With the holidays approaching, so too are company parties and family gatherings. (More than 26% of U.S.-based employers surveyed by Challenger, Gray & Christmas say they are planning an in-person year-end event, up from about 5% surveyed a year ago.) For many, this might be the first time we’re able to congregate with these extended members of our social circles in nearly years. Much of my work in nutritional psychiatry surrounds the psychological cues which underlie how and what we eat. Today, I want to share with you my thoughts on that proverbial line between welcome celebration and overindulging, with tips for a healthier holiday.
Partying in a post-vaccine world: In the wake of work-from-home, home-schooling kids, and stresses of the pandemic itself, letting it all loose to celebrate with our colleagues, friends, family might just feel like the right thing to do. And rightfully so: the parallel epidemic of loneliness and its negative effects on our mental health have only underscored the innate need for connection that drives all us humans. But rather than floridly “rebounding” as we reconnect, and life moves to some semblance of normal, I encourage developing a profound sense of self-awareness towards ourselves, our emotions, and what we eat, and the fluid relationship between this. Also known as body intelligence, this principle is one of my six pillars of nutritional psychiatry. This isn’t to say that we should restrict ourselves. Rather, it’s to say that we’re mindful of when we feel “because I haven’t done this in a while versus because I enjoy it”, and balance this harmoniously with the choices that help us think and feel our best.
Heightened work stress: There are new demands on productivity as we move towards a hybrid in-office/remote model, and lines between home and work are blurred. Atop this, a preference for a remote workplace may be at odds with a return to the physical office, while for others, the desire to be able to chat with colleagues could put a strain on already-tight timelines and expectations. All of this contributes to the allostatic load that work imposes upon us. Reconnection is powerful, and a necessary part of the human experience; however, while people are looking forward to office holiday parties, worries from all aspects of our life might come to their apex—and lead to either overindulging with colleagues, or retreating and feeling antisocial. Now more than ever, I advise proactively implementing ways to manage these stresses with lifestyle methods including:
- Developing a mindfulness practice
- Seeking therapy or counseling
- Reconnecting with friends
- Exercise and movement
- Spending time in nature
- Cooking (my personal favorite)
I also want to underscore the role of our day-to-day diet in helping us healthily navigate these stresses, from the cognitive to the cellular level. Cooking with spices, for instance, integrates the power of adaptogens into our diet, which have shown to strengthen executive function while reducing the oxidative load of stress upon our cells.
The binge-restrict cycle: It is all too common for people to be disciplined about their eating, only to binge in certain settings where it seems “permissible.” The problem with this is that while a binge, or more generally, over-indulging, may feel great in that moment, the day-aftereffects on our physical health, mood, and even loss of productivity may not be worth an evening of no-holds-barred. This is why consistency and balance are key. It’s the proverbial 80/20 rule, but more equivocally distributed: when we bring little joys into our usual routines, while exercising mindfulness during parties and holidays, we are able to enjoy ourselves while staying steady with both our health and work responsibilities.
Mindful drinking: When it comes to consuming alcohol, I always encourage a mindful approach. It’s a fixture of the holidays, and few things beat a couple of drinks with friends. However, it’s important to note the slowing effects that alcohol has on the brain, and its potential to affect mood negatively in its wake. If experiencing any of these hampers your holiday party experience, I encourage cutting back a bit, and trying still or sparkling water as an alternative.
After a cocktail, or glass of wine/eggnog, be sure to hydrate with water as alcohol draws water out of the body. Throw in a slice or orange or lemon, or berries to liven it up, and feel like you’re still part of the festivities!
And here are some suggestions for a brain-healthier twist on favorite beverages.
Christmas Cosmo: Instead of orange liqueur like triple sec, use a squeeze of fresh orange, go light on the cranberry juice, ask for fresh squeezed lime juice and omit simple syrup which I always say is simply sugar. This is cleaner as it removes the simple syrup/extra liqueurs and adds in fresh orange juice.
Thanksgiving Tequila: Tequila, fresh squeezed lime, ice and a splash of sparkling water. This zinger is refreshing, lower in calories, and free of sugar.
Merry Mocktail Mojito: Club soda, fresh mint, a lime wedge on ice.
Dr. Uma Naidoo is a Harvard-trained nutritional psychiatrist, professional chef, nutrition specialist, and author of This is Your Brain on Food. Additional recipes for healthy comfort-food classics may be found here.