​While the holiday season is supposed to be festive, create happy feelings, etc., that doesn’t mean it will automatically enhance our mental health. In fact, as many of us are painfully aware, it is not uncommon for people to feel angry, irritable, stressed out, and depressed at year’s end. Stressors include lack of time, money, too much commercialism, and pressures of giving gifts and being at family gatherings. Over half of participants in a study who had mental illness of some type stated that holidays make their conditions worse. So, if any of that happens to anyone, whether they have a mental health condition or not, let’s find out how to turn it back around again!
One of the best ways is to eat healthy, nutritious meals and down-play junk food. Although much of junk food is delicious, it is not usually very nutritious and is well known for supporting depression, irritability, anger, and other unhealthy emotions (which also often result in unhealthy behavior, exacerbating the issue even further). Think about how a lot of refined flour products (cakes, breads, pasta, etc.) and sugar-laden goodies can impact your blood sugar. It causes highs and lows, and this wreaks havoc with people with diabetes and others who are just generally not that healthy.
Many families have lovely food-related holiday traditions. Some people say that the worst part of being surrounded by delicious, yet unhealthy food is that it is hard to say no! A traditional American Christmas dinner consists of turkey, stuffing made with white, refined, dwarf wheat flour, mashed white potatoes (they have a bad habit of spiking your insulin resulting in mood swings), gravy, made with the drippings from the turkey, but often has white flour in it to thicken it, cranberry sauce, which has a good amount of sugar in it, green bean casserole, also loaded with refined flour to thicken, and then there are all the cookies, fruitcake, pies, gingerbread houses … you get the picture!
Many families have alcoholic beverages as a staple during the holidays. Alcohol is a depressant drug, so while many seem to mellow out, it has a downer effect. Some holiday drink favorites are eggnog (some is made with alcohol), hot buttered rum, wassail (a warm holiday punch), mulled wine, mimosas, etc.
Let’s look at some possibilities for some delicious yet healthy drinks. While you can probably buy them somewhere, you can also consider making them yourself! For instance, ingredients like apples always pair well with cinnamon. Since apples have quite a bit of sugar occurring naturally in them, consider combining cold, pure apple juice with some sparkling spring water. Add a good natural source of cinnamon to it and you can even put a cinnamon stick into the drink because it looks so good! Apples have quercetin, which is an antioxidant that has brain protective properties. Do you want the drink warm? Slightly heat up your drink using regular spring water or add a little real cream or coconut water (or combination according to taste). Apples also have phytochemicals which may help protect against colon cancer, heart disease, plus diabetes. Plus, phytochemicals can protect against infections and other invaders like viruses so they’re good for your immune system. Yum. Also consider sugar-free pomegranate juice (please read the ingredients on the label or just make it yourself from the actual fruit), as well as drinks containing lemons and limes. Berries are lower in sugar and can really sweeten and brighten up a holiday drink. Just be careful with the alcohol – if you use it at all, use very much in moderation. That’s needs no explanation!
Let’s look at making some delicious hot chocolate for the season, but in a healthier way. You can use real cream, or half-and-half, or coconut milk, etc. as the base. Then you can melt some high cacao percentage dark chocolates from either a bar or as chocolate chips (you can buy them in most supermarkets – use at least 60% cacao or higher which is healthier). There is a little sugar in the chocolate to sweeten, but you can also use 100% cacao chocolate from a bar or powder, and use a healthier sweetener like erythritol, or stevia. These ingredients are available for purchase in almost every grocery store. Erythritol behaves just like an antioxidant so it may also be immune-protective. It does not spike the blood sugar or insulin. Stevia leaves are the sweetest part of the plant. Stevia may help lower insulin and blood sugar levels. Be careful about purchasing over-the-counter preparations as some of them are more processed than others and are combined with ingredients that may not be so healthy. Now dark chocolate has many health benefits! It is fiber-rich and provides several minerals like iron, magnesium, zinc, etc. Dark chocolate, while it contains some caffeine, will not keep you up at night because there’s just not that much in there! Dark chocolate also is a terrific source of antioxidants, so it is another boost to the immune system.
Now let’s move onto the food. Basically, you can make any recipes healthy or at least healthier by using the right ingredients. Most of us have heard of mashed cauliflower. Well – it’s delicious when made well. If you consume dairy, add some real butter and cream when mashing. It looks like mashed potatoes and unless you’re really paying attention, you might even assume you are eating mashed potatoes! Cauliflower does not spike your blood sugar, but white potatoes might. Cauliflower contains many minerals and some vitamins, is low in calories (that is until you start adding the cream and butter….), and high in fiber. It is also a great source of antioxidants which is immune system protective and staves off inflammation. You can also prepare mashed sweet potatoes in a similar manner. While this has more starch, it is also a great source of fiber, vitamins (think B and C), and a variety of minerals. They contain beta-carotene, which converts to vitamin A (another antioxidant) when you eat them and are thus also good for the immune system. Use your imagination for adding other ingredients, like coconut butter, a tiny touch of maple syrup, etc. In fact, if you use a family recipe, just swap out unhealthy ingredients (like table sugar) and use something healthier. (Do they have to be overly sweet?!)
