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Hold on to Health During the Holidays

If jingle bells jangle nerves and send you snacking, simple tips can help

FRIDAY, Dec. 23, 2005 (HealthDay News) -- The biggest challenge this holiday season may not be not getting everything done on time: It might be heeding Santa's generous spirit while avoiding his ample figure.

The challenge to stay slim amid all that Yuletide cheer isn't as hard as you might think. Those tasks you've been avoiding -- like finishing the tree decorations and wrapping presents -- will shave off at least some of the calories consumed at the holiday table, experts say.

Here are some tips for a happy and healthy holiday season:

  • Check your to-do list for calorie-burning activities. One hour of putting up a Christmas tree can burn about 150 calories, as can one hour of trekking the malls for presents. One hour of wrapping those gifts can eliminate 102 calories. But don't assume ordinary holiday activities will burn up the ordinary holiday feast: An average slice of pecan pie is 500 calories, i.e, five hours of wrapping.
  • Laugh well, laugh often. Not only is laughter a great stress reliever, said Molly Kimball, sports and lifestyle nutritionist at the Ochsner Clinic's Elmwood Fitness Center in New Orleans, it burns calories. Researchers at Vanderbilt University recently found that 10 to 15 minutes of genuine laughter a day can burn an extra 10 to 40 calories. "Over the course of a week, that's up to 300 calories," Kimball said. And that equals one eight-ounce glass of eggnog.
  • Forget the food, remember the people. "The biggest reason you're at a party is the people you might only see at this time of the year," Kimball said. "Focus on them, not the buffet table."
  • In high-risk situations, chew gum. "After all, you have to take gum out in order to eat," noted Cathy Nonas, director of the diabetes and obesity programs at North General Hospital in New York City and author of Outwit Your Weight.
  • Don't eat before, during and after a party. Just pick one timeframe and stick to it.
  • Switch hands. "If you are a right-handed person, hold your drink in your right hand," Nonas advised. "When you reach for food with your left, it will feel awkward and make you think twice."
  • Sit pretty. If you're at a sit-down meal, Nonas recommends keeping your chair slightly away from the table. Also, be the last to start eating and drink water to slow you down (one glass before you start noshing and one glass halfway through). Other than water, avoid liquid calories; they're not as filling.
  • Avoid fatty foods -- and a heart attack. "If you eat a very large, fatty meal, you're much more prone to having a heart attack," said Dr. Michael Kim, director of the Coronary Care Unit at Mount Sinai Medical Center in New York City. And this is an immediate risk, not a long-term possibility. Fatty foods can trigger dangerous changes to blood vessels right after eating. "If all you're thinking about is your health, there's no room for that one big meal," Kim. Not only are heart attacks more common during the holidays, they are also deadlier, research indicates.
  • Limit your alcohol intake. "Moderate alcohol intake has been shown to decrease your overall risk of heart disease and stroke," Kim said. "Excessive drinking actually increases it." As the alcohol leaves your body, it can cause high blood pressure, high adrenaline levels and irregular heart rhythms.
  • Avoid alcoholic drinks with lemon. "It facilitates absorption from the stomach and gives you an immediate buzz," said Dr. Gopal Upadhya, medical director of the Areba Casriel Institute in New York City. The same goes for carbonated drinks, as these enter the bloodstream faster.
  • Eat before you drink and don't consume more than one drink every one-and-a-half hours. Alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic drinks, Upadhya urged.
  • Bundle up against the cold. Low temperatures restrict blood flow and can increase blood pressure.
  • Avoid "Merry Stressmas" syndrome by tempering expectations. "The major stressor at this time has to do with unrealistic expectations," said Dr. Gail Saltz, a clinical associate professor of psychiatry at New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center in New York City and author of Becoming Real. "The holidays resurrect childhood memories which have a wonderful, magical aspect on the one hand but, on the other hand, have an idealized aspect because, when you were a child, it was all perfect. You didn't see your mother tearing her hair out. Getting let down is very stressful."
  • Recognize that you can't do it all. "Awareness helps, otherwise you will be fighting with yourself all the time," Saltz said. "At this time of year, the commercial trappings represent the love, the gift represents the love, how many lights you put up and how great the meal is. Instead, we have to think about loving each other, being grateful that we have each other and we have our health."

More information

The U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention has more on holiday health.

SOURCES: Molly Kimball, R.D., sports and lifestyle nutritionist, Elmwood Fitness Center, Ochsner Clinic, New Orleans; Michael Kim, director, Coronary Care Unit, Mount Sinai Medical Center, New York City; Cathy Nonas, M.S., R.D., director, diabetes and obesity programs, North General Hospital, New York City, spokeswoman, American Dietetic Association and author, Outwit Your Weight; Gail Saltz, M.D., clinical associate professor, psychiatry, New York Presbyterian Hospital/Weill Cornell Medical Center, New York City and author, Becoming Real; Gopal Upadhya, M.D., medical director, Areba Casriel Institute, New York City
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