one-third of your calories come from foods that are devoid of nutrients, either you’re going to become malnourished or you’re going to gain a lot of weigh, or both..

Taming the Munch Monster calls for some steps that may surprise you:

(1) Don’t go hungry–if you’re eating out, going shopping or going to a party. Hunger is a slippery slope on which it’s really hard to balance. The scene is pretty familiar: you’re famished and you’re waiting for a meal at a restaurant or a friend’s home or shopping for gifts or food. What happens? You eat a basket of rolls, gobble up the hors d’ouvres, grab whatever fast food is handy or buy more food at the market than you really need. Plan your day so you eat before you shop and stow a healthy snack in your bag. When eating out, have a light and healthy snack before you leave home.

(2) Stock your shelves with nutritious food. Deprivation does not work.. The key to healthy eating is an ample and ready supply of the right foods. The right foods supply working calories, calories that bring along with them vitamins, minerals, protein and nutrients like essential fatty acids (EFAs), carotenoids and bioflavinoids, which have gotten so much attention in the nutrition research literature lately. Don’t buy foods made with white flour, added sugars (this includes corn syrup), or added fats (especially bad are the hydrogenated vegetable oils-they increase the risk of heart attacks more than butter does). Beware of gourmet muffins no matter how “healthy” they look; they’re usually loaded with extra fat. Healthy convenience foods include seasonal fruits like apples and pears, vegetables like carrots or radishes or broccoli florets, a handful of almonds or walnuts or sunflower seeds, some plain low-fat yogurt with fruit or apple sauce mixed in for flavor, or stuffed grape leaves from a Greek or Middle Eastern deli.

(3) Keep water or seltzer handy at all times, especially when you’re shopping. It prevents dehydration, a problem made worse by coffee or tea. Drinking water before a meal won’t decrease what you eat, but a drink can stave off the munchies if they grab you at the wrong moment. A dash of fruit juice turns plain seltzer into a refreshing spritzer.

(4) If there’s one rule about eating that you never violate, make it: eat consciously. Don’t eat standing up-except at parties where there’s no choice. Don’t eat in your car, on the run, while reading, watching TV, talking on the phone or checking your e-mail. (It’s OK to eat while engaged in conversation.) Respect your food. Chew it slowly, savoring its flavor, texture and aroma. You’ll enjoy it more-and, astonishingly, you’ll wind up eating less.

Step Two: Find the Diet Style that Works for You!

Holidays are feast days and food is as much a part of the season’s celebrations as gifts and gatherings. You want to stay healthy through it all and enter the next millenium with lots of energy and few regrets. Finding a good diet to guide your palate into the next century seems sensible. It can also be confusing. Our government has established standards for healthy eating. Although they’re easy to follow, most of us fall short of them. The architects of the Federal diet built a food pyramid with starchy foods like bread, pasta and rice as the base, dairy products, fruits and vegetables, meat, fish and poultry in the middle, and foods that are mostly made from sugar or fat at the top, where they supply no more than ten per cent of our daily calories. These guidelines have the enthusiastic support of almost all university-based experts in nutrition.

During the past three years, half a dozen books have become huge bestsellers by telling us that the government got it wrong. We need more protein and less starch than we’re eating-or than the government wants us to eat. They also claim that fat in the diet is not so bad and may even be good for us. About ten million people have bought these books and many of them will swear that they lost weight without a struggle and, in addition, increased their mental and physical energy. Before the explosion of high protein, low carbohydrate diets, there were two other schools of thought that challenged the official standards. The first is associated with Nathan Pritikin and Dean Ornish. They advocated very low fat, vegetarian diets. Ornish demonstrated improved blood flow to the heart in people following his program and is now setting out to prove that his diet can prevent prostate cancer. In between high protein and high carbohydrate lies “the zone,” a carefully calculated balancing act based upon the magic formula, 40-30-30, which stands for 40% carbohydrate, 30 % protein and 30% fat. Despite its claims of uniqueness, 40-30-30 in practice creates a fairly ordinary formula for weight loss, but it does supply more protein and less starch than the official standards call for.

So, what’s right for you? The official standards, high protein/low carbohydrate, high carbohydrate/very low fat, or 40-30-30? The first thing to understand about all of these diets is: they all want us to eat less sugar. This is so important, because the amount of sugar eaten in this country has been increasing steadily for over two decades. Sugar is a major factor in the epidemic of obesity that is sweeping the US. When dietary fat was declared a bad thing back in the ’80’s, all sorts of low fat, high sugar snacks and desserts appeared on our shelves. The result is that people ate more calories, with sugar leading the way.

