The holidays are a time for celebration, family, and an excessive amount of eggnog. For many people, they’re also a time of dread because busy days, holiday meals, and lots and lots of sugar are not necessarily a recipe for health. Maybe you get food-guilt and anxiety about over-indulging, or maybe you feel sick, lethargic, and all-around worse in your body because healthy habits go out the window with the Thanksgiving leftovers. Because the holidays should be merry and bright (not guilt-ridden or lethargic), here are 11 health hacks that will help you feel your very best through every turkey dinner and cup of hot chocolate.
PSA: the following list is not intended to be used to “earn” indulgences, “make up for” extra Christmas cookies, or prevent “holiday weight gain.” The holidays should be enjoyed to the fullest, and that includes the foods and traditions you love. You don’t need to earn or make up for; instead, just enjoy. These health hacks are intended to be used in addition to savoring all the wonderful traditions that come this time of year. Instead of resisting, stopping, or shaming, the goal is to help you feel your very best so you can optimally enjoy the most wonderful time of year with the people you love most. Read on for hacks that do exactly that:
1. Set intentions based on what makes you feel good
New routines or a crazy season might mean we forego our regular healthy habits. It’s absolutely OK to pause some of your rituals, workouts, or routines as your daily schedule changes and you’re trying to enjoy the holidays. However, to feel as good as possible, plan ahead by identifying a couple of things that make you feel your very best. Whether it’s getting in a meditation every morning or going for a jog three times a week, identify your non-negotiables and then prioritize them, no matter what. Keeping up with only a couple of crucial rituals and routines will be much more manageable than hoping to keep every habit. More importantly, it will help you feel better throughout the season.
Also, set limits based on how you feel, not what you think you’re supposed to do. For example, limiting yourself to “no dessert” can lead to a deprivation mentality, binge eating, and a negative relationship with food. But if you know that you start feeling nauseous around the second or third Christmas cookie, or eating the entire wheel of brie on the cheese board makes you feel uncomfortably sluggish (I’ve been there), set intentions by enjoying one or two cookies and only as much brie as you’re actually enjoying until you start mindlessly devouring (again, I’ve been there). Know your limits based on how they make your body feel, and set intentions to keep up healthy habits that are important to you.
2. Load up on veggies first
There’s a good reason restaurants offer the salad course first: sure, it’s a lighter course, but it’s also typically the most nutritious (whether or not that is the restaurant’s reasoning, IDK). Even though we’re not eating out, stick to the salad-first mentality to make sure you get the nutrients that make you feel good. If your meal is more buffet-style (or you’re cooking for one and a salad feels excessive), eat the Brussels sprouts side or the sautéed carrots first before diving into the rest of the meal.
It’s actually not better for you to show up to a holiday meal super hungry with your turkey pants on. When we’re starving, we eat quicker, enjoy less mindfully, and over-stuff ourselves, so eat some veggies as a pre-dinner snack. Eating veggies first ensures you can enjoy any foods you want, but you’re still getting in the nutrients your body needs. Plus, you’ll eat less of the stuff that doesn’t make you feel good (because you’ll be filled up by the good-for-you veggies, not from a place of deprivation).
3. Get up and move in the morning
It’s all too easy to lay around in pajamas, sip on hot chocolate, and binge Christmas movies until nightfall every day from now until January 1. While that does sound like an ideal day, getting in a little bit of movement can boost energy, motivation, and mental health. Fitting it in first thing in the morning means you won’t have to interrupt your Christmas movie binge to go on a jog or do a yoga flow (and let’s be honest: after a few movies in, the chance of stopping goes way down).
FYI, I do not mean attempting a two-hour HIIT class as a means to make up for what you ate the night before or plan to indulge in that day. That’s not how the body works, and it’s also unnecessary. Go on a run or a do full workout if it makes you feel better and your body is craving movement, but if you’re feeling sluggish and lethargic like the rest of us during holiday break (especially following big meals), a walk or some stretches does the trick. The goal is to prioritize movement to make you feel like your best, happiest self, not as a means for calorie burn.
4. Try healthier versions of your favorite holiday foods
PSA: you don’t have to stick to the exact mashed potatoes recipe you make every year or buy frozen pie crusts instead of DIYing your own. When planning holiday meals, opt for homemade over processed foods (yes, buying from a local bakery or takeout from a healthier restaurant counts for you non-chefs), but also identify where you can add more nutrients into the foods you love. Start by trying these plant-based recipes for every comfort food craving or healthier versions of holiday go-to’s like pumpkin pie and green bean casserole. If you’re not ready to try a new recipe, small swaps will make a difference. For example, replacing conventional butter with organic butter reduces some of the added chemicals and toxins, and adding chopped spinach to a pasta sauce can boost nutrients. Healthy cooking doesn’t have to sacrifice taste, and eating healthier does not have to mean you forego your favorite foods.
