Maintain Your Diet and Your Sanity During the Holidays

The Oxford Dictionary defines “chillax” as slang that's a blending of the verbs to chill out and to relax. This turn of phrase has become my personal and professional mantra for the holiday season. In my experience, this time of year is notorious for stress-related eating habits and for holiday thoughts that can sabotage all our good diet efforts.

When physical or emotional stress becomes routine in our lives—our usual state—our bodies repeatedly release a hormone called cortisol, which can exert a lot of wear and tear on us. You would think that eventually your body would be able to clear these hormones and calm the nerves; however, studies suggest that if the body experiences frequent aggravating stress, then it never resumes its steady-state of calmness. And this chronic, low-level stress, which affects every organ of the body, has been linked to a variety of health issues such as heart disease, cancer, poor resistance to infections, sleep disruptions, and gastrointestinal problems.

So chronic, low-level stress is bad for us—how can we escape from it?

Nutrition habits and lifestyle advice for dialing down your stress level

Practice mindful eating. This concept of mindfulness, borrowed from Buddhist teachings, encourages us to eat slowly while paying close attention to the sensations and purpose of each morsel of food, and to savor the full, robust flavor of every mouthful. By eating mindfully, you can increase the enjoyment you get from your food; and not only that, but a recent article in the New York Times showed that mindful eating also reduces bingeing. For starters, during the holidays try committing to eating at least 1 meal a day mindfully.

Boost your ORAC Foods. ORAC stands for a food’s "oxidative radical absorbency capacity" score. This rating, developed by the National Institutes of Health, measures the antioxidant capacity of foods and supplements. Studies suggest that emotional and physical challenges can lead to a certain type of stress on the body, called “oxidative stress," and that foods with high concentrations of antioxidants might be beneficial in combating such oxidative stress.
The exact relationship of high-ORAC foods to stress-related diseases has not yet been established, but some experts believe that the higher a food's ORAC score, the better that food can counteract stress. Foods with a high ORAC score include some spices and herbs (cinnamon, oregano, cloves, turmeric, and sumac), as well as fresh fruits and vegetables such as açaí, prunes, raisins, blueberries, chocolate, cranberries, pomegranates, kale, broccoli, spinach, beets, and Brussels sprouts.

Resist the “food pushers.” In talking to my clients, I’ve gathered that when it comes to holiday eating, people spend more time thinking about the foods that they gave in to than about the ones they triumphantly resisted. No matter what anyone says, or how hard someone tries to persuade you to “just take a taste,” you need only say, “No, thank you.” Eventually, making this retort will become second nature to you.

Also, remind yourself of how long your disappointment lasts whenever you give in to a food-pusher, and realize that you have legitimate reasons for eating healthfully during the holidays—1 of which is to reduce your stress.

Last but not least: B-R-E-A-T-H-E. Try some “dirga pranayama,”or 3-part, yogic breathing. This simple exercise will train you to breathe deeply and fully, and it’s been shown to decrease stress and anxiety levels, thereby calming and “grounding” the mind. Here’s how: Sitting or lying down in a comfortable position, inhale through your nose deeply and fully, expanding your belly and lifting your ribcage. Feel your lungs expand thoroughly, with your breath filling the belly, the ribcage, and finally, the upper chest. Exhale slowly through your mouth, emptying the belly, then the ribcage, and finally the upper chest. Eventually, with practice, you can increase the length of your exhalations until they are twice as long as your inhalations.

So until next time, chillax!

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