If you’re looking for a healthy diet plan, start by eliminating foods that contain added sugar, whether it’s white or brown. Sugar hides in foods under names like “corn sweetener,” “dextrose” and “fructose”(actually any ingredient ending in “-ose” is likely to be a type of sugar).

Fruit juice and honey contain sugar, of course, but unlike other sources of sugar, they also contain beneficial nutrients called carotenoids and bioflavinoids that appear to decrease your risk of heart attacks, cancer and stroke. If you need extra sweetness, get it from foods sweetened with pure fruit juice or juice concentrate, or use a small amount of honey. On average, we Americans consume about thirty teaspoons of sugar a day, which provides six hundred calories. We can do a whole lot better. The next step in healthy eating is to eliminate foods that contain “hydrogenated (or partially hydrogenated) vegetable oils.” These manufactured fats are now known to be the most dangerous fats that we eat, increasing the risk of heart disease and breast cancer far more than eating meat. You’ll be surprised at how many packaged foods contain these. If you concentrate on eating foods that do not contain these two ingredients, you will have taken a giant step toward improving your diet and your health. Then you can ask yourself, should I eat more meat or less meat, drink cow’s milk or soy milk or no milk, raise or lower my carbohydrates?

I have spent the last twenty years helping my patients answer questions like that. Experience has taught me that no single diet plan is right for everyone. You might consider a high protein, low carbohydrate diet if your answer to any of the following statements is “yes”: (1) I have to eat frequently or I feel weak or shaky. (2) I often feel bloated or swollen. (3) I need a big breakfast to get me through the morning. (4) I feel strong and alert after eating a steak. (5) I just can’t lose weight, no matter how little I eat. Because these diets have been demonstrated to increase the loss of calcium from the body (increasing the risk of osteoporosis) and to put stress on the kidneys and the liver, you should discuss this type of diet with your doctor before starting it. High protein diets may be dangerous for people with kidney or liver disease. There is no evidence that a high protein, low carbohydrate diet either increases or decreases the risk of developing heart disease or cancer.

You might consider adopting a very low fat, vegetarian diet if you are attracted to it for philosophical reasons, if heart disease or colon cancer seems to run in your family, or if you answer “yes” to any of the following statements: (1) After eating a steak I feel sluggish or bloated. (2) I am usually constipated. (3) A piece of fruit can give me energy for hours.

If your daily diet shuns foods made with sugar and hydrogenated oils, and if you identify a special need for more (or less) protein and fat, you’ll sail through the holidays.

Step Three: Use Nutritional Supplements to Help You Stay Healthy This Winter
The 1990’s brought us three major advances in nutritional science. Understanding these advances can help you choose supplements that strengthen your immune system and support your ability to handle stress. Just remember that supplements are not substitutes. They work best when added to a healthy diet.

(1) Change Your Oil! There are bad fats and good fats. The good ones are known as essential fatty acids, or EFA’s, and they’re concentrated in certain special oils. Our bodies can’t make EFA’s but we need them for our cells to function properly. EFA’s are divided into two families called Omega-6 and Omega-3, because of subtle but important differences in their chemical structure. We need both families in our diets because we lack the ability to covert one type into the other. The past century has witnessed a significant decline in our consumption of Omega-3’s due to changes in agricultural practices, food processing and diet. Unless you eat fatty fish like sardines, herring or salmon twice a week or mix ground up flax seeds into your breakfast cereal every day, it can be hard to get from food the same level of Omega-3’s your great grandparents were eating. Although they knew nothing of EFA’s, your great grandparents knew enough to increase the family’s Omega 3’s in winter by passing around a bottle of cod liver oil. Recent scientific research has proved the value of Omega 3’s. Flax seed oil (which is sold in health food stores) decreases the frequency, severity and duration of respiratory infections in children and fish oil extracts have been shown to relieve menstrual cramps and arthritis pain and to help people suffering from conditions as varied as psoriasis, asthma and colitis. Fish oils may also improve concentration and memory, lower levels of triglycerides in the blood, reduce blood pressure and help people who have undergone coronary by-pass surgery prevent future heart attacks.

