Maintaining a healthy lifestyle in the midst of holiday traditions can be a challenge. Many factors are at play. Virtually all gatherings include food, much of it not gluten-free. Enter the stress of being around foods you can’t have, and/or making sure you have something to eat that’s not been cross-contaminated (and just as delicious as the special holiday treats you may need to pass up!). And even when the gluten-free issue is solved, how do you stay balanced and not over-do it too much on the rich and sweet specialty items which generally help mark this time of year? Add in busier schedules, less likelihood of finding time for exercise, and houseguests and/or travel. If staying balanced and healthy seems like it’s too much to manage, here are some tips. These are especially geared towards Thanksgiving day but can easily be adapted to other holiday occasions.
Celebratory gatherings invariably include food, the gluten-free status of which can be difficult to confirm. Dishes are often brought by various members of a holiday gathering. If all in your party are people you know, and who are aware of your need to be gluten-free, then hopefully they will have accommodated your needs, either by modifying dishes or by letting you know you that their dish contains gluten so you can make other choices. But if you’re at a gathering where food is being brought by people who are unaware of your needs, things get a little more complicated. You may feel uncomfortable bringing the issue up and decide to guess on gluten-free status of foods: never a good way to go.
Here’s where hosting the meal yourself can be beneficial. Even if guests bring some dishes, you can have control over what’s in most of the food. Choose to make the stuffing and pie yourself, since these are traditional items which can easily be converted to gluten-free. Hosting also gives you the opportunity to show your guests how delicious gluten-free food can be. When menu planning with guests who will be bringing dishes, do state your need to be gluten-free, but also assure people that if their traditional favorite side dish contains gluten and they want to bring it, that’s o.k. – you just need to know so you can avoid it. For friends and family who aren’t yet familiar with gluten-free eating, also be sure to explain the importance of avoiding cross-contamination through shared serving utensils or other means.
If you’re going to be a guest somewhere else for a holiday meal, check in with your hosts well in advance. Let them know of your need to be gluten-free, but at the same time communicate that you don’t expect your needs to be catered to. Just explain that you do need to know what contains gluten so you can avoid those things in order to stay healthy. Depending on how well you know your host and the others who will be sharing the meal with you, you and/or your host may feel comfortable passing this information along to them as well. If not, you can decide on the day of the event whether or not you feel comfortable talking with people about what they brought and what it contains; if not, simply avoid those dishes. When talking with your host, offer to bring a few side dishes: always appreciated and will assure that you’ll have safe food available.
When schedules get busier, exercise is often one of the first activities to be sacrificed. And for those who have an outdoor routine, bad weather and shorter days may be additional obstacles. But if you take a half hour in the morning to exercise, you’ll feel energized and better all day, making the time commitment pay off. On Thanksgiving (or other “big meal” days), for an enjoyable group activity, go on a walk with your dining companions after the meal and before the pies come on. This will also give you more time to “work up an appetite” for dessert! Exercise, stress relief and a good group activity all rolled into one.
Increased demands on schedules (often combined with less exercise) can increase stress. Spending time with friends and family is at the heart of holiday celebrations, but finding the time to fit it all in can still add stress. Hosting house guests may increase stress too, since extra efforts and time commitments are nearly always involved. Remember, even positive activities can add stress. Stress may be further increased due to skipping your usual activity routine. For some people stress can also lead to excess snacking, easy to do when lots of appealing foods are around, usually the case on holidays. Try not to over-schedule, have healthy foods available (see below) and focus in on what’s most important. Making time for exercise (see above) can help keep stress in check too.
Managing an Abundance of High Fat, High Calorie Foods
Excessive intake of higher calorie special occasion foods can lead to unwanted weight gain, raising risk of adverse health effects down the road. Some data has indicated that many people gain about a pound between Thanksgiving and the end of the year. While this may not seem like a lot, these pounds are usually not lost, so 10 years later, this amounts to a significant 10 extra pounds.While it’s fine to indulge to a degree (these are special occasions after all), over-doing it can result in not feeling great in the short term, and can leave you with unhealthful extra pounds at the end of it all.
For gatherings taking place at your house, have healthful, lower calorie foods around while prepping food and spending time with family or visitors. Have a colorful supply of fresh raw vegetables on hand to reach for. Buy pre-prepped vegetables, or do the peeling and cutting the night before. Keep a bowl of whole fresh fruit out and available. Not only will this make healthful snacks easily available, but it adds visual appeal too.
When faced with a tempting, endless spread of dishes, consciously choose small portions of the many foods on offer. It’s important to be able to enjoy traditional foods even if “unhealthy,” just keep quantities moderate. When cooking and baking, don’t skimp or try to modify traditional favorites (unless you’ve tried in advance and still get a great result). Instead, cut down on fat (and calories) in other ways. Skip the butter on your roll and the cheese on the appetizer platter. In fact, skip the appetizers altogether unless they are a central part of your tradition. And don’t “waste” space and calories on foods which are commonly available at other times of year. Instead focus on what’s really special to the particular holiday or occasion. Skip having seconds; save room and calories for dessert.
To help keep your diet relatively healthful, include lots of vegetables. Many holiday meal spreads include plenty. If yours usually doesn’t, change your approach this year so it does. Vegetables also help balance out some of the richer and heavier traditional foods like stuffing and pie. Whether you’re hosting or bringing dishes to a friend’s, include a fresh green salad. Among so many rich foods, something lighter and refreshing (and, by the way, healthier) is often appreciated and enjoyed.