By Susan Blumenthal, M.D. and Katherine Perez
As Ralph Waldo Emerson once said, “the first wealth is health.” While reflecting on what we are most thankful for this holiday season, let’s remember the importance of good health. Though the holidays brim with joy and happiness for many, they can also add stress with traveling, visiting relatives and maintaining diet and exercise goals. Listed below are some key ingredients for a recipe that will ensure a happy and healthy holiday season:
1) Eat Well
An abundance of food is at almost every event this time of year. But don’t let the holiday season undo the health gains you’ve made throughout the year. Eat a balanced diet rich in fruits, vegetables, fiber, whole grains, protein and vitamins, and try to cut down on calories, saturated fats and salt. Smart eating helps maintain a healthy weight and has long-term health benefits, reducing the risk of chronic illnesses such as heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, certain cancers, and other diseases. Maintaining healthy eating patterns, however, can be difficult during the holiday season. Interactive tools such as My Plate, a visual guide to healthy eating, can help you build a nutritious meal by defining healthy foods and their serving sizes throughout this festive season. To keep your diet on track, maintain a routine schedule for meals during the holidays, pile your plate with vegetables and fruits, drink plenty of water, and eat mindfully, taking the time to enjoy your food. Start the morning with a healthy breakfast, which will provide a boost of energy and help control your appetite throughout the day (get tips from the American Heart Association). At holiday parties, whether you are hosting the meal or bringing food to share, make recipes healthier by reducing fat, sugar and calories. Some simple tricks to reduce unhealthy ingredients in your recipes include using fat free chicken broth, decreasing the amount of oil and butter, and replacing cream with fat free yogurt or sour cream. When filling your plate, choose lean turkey meat, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, broth-based soups, salads, and other foods that contain water and fiber. A good variety is also important—sampling a small amount of foods with different textures and colors can help alleviate cravings. Don’t punish yourself for indulging a little—just be moderate in your portions of less-healthy foods, and enjoy your favorite dessert this holiday season, but do so in small amounts.
2) Cook and Eat Safely
Food safety is very important when preparing your holiday meals. Foodborne illness is responsible for about 3,000 deaths per year, and 1 in 6 Americans become sick annually from contaminated foods or beverages. To reduce the risk of foodborne illness, safely thaw, prepare, and cook all meat, poultry, and seafood. Keep bacteria at bay by safely thawing frozen meat in cold water in either the refrigerator or in a microwave oven—never thaw or marinate on the counter. Thoroughly clean surfaces, utensils and cutting boards, and wash your hands for at least 20 seconds after touching raw meat. Unclean surfaces and tools can transfer illness-causing bacteria to other foods. Minimize the risk of cross-contamination by separating your raw meat, poultry, seafood, and eggs from ready-to-eat foods in your shopping cart, refrigerator, and cutting boards. Checking the color of your cooked food is not enough to ensure that it is free from bacterial contamination, so use a food thermometer to ensure the correct internal temperature of the meat, and follow safe minimum cooking temperatures. Promptly store perishable foods, including leftovers, in containers in the refrigerator or freezer within two hours, as bacteria can multiply rapidly at room temperature. Remember to safely handle fruits and vegetables as well; wash fruits and vegetables before eating and preparing them, even if peeling them. Finally, with the holiday season coinciding with increased travel and the cold/flu season, wash your hands often and consider using alcohol based hand sanitizers to prevent the spread of viruses and other microbes.
3) Be Active
Physical activity is one of the most important ingredients of a healthier future. Don’t let the cold weather get you down—bundle up and get moving! The holidays are no excuse to stop your exercise routine. Take advantage of having friends and family around by asking them to join you on a walk or gym session, and accept their invitations when they request your company. If staying at a hotel, visit the indoor swimming pool or gym, and if you find yourself at a relative’s or friend’s home, take a walk or go on a run to explore the new neighborhood and local sights. Embrace whatever fitness activities are available—play tag with the kids, volunteer to make a grocery run, have a dance party, or do a simple indoor workout routine that doesn’t require equipment. If you don’t currently have an exercise regimen, the holidays are a wonderful time to crowdsource for fitness ideas from family and friends, and you can even add fitness equipment—such as a jump rope that counts your jumps, a new yoga mat, or an electronic exercise monitor to wear on your wrist—to your holiday wish list. When crafting an exercise plan, aim for at least 30 minutes of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise with strength training at least five days a week, or 1 hour and 15 minutes per week of high-intensity aerobic exercise combined with strength training. The New Year is a great time to make small, everyday lifestyle changes that can get you moving; take the stairs instead of elevators, think of home chores, such as vacuuming, raking leaves and shoveling snow, as exercise opportunities rather than burdens, power walk with coworkers during lunch, or try a pedometer and aim for 10,000 steps a day. Visit fitness.gov to learn more.