I have recommended Omega-3 supplements to my patients for over twenty years, especially during the winter months. Not only do they support a healthy immune system, they often help symptoms like dry or rough skin, dry hair and soft or brittle nails. The usual preventive dose is one-half teaspoon to one full tablespoon of flax seed oil per day, depending upon age. This equals two to ten capsules. Among fish oil extracts, the key ingredients are a pair of Omega-3’s called EPA (eicosapentaenoic acid) and DHA (docosahexaenoic acid). The best preventive dose supplies about 500 milligrams of EPA and 300 milligrams of DHA per day (usually about 3000 milligrams of total fish oil extract). I don’t often recommend cod liver oil, because it may contain more vitamin A than is needed and vitamin A can be toxic. People taking prescription medications should consult their physicians before starting an Omega-3 supplement. Always let your doctor know if you’re taking nutritional supplements of any kind.

When you go shopping for Omega-3 supplements at the natural food market, you may encounter oils that supply a special ingredient called GLA (gamma-linolenic acid). GLA is a powerful Omega-6 EFA that is found in evening primrose, borage or black currant seed oils. It has been shown to help women with pre-menstrual breast pain or with menopausal symptoms. GLA sometimes helps children with eczema or attention deficit disorder. If taking an Omega-3 supplement has a paradoxical effect–if it makes your skin drier or your menstrual cramps worse–you will probably benefit from a supplement of GLA. The usual adult dose is about 275 milligrams per day, which is found in 3000 milligrams or evening primrose oil, 2000 milligrams of black currant seed oil, or 1500 mg of borage oil. Children may only need half as much.

Oils rich in EFA’s are highly perishable, especially when exposed to heat or air. To ensure freshness, store in the refrigerator after opening and discard the bottle six weeks later. Once they’re in your body, EFA’s are protected from damage by vitamin E and a group of related nutrients called anti-oxidants. Anti-oxidant research is the second major nutritional story of the ’90’s and will be discussed in Part 4 of this series.

(2) Join the Anti-Oxidant Revolution. The benefits of anti-oxidants for health have received a large amount of attention from scientists over the past ten years. Vitamin E has been shown to improve immune function in elderly Americans, and a broader group of anti-oxidants which include not only Vitamin E but Vitamin C, carotenoids, bioflavinoids and the mineral selenium have been shown to help prevent heart disease and cancer and to relieve symptoms associated with asthma and allergies.

The importance of anti-oxidants derives from our dependence on oxygen. We need oxygen to burn food as a fuel that produces energy and to burn away environmental toxins that enter our bodies. This process is called oxidation. It’s essential for human life, but like any fire it produces sparks that can fly off and start fires where they are not wanted. In your body, these sparks are called free radicals and they can damage the membranes and proteins of your cells. Free radical damage to the DNA in your genes can cause cancer. To quench these sparks, your body employs a fire department which is known as the anti-oxidant defense system. Its success depends upon teamwork. No component of this system is very effective by itself. Some anti-oxidants destroy free radicals by sacrificing themselves. They are oxidized in the process and must be repaired or restored. This is how vitamins E and C work and it is also the fate of carotenoids and bioflavinoids. You can usually recognize carotenoids and bioflavinoids in food by their rainbow of colors, which range in hue from pale yellow to deep purple. The appetizing appearance of ripe fruits and vegetables derives from the carotenoids and bioflavinoids they contain. It’s no surprise that tomatoes, blueberries, cherries and green tea have recently been touted as wonder foods for disease prevention. They’re all rich sources of these anti-oxidants.

Other anti-oxidants protect our bodies against free radicals by activating enzymes, which are proteins that catalyze (speed up) chemical reactions. Most of the B vitamins, including folic acid, activate enzymes that directly or indirectly help to repair free-radical damage. So do minerals like selenium and zinc.

For most of my adult patients, I prescribe a multivitamin and mineral supplement that supplies 400 units of Vitamin E, 800 micrograms of folic acid and 200 micrograms of selenium every day. This level of supplementation has been demonstrated to boost immune function and to help prevent cancer and heart disease. Children need one quarter to one half the adult doses. The amount and variety of carotenoids and bioflavinoids you need cannot be obtained from pills. Get these from eating six or more servings of colorful fruits and vegetables a day.

(3) Raise Your Magnesium Quotient. We’ve known for decades that calcium is needed for strong bones, that vitamin D is needed to absorb calcium from food and that the main natural source of vitamin D is the effect of sunlight on the skin. Recent research has shown that many adults living in the northeastern U.S. become deficient in vitamin D during the winter. If your multivitamin contains 400 micrograms of vitamin D, you will help yourself prevent this problem. Recent research has told us that magnesium is also important for healthy bones and the effect of calcium in the body is regulated in many ways by the level of magnesium.

