How to Eat Healthy During the Holidays
The holiday season snacks may tempting, but you can plan a way around the typical overindulgence, bad choices, and weight gain. The holidays are a great excuse for going overboard, especially when it comes to food and beverages with little or no nutritional value. Even sensible people who have spent the previous ten months carefully watching their weight, blood sugar levels, and diet seem to lose control during the holiday season.
You may be thinking, what’s the big deal? Come January, everyone goes on a diet to lose the extra weight, so why not enjoy ourselves a little? Here’s why: While it’s easy to say you’ll go on a diet in January, the truth of the matter is very few dieters — something like a mere 6 percent — manage to lose weight and keep it off. So the weight you gain during the coming months could easily become permanent. Plus, I think most people agree that losing weight can be a frustrating, difficult undertaking. Imagine how much more you’ll enjoy January if you don’t start out 10 or 20 pounds overweight. Now that’s what I call a Happy New Year!
Why Blood Sugar Levels Matter
Managing blood sugar levels is one of the most important things you can do for your health. But how do you know if your blood sugar is high, low, or somewhere in between? If you have diabetes, you’re probably checking your blood sugar several times a day. If not, you may notice some of the following symptoms of blood sugar irregularities:
- Extreme thirst
- Carbohydrate and sweets cravings
- Repeated infections, including flu and yeast infections in women
- Fatigue or exhaustion
- Difficulty thinking, foggy brain
- High blood pressure or hypertension
- Vision disorders
- Weight gain, particularly in the abdomen
- Repeated need to urinate
- Sexual dysfunction in men
These are signs that your body may be losing its sensitivity to insulin, the fat-storage hormone made by the pancreas. Insulin is produced when the food you eat is converted to glucose and absorbed into your bloodstream. Insulin’s job is to escort glucose from your blood into your cells, where it can be used for energy or stored as fat or glycogen for future use. But when you repeatedly overeat or snack all day, the excess glucose overwhelms your body. Sometimes the pancreas slows or shuts down insulin production. Other times, cells refuse to recognize insulin, leaving you with high levels of glucose in your blood but not enough in your cells.
As my patient Jake discovered, prolonged problems with insulin and glucose translate into excess weight, serious cravings, and all the problems mentioned above. But that’s not the end of it. More than two-thirds of the nation is now considered overweight or obese, putting them at risk for the following conditions:
- Heart disease and/or heart attack
- Congestive heart failure
- Angina or heart arrhythmia
- High blood pressure
- Diabetes, prediabetes, or metabolic syndrome
- Reproductive problems, including infertility
- Sexual dysfunction
- Joint problems
- Fatty liver disease
- Sleep apnea
- Immune disorders
- Hormone imbalances
And that’s just a partial list! When I discuss the topic with patients, they all agree it’s much easier not to gain weight in the first place. But how do you do that when you’re faced with the most irresistible foods and beverages imaginable, and everyone around you is eating and drinking like there’s no tomorrow? As one patient argued, “I can’t eat a carrot when everyone else has a plate full of goodies!”
Fortunately, there’s no need to avoid festivities or deprive yourself of seasonal delights. Instead, simply focus on maintaining healthy blood sugar levels. This is especially true if you are diabetic or have prediabetes, also known as insulin resistance, Syndrome X, or metabolic syndrome.
Meet the Holiday Helpers
Santa has his elves. Why shouldn’t the rest of us have little holiday helpers to get us through the season? To keep your blood sugar under control and prevent weight gain, here are my top 11 suggestions designed to safeguard your health:
- Commit to weight management. Make a genuine commitment to yourself not to gain weight during the coming two months. Some patients have found that it’s helpful to write out a simple contract agreeing to maintain their weight. You can sign this like a real contract and post it in a visible spot, such as the refrigerator or oven door, as a reminder.
- Watch your blood sugar levels. If you monitor blood sugar levels, please promise yourself that you’ll keep yours under 100 mg/dL.
- Replace convenience foods. Purge your pantry of processed and packaged foods. Replace them with whole foods — vegetables, fruits, whole grains, and lean protein or protein powder. Convenience foods, like packaged or prepared frozen meals, are loaded with salt, sugar, and chemicals that undermine your health.
- Get rid of all sodas. That includes carbonated beverages sweetened with sugar or with artificial ingredients, such as Splenda or aspartame.
- Reduce the carbs and calories. Cut out simple carbs, such as pasta, potatoes, bread, and rice; and eat no more than 650 calories each day for two days each week. A recent study found that women who used this approach had a 22 percent improvement in insulin resistance. You can also drop the simple carbs for two days each week, but continue with your normal calorie intake. This netted participants in the same study a 14 percent improvement in insulin resistance. Bonus: Members of all groups in this study lost weight, too.
- Exercise daily. Schedule 30- to 45-minute daily walks, inside or out, depending on weather. A short (10- to 15-minute) walk after meals is another option. Exercise improves insulin sensitivity, so it helps maintain healthy blood sugar levels, while also assisting with weight management, heart health, circulation, and so much more.
- Eat breakfast every day. After 8 hours without food, your body needs a healthy breakfast to get moving again. Note the word “healthy” in that sentence. In other words, no pastries, granola bars, or sugary cereals. Eat real food first thing in the morning, and you won’t be tempted to overdo it later in the day. No time? A smoothie of fruit and protein powder takes only a couple minutes to make, and it won’t leave you starving by midmorning.
- Don’t stuff — sample. Now is a good time to get in the habit of eating lightly. For example, if you’re at a restaurant, ask the server to bring only half of whatever you order and pack the rest to take home. If the food is not in front of you, you’re far less likely to eat it. The same is true at dinner and cocktail parties. Let the other guests overload their plates if they like. Be a good example and take just a few sample bites of the dishes being served instead of a heaping helping. You can always go back for more if you really want it. But that’s where the next item comes into play.
- Wait between helpings. Before going back for second helpings, wait about 20 minutes. That’s how long it takes for our stomachs to send “I’m full!” messages to the hunger center in the brain. Waiting a bit helps avoid the uncomfortable, stuffed-to-the-gills feeling that occurs when we eat too much too quickly.
- Give water a try. If you’re feeling hungry, have a glass of water and wait 10 minutes. Quite often, we mistake thirst for hunger pangs. And dehydration is more likely in winter, when you’re exposed to artificial heat.
- Manage your blood sugar naturally. Consider taking supplements that assist in blood sugar management. Berberine, Gymnema sylvestre, and alpha-lipoic acid (ALA), for example, improve insulin resistance and/or elevated blood sugar. In fact, I consider these substances so important that I’ve included them in my own blood sugar management supplement.
Somewhere in the neighborhood of 100 million Americans are currently suffering from elevated blood sugar that puts them at risk for serious health issues, including diabetes and prediabetes. But you don’t have to live that way. Consider the upcoming holiday season an opportunity to turn over a new leaf, and enjoy the season without creating a host of new health problems. Now that’s something to celebrate!