Hacking Your Health This Holiday Period

Written by: Tammy Spiller, Clinical Nutritionist

While I don’t buy into the ‘new year, new you’ b.s. that is so prevalent at this time of the year, it is true that what we eat regularly can change how we feel and function. Our everyday food, drink and exercises choices, those ones we’d normally make get challenged and often fall away when faced with an overdose of food choices and back to back celebrations.

It’s worth noting that one meal, on one day of the year isn’t going to derail your health goals. If that’s your only challenge this holiday period, go ahead and enjoy it.

However, if you let that spiral into a week or more of eating and drinking poorly → and we haven’t even gotten to New Years yet → then you’ll definitely start to feel the impact.

What does that impact look like? Well, it’s different for everyone. For me, after a half dozen different get togethers, it’s a change in sleep and mood, sore joints, waking up puffy and moving less … in what can easily become a cycle leading to a bout of low mood heading straight into the New Year. Not the ‘yay!’ I was hoping for. Maybe you’ll just notice tight pants, a sloppy bowel and being short on stamina during a workout?

Whatever the result is, there is a way to hack your health through this holiday period that doesn’t rely on willpower. Willpower is normally short lived and can be in even shorter supply when we are joyously (or not!) celebrating with family and friends.

Instead, let’s try to manage both how we eat and what we put in our bodies as well as finding ways to de-stress between gatherings.

Holiday Hacks + Tips:

  1. Let’s start basic – SLEEP. Bring on the afternoon siesta. Sleep as much as possible during your time off and at least 7-9 hours a night the rest of the time. Sleep deprivation increases our stress hormones and these increase our cravings for sweets. (See my alcohol tips below to maximise sleep).
  2. Try to eat only three meals per day, no snacking. During these meals, start with two mouthfuls of protein. Protein can improve how full and satisfied you feel after the meal.
  3. Let go of the inner critic this holiday. Focus on other qualities, such as how active you are on holidays (taking the stairs instead of the escalators, right?) or how well you might be sleeping or even how well you’re dealing with your mother-in law.
  4. Stack up your plate with salads. If you want to have some bread, opt for sourdough. Plant based fibres like salad and traditional sourdough have a lower glycemic load than other grain based choices limiting the impact on fat storage. Prioritising fibre improves the gut microbiome, which can help reduce bloating and unwanted gut reactions.
  5. As much as possible stick to your normal routine or a pattern of eating in daylight hours and stopping at least 2-3 hours before bed. So if you normally follow a 14/10 or 16/8 eating window (that is fasting for 16 hrs and having 2-3 meals in an 8 hour window) then continue this to keep your sleep, digestion and energy levels on track. As long as you continue to exercise and eat in this pattern you should be able to maintain your muscle:fat ratio. You may be tempted to do longer fasts so you can have a massive celebratory meal, however without and established pattern of eating and exercise, long fasts can lead to some small loss of muscle mass or even more rebound eating. My suggestion is to keep longer fasts for after Christmas when you can maintain your normal lifestyle patterns.
  6. Choose a smaller plate to eat off. However, this has been shown to have limited impact on overall eating if you just plan to go back for more, so it might be best to use this when you’re not faced with a buffet.
  7. Slow down and tune in to how you feel before a meal. It’s beneficial in reducing emotional eating. Another good question is, ‘how is this food actually going to make me feel’? Moderate based on your response.
  8. Don’t treat your body like a garbage bin. This may be harsh but there’s also a reminder in here … Consciously decide to stop eating continuously throughout the day. Food can go into the bin, or home with friends and family. It doesn’t all need to be finished. You don’t need to finish what’s on your plate if you don’t want to and that last bit of the beer or champagne in the glass can go down the sink. Your body (+ mind) is essential to a good life, it is not a garbage bin.
  9. Find ways to nourish yourself that have nothing to do with food. These can often set you up for the day — like going for a walk and focussing on the beauty around you, treat yourself to a a float or a soak in the ocean, give yourself permission to sit down and read the whole book. It’s also good to have a plan in place to press pause if it all gets too much – walk outside for 5 mins, go to the kids table and play, signal your partner you need five.
  10. Lastly, alcohol in the evening may put you to sleep quickly, but is known to shorten sleep quality and leave you waking many times during the night. Sleep is a problem for about one in five of us. This is worsened with alcohol. The solution is to have a drink at lunch time celebrations. The effect of this is two fold:
      • Drinking stimulates more eating . Making the lunch meal slightly larger and boozy, gives you time to drink water and take a walk. Walking after a meal prompts our cells glucose receptors to deal with our blood sugar, without requiring additional insulin (or fat storage). Water and then a nap, give the body time to digest and also process the alcohol through the liver, not disrupting your sleep pattern.
      • A lighter evening meal helps digestion and less alcohol prevents a pattern of fatigue for the next few days.

There’s plenty more nutrition science I could have shared with you, however, holiday eating is less about science and more about social interactions. I hope you find something in here to help moderate your eating over the holidays. Most importantly don’t feel the need to justify your eating to those around you.