By Alison Cuccia, Program Evaluator, U.S. Army Public Health CommandNovember 24, 2014
The holiday season can be a time of great celebration, gratitude and joy. While it is important to appreciate and enjoy good fortunes, the holiday season can also have a negative effect on health. High stress levels, lack of time for sleep and physical activity, and the overabundance of unhealthy food and alcohol often overpower us during this time, and can lead to negative health effects down the road. In order to remain ready and resilient, Soldiers, family members and civilians should aim to enjoy the holiday season while preserving their health and well-being.
Between overcommitted schedules, financial burdens, and family, friends or religious expectations, the holidays can be an incredibly stressful time. Military families often face added anxiety from worrying about loved ones on deployment this time of year. Even traditions that are meant to bring joy can feel stressful, chaotic and lonely to Soldiers and their families. Many people do not realize the physical toll stress can take on the body. People with high levels of stress are more likely to use tobacco and eat unhealthy foods. These choices can lead to diseases such as cancer, obesity and other chronic diseases. Stress does not only change behavior; it also changes levels of certain hormones in the body. These hormone changes suppress the body's immune system, making it harder to fight off diseases. Stress has been linked to illness ranging from gastrointestinal distress to headaches to depression. Stress also increases fatigue, which can decrease performance and readiness among Soldiers.
While some stressors during the holiday season may not be avoidable, there are ways to minimize the level of stress and, in turn, improve health. First, it is important to acknowledge when you are feeling stressed. Talk with a support network about your feelings as it may help ease your burden. Recognize activities that re-energize you, and schedule time for those important activities. Whether it is reading, running, yoga, watching TV or spending time with friends, these activities can help you remain balanced and happy in this busy time. Exercise has proven to be an extremely effective stress reliever. Make exercise a priority during this time to help improve stress levels and to offset holiday weight gain.
Holiday weight gain is extremely common in the United States. The National Institutes of Health conducted a study demonstrating that Americans gain significant weight between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, and have a difficult time losing this weight gained over the course of a year. Excess weight from the holiday season can accumulate over time, leading to obesity, diabetes and heart disease.
Holidays are particularly detrimental to waistlines for a variety of reasons. Often holiday celebrations involve large amounts of unhealthy food and alcohol. For example, holiday parties almost would not feel complete without some seasonally favorite high-calorie snacks, desserts and alcohol. While these events are a way to celebrate, it's important to make smart choices and always remember moderation. An easy way to avoid overconsumption at a holiday event is to eat before the party. It is easier to avoid consuming large amounts of unhealthy food when your stomach is already full with a balanced meal.
There are also some quick tips to avoid overconsumption when at a holiday party. First, avoid socializing near the food and drinks. When hovering next to a snack bowl, it is easy to eat mindlessly, which can cause you to eat more calories than needed without even realizing it. It's also useful to use the smallest plates available when getting food. Studies have shown that individuals who use smaller plates eat fewer calories and still feel satisfied. Further, avoid liquid calories, including sugar sweetened beverages and alcohol. These beverages do not keep you full as long as food does, yet they can add many calories to your diet. Remember, you can always bring a healthy dish to a holiday party. You may be surprised at how many people are grateful for a healthy option!
The holiday season is often the busiest season of the year. This can leave little time to focus on well-balanced meals. Holiday parties filled with tasty and nostalgic treats, busy schedules and stress can take a toll on physical well-being. Enjoy your holidays, but do not allow the season to derail your health. As always, remember that moderation is the key to a balanced lifestyle. It can help you remain happy and healthy during this holiday season and beyond.