Most Americans consume far less than the Recommended Daily Allowance (RDA) of magnesium. Emotional and physical stress, cold weather and alcohol can increase the amount you need well beyond the RDA. Many of the patients I treat are handicapped by a magnesium deficit, which can be corrected by increasing dietary magnesium and by supplementing their healthy diets with additional magnesium. The highest magnesium content occurs in beans, oats, nuts, buckwheat, and seafood, so it’s easy to understand why Americans may fall short of the RDA. Common symptoms of this shortfall include irritability, fatigue, muscle spasms, headaches (including migraines), palpitations, sensitivity to noise and trouble sleeping. If you have these symptoms, raising your magnesium quotient may really enhance your quality of life. Several types of magnesium supplements are sold in pharmacies and natural food stores. The usual daily dose for supplementation is two milligrams for each pound you weigh. Taken at bedtime, it may help sleep. Too much magnesium can cause diarrhea. If you’re over the age of 70, have kidney problems or take prescription medication, check with your doctor before taking a magnesium supplement.

The availability of nutritional supplements can be a real boon to your health and well being over the holiday season. Use this information to use them wisely.

Step Four: Prepare Healthy Party Foods
Long nights and short days seem to be perfect for parties. They don’t have to derail your plans to make this the healthiest holiday season ever. All the food you serve, including delicious party food, can be healthy, if you understand the answer to the following question: What creates appetizing snacks, desserts or hors d’oevres? It’s not the calories. It’s rich color; a distinctive texture–either crunchy or creamy–and a taste that quickens the senses by being sweet, salty or spicy. There’s a cornucopia of nutritious foods that together create a dazzling buffet that feasts the eyes and the palate. The beauty of these foods is that they don’t require added sugar, butter, or cream to please. Some require a bit of preparation, others don’t. Some may need salt, but you can usually decrease the need for salt by using spices. These natural treats add nourishment to your parties and actually supplement the nutrients you receive from the food you eat every day. They are powerhouses of vitamins, minerals and phytochemicals like carotenoids and bioflavinoids, those anti-oxidants found in plants that make vegetables and fruits the healthiest foods you can add to your diet.

A tour through this gourmet garden of Eden might include shrimp with salsa; smoked salmon or pickled herring with seven-grain toast topped with fresh dill; a white bean salad with navy or Tuscan beans, chopped escarole or spinach, red onion, chopped walnuts, and a light dressing of tarragon vinegar and walnut oil; or a pasta salad with olive oil, chopped tomatoes and basil. Flavor these with spices like parsley, sage, rosemary, thyme and garlic. Spreads made from tofu, beans or chick peas without added fat are now available through gourmet and natural food stores. If their taste is bland, add a touch of curry, cayenne, garlic or soy sauce. Serve these with crudites, baked tortilla chips or triangles of fresh pita bread. Attractive little bowls of almonds, walnuts, and pumpkin seeds adorn your table and, whether roasted or raw, add minerals like zinc and magnesium to your feast. Raisins and dates add sweetness. Most commercial trail mixes or dried fruit mixtures are loaded with added sugar, so it’s better to create your own.

For a healthy dessert, make ambrosia, the food of the gods, by tossing orange sections, shredded coconut, chopped walnuts, sliced almonds, and seasame seeds in a dressing of pineapple juice and orange juice concentrate. The aroma of apples sprinkled with cinnamon and honey baking in your oven will also delight your guests. If you want to devote more time to preparing dessert, there are many books with all natural recipes for spice cakes, fruit breads, pies and cookies, which use fruit juice for sweetness. I tested many of these for my first book, “Superimmunity for Kids” (Dell, 1989, still in print). Big hits in our home were a tofu custard pudding and oatmeal spice cookies.

If you’re entertaining kids, you can also try air-popped popcorn sprinkled with parmesan cheese, carrot sticks with peanut or almond butter, frozen banana pops, homemade fruit juice ice pops, or granola chews made with rolled oats, nut butter, raisins, and apple juice concentrate.

Healthy beverages can complement your healthy buffet. Warm apple cider brewed with cinnamon sticks is a cold-weather favorite. Have lots of sparkling mineral water on hand for those friends who want a low-calorie, no-fault libation. A dash of wine, red or white, a splash of fruit juice, or a slice of lime make a refreshing spritzer. Alcohol and automobiles are a dangerous combination. Every responsible adult must openly confront the choice of drinking or driving. You don’t dampen the holiday spirit when you serve alternatives to alcohol or pay attention to what your guests are drinking. You nurture that spirit by showing your concern for the health and well-being of your friends and the strangers they’ll pass on the road.

