Protecting Mental Health with a Balanced Diet this Holiday Season

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The holidays are in full swing and for many of us that means it’s time to cook, bake and enjoy our favorite holiday foods. While these holiday foods should be savored, overindulging in sugar-rich and processed foods can cause inflammation throughout the body and brain leading to lethargy, fatigue, depression, and other mood altering symptoms. And for those of us who are already struggling with loneliness this time of year, reaching for a sugary holiday treat as a quick pick-me-up may actually have the opposite effect. Protect your mental health this season with the following tips to help maintain a balanced diet and feel merry and bright. 

  • Stay Hydrated
    • Don’t mistake thirst for hunger. Oftentimes, our bodies receive mixed signals on hunger when we are dehydrated. Not to mention, being dehydrated throws off the delicate dopamine and serotonin balances in the brain, natural chemicals that can increase feelings of depression and anxiety. One of the fastest and easiest ways to improve your mood is by drinking a glass (or two!) of water. 
  • Exercise
    • It’s hard enough to exercise the rest of the year, but add holidays to the mix and many of us find exercise becomes less of a priority as to-do lists grow longer and longer. Although exercise can’t make the days longer, it can reduce depressive symptoms and elevate mood. Maintaining your exercise schedule provides structure to your day. The routine will help you stay on track with food intake, aid in maintenance of sleep schedules, and provide a framework so you can prioritize the demands of the holiday season.
  • Healthier Ingredients
    • Over time, little changes in the foods, drinks and ingredients you choose can have big health benefits. This holiday season, try making one healthy shift. For example, shift from regular pasta to whole wheat or veggie. Shift from soda to water at lunch. At one meal, have seafood or legumes instead of red meat. Choose one recipe, and replace some or all butter with coconut or olive oil. 
  • Mindful Snacking
    • If you are looking for a snack to hold you over while you’re holiday shopping, try packing one of your healthy favorites, especially if it’s colorful. The color variety in fruits, vegetables & legumes signals healthy nutrient diversity. 
  • Eat/Drink What You Love
    • Just because restaurants are rolling out their holiday menu, it doesn’t mean you have to buy everything on it. Only eat or drink things that you actually enjoy. If that seasonal eggnog latte doesn’t excite you, don’t get it.
  • Don’t Skip Other Meals
    • On the day of your holiday get-together, don’t skip other meals to prepare for the big dinner. Eat throughout the day to prevent overeating at dinner.
  • Grab a Smaller Plate
    • When it’s time for dinner, try grabbing a smaller plate and make sure you are piling on the nutrient-dense foods. People base their portion size on how it looks relative to their plate, bowl, cup, and utensils. So, the bigger the dinnerware, the bigger the portions. 
  • Eat Your Veggies First
    • Before indulging in the glazed ham, roast turkey or savory stuffing, give your veggies some love. Vegetables are nutrient rich, high in fiber, and can make you feel full. 
  • Savor Your Meal
    • As you’re eating, take your time and enjoy your meal. Eating slower leads to better digestion and makes you feel full, faster. If you need help doing so, put your fork down between bites.
  • Avoid that Food Coma
    • Even though turkey can make you sleepy, don’t overstuff yourself into a food coma. Go on a brisk walk after dinner to ease digestion.
  • Moderation
    • Don’t deprive yourself of your favorite holiday foods and treats. Food deprivation can lead to binge eating. It’s ok to grab your favorite holiday desserts in moderation.

Being mindful of what we eat can help our overall mental health. If you are aware of what you are eating and are taking the necessary precautions, you can help combat gloomy holiday feelings. The benefits of good nutrition surpass maintaining a healthy body weight— positive attitudes about eating and mindful food choices support your brain, body and soul.

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