5. Drink more water
Drinking water seems to be the cure-all for everything, and with good reason. Staying hydrated can improve energy levels, relieve digestive discomfort like constipation, and overall help you feel your best. Just because it’s not hot outside doesn’t mean we need less water, but we often forget to stay hydrated when it’s cold out. I get it–you’d rather drink hot chocolate than a glass of good old fashioned water, but your body needs proper hydration to operate at its best. Especially if you’re feeling hungover (whether it’s a food hangover or a real hangover, because they both happen often during this time of year), drink lots of water to ensure your body is hydrated at all times. Try drinking a big glass before your first cup of coffee in the morning and sipping on tea or warm lemon water throughout the day for a hydrating refreshment that will also keep you warm.
6. Stick to your regular sleep schedule
I don’t know about you, but sleep is a given for my holiday breaks. I’m back in my childhood room, I’m wearing cozy AF pajamas, and I don’t have to wake up at 6:30 a.m. for work–the odds of good sleep are very much in my favor. Luckily for my health goals, that extra sleep is not just a perk of a national holiday; it can also help me stay healthy. Getting enough quality sleep is beneficial for many reasons, like improving mood and energy. Plus, sleep can help you make better food decisions. Cravings (especially sugar cravings) can be worsened by lack of sleep, so if you’re not getting a good 7-9 hours, that gingerbread cookie or pumpkin pie could sound a lot more appetizing.
However, during past holiday breaks, those nine hours edge more towards the 1-10 a.m. range as opposed to my typical 10:30 p.m. bedtime. Getting enough quality sleep and sticking to a normal sleep schedule are both important for keeping you healthy. Going to bed and waking up around the same time will improve sleep quality, both now and after the holidays. Some studies have shown that irregular sleep schedules can lead to poor sleep quality, fatigue, poor eating habits, and lack of energy that can take time to reverse. Go to bed and waking up as close to the same time as you usually do and get 7-9 hours every night for peak health. Bottom line: the holidays are a time of laughter and family, but also use them as a time to rest and restore.
7. Find balance with alone time and socializing
If you’re spending the holidays with family, make sure you’re fitting in alone time to prioritize yourself. Go on a jog in the morning, take a bath at night, or find any time you can to recharge. If you’re spending the holidays alone, try to schedule a movie marathon with your friends or a virtual Zoom holiday party with your family. Having social events on the calendar will give you something to look forward to, but scheduling it will also ensure you’re spending time with people you love (even if it is virtual). Alone time to prioritize ourselves and time with loved ones to laugh and connect are equally important, so focus this year on finding the balance of both, depending on what you need more of.
8. Make new (healthier) traditions
While we were foregoing traditions like holiday parties or in-person shopping last year, it also allowed us to start new traditions that are not only good for the soul, but good for the body too. As the temperatures drop, you may be less inclined to spend your time in the great outdoors, but there’s a reason that so many holiday classics mention “snow,” right? (Let it Snow, Baby It’s Cold Outside, White Christmas… need I say more?). Taking advantage of the winter weather can not only bring fun new traditions, but can be good for your health. For example, bundle up and take a walk with friends or family, go ice skating at your local rink, or grab snow boots and play in the snow with your younger cousins or siblings. You’ll get your body moving without even thinking about it (and isn’t that the best kind of hack!?).
9. Listen to your body during meals
Frequently check in with yourself during meals to identify what your body wants and needs. Maybe you’re not hungry, but you would enjoy every bite of a slice of pumpkin pie because it’s your favorite holiday dessert, or maybe you realize your digestion is feeling off and you haven’t had enough veggies that day. Notice when you start feeling satisfied and are no longer enjoying each bite to know when to stop, rather than mindlessly eating until you’re uncomfortably stuffed. Aim for a balance of favorite holiday foods and nutrients that will make your body feel its best–yes, it is that simple. When we’re in-tune with the body’s needs, we eat until we’re satisfied (not stuffed) and crave a mixture of energizing nutrients and less nutritious foods we’ll enjoy every bite of (rather than mindlessly gobble down).
10. Know that health is more than diet and exercise
If you’re still under the impression that one meal (or a few holidays) can drastically affect your body long-term, you should also know that health is not a two-part formula of diet plus exercise. The podcasts we listen to, the people we spend our time with, the shows we binge on Netflix, the accounts we follow on Instagram, the way we speak to ourselves (and others) are all things that feed us too. If you’re not as focused on the ways you’re being fed and nourished besides the food on your plate or the ways you’re burning energy besides exercise, you’re missing key pieces of the puzzle. Bottom line: you could eat whatever you wanted and not work out once, and still have lots of opportunities to nourish yourself. Focus on how your relationships nourish you, the compassion you’re giving yourself, and how you’re spending your free time to truly become your healthiest self.