Step Five: “The Y2K Detox Plan”
Life is full of pitfalls and you may experience days when you regret the excesses of the day before. These are Detox Days. A brisk walk, a gentle massage, a hot bath or sauna can all aid in recovery, but the most important think to remember about detoxification is that Detox is not something you do, like starting an exercise program. It’s something your body does, spontaneously and continuously, 24-7. Detoxification occurs in every cell of the body, but is most concentrated in the liver, intestines, kidneys and lungs. In these organs, enzymes-proteins that catalyze chemical reactions-destroy or excrete thousands of toxic substances, whether they are absorbed from food, water or air or produced within the body.

The main support for Detox is a nutritious diet. Red, yellow and green vegetables, uncooked nuts and seeds, whole grains, and spices supply the nutrients that are most important for efficient detoxification. Because fiber is also important, I don’t recommend fasting or juicing. Eat for Detox. Have a hearty vegetable soup or stew that includes at least half of the following: chunks of sweet potato or winter squash, tomatoes, carrots, asparagus tips, collards or dandelion greens, spinach or Swiss chard, and sea vegetables like dulse, hijiki, kelp, nori or wakame,. Make sure you include some members of the cabbage family (which includes not only cabbage but broccoli, cauliflower, bok choy, Brussel sprouts, green onions and kale). Not only are these nutritional powerhouses, they stimulate the liver to make more enzymes for safe detoxification. People who eat from the cabbage family several times a week have a lower incidence of cancer, in large part because of the improved detoxification these vegetables support. Season this dish with ginger, garlic, turmeric, parsley or purple onions, spices that are rich in anti-oxidants and minerals. I enjoy a bowl of Detox soup every day during the winter.

The best nutritional supplement to aid in detoxification is a “pro-biotic”, a supplement of acidophilus or other beneficial bacteria for helping intestinal function. As a nation, we are deficient in beneficial intestinal bacteria. This results from our generally low fiber diets and our excessive exposure to antibiotics, either as medications or as contaminants in meat and poultry, which are routinely given antibiotics to promote growth. Most pro-biotic supplements contain species of Lactobacillus bacteria, either acidophilus or casei, (normally found in cultured milk), or plantarum (this plant-based bacterial species is what makes sauerkraut sour). Commercial yogurt and fermented foods may have no living bacteria by the time they reach your table. If you don’t want to make fresh yogurt or sauerkraut, take a supplement that supplies about ten billion living organisms a day, either as a powder or capsule. The heat generated in the manufacture of tablets may kill the bacteria, so these are unreliable.

Your body will detoxify well if you feed it properly. Unfortunately, there are many actions that people take to relieve symptoms that actually interfere with detoxification. Acid-lowering drugs are being aggressively marketed for the treatment of heartburn, a common holiday complaint. Heartburn, however, is not caused by an excess of acid. It results from a normal amount of acid getting into the wrong place. People who are prone to heartburn have a weakness of the valve that separates the stomach from the esophagus (the LES valve). Fatty foods, coffee, alcohol, chocolate or lying down after a large meal can stress or weaken the LES, allowing stomach acid to enter the sensitive esophagus. The key to treatment and prevention is not to turn off stomach acid, but to support the LES by eating sensibly and-if necessary-taking a chewable calcium pill after eating and before bedtime. Calcium naturally stimulates the LES to function properly. Acid-lowering drugs, on the other hand, deprive the gastrointestinal tract of stomach acid, its first defense against infection. Two of these drugs, Tagamet and Zantac, actually block enzymes in the liver which are required for detoxification.

Pain relievers are another class of drugs commonly used for relieving holiday symptoms. When you take acetaminophen (found in Tylenol and other products), your liver uses a precious anti-oxidant called glutathione to remove the drug from your body. The more acetaminophen you take, the more glutathione is lost. Because alcohol and eating poorly also deplete the liver of glutathione, additive effects can occur and have occasionally produced serious consequences.

Aspirin and ibuprofen (Advil, Motrin, Alleve) are often used for the relief of pain and/or inflammation. Their most common side effect is damage to the lining of the stomach and intestines. They may also interfere with proper kidney function. Aspirin kills about a thousand people a year in the United States, mostly because of internal bleeding. A study conducted at Boston University found that the use of only one adult-strength aspirin a day triples your risk of being hospitalized for serious internal hemorrhage. Although occasional use of pain relievers is not likely to be a problem, their frequent use signifies the need for another strategy for feeling well, one which uncovers the reason for your pain. If seasonal stress is the reason, don’t reach for the pills. Follow the Y2K Detox Plan, along with a brisk walk and relaxing bath or massage. Maybe your body will heal itself without the drugs.

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Written by Leo Galland MD FACN

Explore Wellness in 2021