Do you roast a traditional turkey for the holidays? If so, most likely the only possible unhealthy ingredient is the stuffing, which is usually made with white flour. There are gluten-free options out there, although they are not starch free, but it’s a “cheat” you might consider just this once. You can put the same seasonings and veggies in it. In fact, many people make breads these days out of almond and coconut flour, which have antioxidants, so you might consider making a loaf of bread with these (which are much lower in starch), slicing it, and toasting it. Then cube it to create your stuffing mix, add your favorite seasonings, and prepare as you would any other stuffing mix.
How about healthy dips? First of all, think healthier carbs. You can use split peas for example with onion, garlic, salt, and other ingredients and put it in the food processor. Add a little olive oil and/or lemon juice. Split peas may also help blood sugar levels and are known to be heart health protective. Or you could consider a dip made largely of any combination of veggies, which are of course healthy for the immune system and a lot of other things! Consider serving with rice crackers or raw veggie slices. Consider making an onion dip by sauteing onions, salt, and pepper till browned, and adding it to some Greek yogurt, or sour cream (or a combination). You can put chives on top!
Basically, you can dial back the junk foods, sodas, etc. and create some new and delicious holiday food traditions using real, unadulterated ingredients. These are always healthier, and flavors are also often brighter. Search online for inspirations and recipes – there are many online.  While we haven’t gone into healthier baked goods here, there are many recipes to be found online, according to the eating style you are following.
With so many sugar-laden goodies all around us at the holiday time, both adults and kids fall prey to its lure! It’s hard to enter an office without bumping into sugary goodies, and it’s hard to pass right by stores, especially bakeries, without wanting to stop in and buy something. It’s hard not to say – just this one time (as if)! And everything is so aromatic. So many traditional recipes are handed down generation to generation, and frankly, the food is just delicious. We know the value of all the good associations we have with food, especially holiday food. But we also know what kind of effect it can have on kids’ overall health, moods, and behavior throughout the holiday season, especially when parents and kids are under a lot of stress.
Aside from general heart health, weight health, etc., scientists have also shown that high levels of sugar negatively impact a child’s brain, inclusive of feelings and thoughts. Also, memory can be impaired from too much sugar in a kid’s diet, as well as helping to create metabolic disturbances (think insulin-resistance and diabetes). Remember too that there is a correlation (if not a causation) between insulin resistance and cancer, heart problems, and dementia. Neurotransmitters, which keep moods stable, are impacted when kids eat a great deal of sugar. So, they may appear to be angry, irritable, unable to focus, tired, and depressed. They may be more prone to starting fights. Sugar may also be implicated in addictive responses in the brain. In a Yale University study, participants’ brains were activated in the reward center, when just seeing a milkshake. This also happens with the drug cocaine by the way!
There is something you can do about this. Take charge of what goes into your kids’ mouths (and yours, too, while you’re at it)! If you decide to avoid typical sweet treats (much easier said than done), try purchasing or baking them yourself. There are many recipes and increasing numbers of products for purchase that are delicious yet do not contain refined wheat flour or sugar, honey, maple syrup, or other types of sweeteners which can spike your insulin. However, it is wise to avoid conventional sweeteners (think pink packets, blue packets, etc.), and instead look for the healthier ones such as stevia, monk fruit, and erythritol, among others. Although they may be an acquired taste, they really do make a great substitute. Try using nut flours like almond flour, or the favored coconut flour. (Basically, think low carb.) Really, the internet is full of wonderful sugar- and flour-free recipes. Some good keywords to use are keto, low carb sweets, keto-friendly desserts, etc.
Think about how wonderful it will be to see your kids in happy anticipation during the holiday festivities without the negative behavior. No sugar-highs … no sugar crashes! Perhaps cooking and baking together, if your kids are interested, is a wonderful way to teach your kids healthier cooking and just to have some high-quality family time. Better, more even moods make for easier, lower-stress, and more cooperative relationships at a time when it really counts … the holidays! But think about this, as well – you can have this year around by making this a more permanent lifestyle change.
Remember to think about the food-mood connection, especially during the holidays. Prepare foods that downplay refined flour and sugar especially (as they are mood killers), and instead prepare delicious recipes with healthier ingredients. Try to minimize traditions around alcoholic beverages. They are dangerous!
Remember, knowledge is power, so take charge of your health.
And, as always, please have a happy, holistically healthy day!
Dr. P