How Food Can Actually Help Keep You Sane During the Holidays

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Between pigs in a blanket at holiday parties, egg nog lattes, and your cousin’s sugar-laden Santa cookies, this time of year can be particularly delicious—and guilt-inducing. (And then there’s the stress-eating that results from the endless list of gifts to buy.) But food doesn’t have to be such a source of angst: beyond the joys of indulging in these once-a-year treats, a more balanced approach to eating can actually help us stay sane and healthy in the midst of all the mistletoe. Here’s how: 

Integrate calming ingredients into your diet

Family gatherings and crowded shopping malls can be a recipe for stress. Instead of succumbing to the dessert tray, incorporating certain nutrient-rich foods into your diet can help combat the frazzle. For example, B vitamins such as folate and B-12 can help support energy production and impact mood, says Emily Navarro, RDN, senior manager of health and wellness at Freshly. Whole grains, eggs, and beans are all great sources. Magnesium is another mineral that helps play a role in regulating mood and managing stress—it’s found in nuts and seeds. For a treat, dark chocolate and berries contain antioxidants called flavonoids, which have mood-boosting, anti-inflammatory effects. You may be tempted to experiment adaptogenic herbs such as Siberian ginseng, which have been linked to reduced stress levels, but there’s still no solid evidence on them yet, says Navarro. 

Incorporate protein into your regular meals

There’s a reason why those holiday cookies make you crash and burn—they’re all sweets and no meat! “Eating protein at each meal, especially breakfast, helps stabilize blood sugar and keeps you feeling more satisfied, energized and less prone to cravings for sweet snacks throughout the day,” Navarro says. She suggests aiming for 20 grams of protein at breakfast, and every other meal. But meat isn’t your only option: oats, salmon, plain greek yogurt, peanut butter, quinoa and chia seeds are also great sources of protein. Staying hydrated throughout the day is another way to manage your fatigue and mood: dehydration can make you feel hungry and lead to exhaustion, says Navarro. So drink plenty of water on those shopping sprees (eating hydrating foods like fruit works too!) 

Slow down and eat more mindfully

We’re always in a rush this time of year, attempting to attend all of the parties, wrap all the gifts, decorate all of the things—simultaneously. But taking a moment to pause, particularly while you’re eating, can help you make healthier choices: “Mindful eating is all about tuning in and enjoying your eating experience which can help us avoid overindulging,” says Navarro. So when you’re surrounded by charcuterie and cheese, make yourself a small plate of what you want to taste and then focus on enjoying each bite. Try to chew slowly (in between your conversations with your coworkers!) and appreciate the textures of what you’re eating. You’ll be less likely to reach for too much.

Lean into your family gatherings around food

Sure, going home for the holidays isn’t necessarily relaxing. But hopefully we can all find some moments where we connect with our fam—and food is often a big part of that. “Cooking together creates closer bonds and helps build lifelong memories,” Navarro says. So making those traditional dishes like a tagine will foster major warm and fuzzies. What’s more, research shows that enjoying food with others actually leads to a more nutritious diet overall. According to a study in Nutrition Journal, a survey of 8,500 adults found that people were more likely to consume inadequate nutrients when eating alone, and those who ate alone more often had lower-quality diets overall. The holiday season is the perfect time to eat with friends and loved ones, so be sure to reap the feel-good benefits.