By Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D.
There’s a lot to love about the holidays — but there’s a lot to stress out about, too — especially when you spread yourself too thin. Stop stressing: There are some healthy foods, and solutions backed by science, that can help.
Stressor: You’re missing the “happy” in Happy Holidays.
How to beat it: Think about what you’re eating. In a study published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, people who reported eating a diet rich in whole foods during the previous year were less likely to report feeling depressed than those who ate lots of desserts, fried foods, processed meats, refined grains and high-fat dairy products.
Previous studies have shown that antioxidants in fruits and vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids in fish are associated with lower risk of depression. Folate, a B vitamin found in beans, citrus fruits and dark green vegetables like spinach, affects neurotransmitters that impact mood. It’s possible that the mood boost derives from a cumulative effect of these nutrients.
Stressor: You don’t have time to exercise.
How to beat it: Your calendar is chock-full — how could you have time? It’s worth your while to make (at least a little) time: Research shows that regular physical activity can help reduce stress and depression, likely because exercise promotes the release of feel-good endorphins in the brain.
If a full 30-minute chunk of time isn’t feasible, break it into smaller 10- or 15-minute intervals. If that’s still asking too much, skip the elevator and take the stairs, park your car at the far end of the parking lot or wander around the mall instead of doing your holiday shopping online.
Stressor: You’re gaining weight.
How to beat it: The good news is that most Americans only gain about a pound between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. The bad news is that’s half of our annual weight gain — and research shows we don’t tend to lose it when the partying ends. One easy way to help you keep your weight in check this holiday season is simply controlling portions: Use a salad plate for your main meal, and a small bowl for soup. Swap the big red-wine glass for a white-wine glass instead.
Also, try eating more fiber. Researchers found that women who increased their fiber intake over a 2-year period generally lost weight. Those who decreased the fiber in their diets gained. Try it for yourself: if you’re consuming 2,000 calories per day, aim to increase your fiber by 16 grams.
Stressor: You have tons to do and don’t have enough energy.
How to beat it: Be sure your meals include some lean high-protein foods (think flank steak, skinless chicken breast, fish or beans), particularly at lunch, with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. They’ll keep you satisfied longer and are more likely to keep you feeling energized and productive.
Stressor: You’re not getting enough sleep.
How to beat it: If it’s quality, not quantity, that you crave, try a pre-slumber snack that’s rich in carbohydrates and contains a bit of protein; this combination is said to increase the tryptophan levels in the brain, causing you to sleep more soundly. Try low-fat yogurt with a sprinkle of granola, a small bowl of oatmeal or a sliced apple with a bit of peanut butter.
EatingWell is a magazine and website devoted to healthy eating as a way of life. Online at www.eatingwell.com.