4) Stay Hydrated
Whether you are traveling or hosting a holiday event, cold weather, changing routines, and busy holiday schedules can make drinking plenty of water throughout the day an afterthought. Be aware of the symptoms of dehydration; if you are feeling weak, dizzy, or drowsy, or if you have headaches or migraines, you may not be getting enough water. Staying hydrated can help with jet-lag if you are traveling and can help prevent excessive eating as well. It can also have positive effects on your mood. Aim to drink eight 8-ounce cups of water per day, have an extra glass before your holiday meal so you don’t feel famished when dinner begins, and replace sugary drinks, such as soda, with water, which will also help to trim calories from your diet. If you are looking for a useful gift for friends or relatives, consider a reusable water bottle as a present. Not only are they a fun way to help people stay hydrated (they are available in a wide array of colors and designs), but they also have the added benefit of being environmentally friendly.
5) Moderate Your Holiday Libations
The holidays are a time for celebration but shouldn’t be an excuse for consuming excess alcohol. If enjoying a drink at holiday parties this season, remember that moderation is essential. The holiday season can be one of the most dangerous times of the year for alcohol-related injuries and alcohol abuse, so always be aware of your alcohol intake, don’t drink and drive, and also be sure that others don’t get behind the wheel after drinking alcohol. In 2015, alcohol-impaired driving killed 10,265 people, a startling 3.2% increase from 2014. Moderate your alcohol consumption, be aware of standard serving sizes, stay hydrated, and remember that women metabolize alcohol differently from men and should consume less. Alcohol also adds significant calories and few nutrients to your diet. If hosting an event this holiday season, don’t let alcohol be the focus of your party, and be mindful of how alcohol may affect your guests. Serve food with alcoholic drinks, mix alcohol with juice or spritzers, offer a selection of non-alcoholic beverages, stop serving alcohol well before the party ends, and offer to allow those who may be impaired to stay the night and off the roads. Read more about the negative health effects of excessive drinking here.
6) Stop Smoking
Cigarette smoking is the leading preventable cause of mortality in the U.S, linked to 1 in 5 deaths in America annually, so give yourself a lifesaving gift by never smoking or by stopping tobacco use if it is a habit. Smoking increases the risk for coronary heart disease, cancer, stroke and many other diseases. Furthermore, second-hand smoke significantly impairs the health of others. If you smoke, utilize the support of your family and friends to begin weaning off cigarettes this holiday season. Quitting smoking reduces your risk of developing cardiovascular diseases, lung and other cancers, and stroke. Learn more about the negative effects of smoking, the benefits of stopping tobacco use, and the variety of different methods to help you quit, including behavioral interventions, nicotine gum and patches, and medications, at smokefree.gov and at BeTobaccoFree.gov. Kicking the habit is the number one thing you can do to safeguard your health today and in the future!
7) Enjoy Family and Friends
Though being surrounded by your family over the holidays can be stressful—think Clark Griswold in Christmas Vacation—having strong social support actually benefits your mental health, health behaviors, and physical health. In fact, scientists in the field of psychoneuroimmunology, the study of how social and psychological factors impact the immune system, have found that having strong social connections strengthens the immune system and may significantly increase longevity. Conversely, social isolation and non-supportive social interactions can result in poor immune system functioning. Studies show that, holding other factors that may influence mortality constant, the risk of death among individuals with fewer social ties is more than twice the risk of death among those with the most social connections. Additionally, behavioral factors, such as concern for other people create incentives to stay healthy. Social networks facilitate health information sharing and establish health behavior norms, so if you’ve been eager to try out a new exercise routine, exercise class, or diet, ask others to join you—you’ll have more fun with friends and family around to offer support and share the experience, and you will build new memories with those close to you. By spending quality time with your friends and family and engaging them in fun, healthy activities, such as a walk, hike, or game, you’ll give yourself and others an important ingredient of the gift of good health.
8) Stress Busters and Mindfulness
Stress can negatively impact your mental and physical health, so if you feel overwhelmed during the holidays, try to reflect on what might be bothering you, and take time to remedy the problem. Perhaps having some alone time, watching a favorite movie, reading a book, listening to music or taking a peaceful walk will help you relax and enjoy this busy season. Set aside time for a yoga routine, or head to the gym, as physical activity can be an effective way to reduce stress. Also consider practicing mindfulness, “a state of active, open attention on the present,” as a method of stress-reduction. There’s been a lot of news about the benefits of mindfulness for a reason—it has been shown to reduce anxiety and stress, help with weight loss, and improve sleep. During the holidays, mindfulness can be a wonderful tool to help you stay on track with your diet, exercise and sleep goals. As you begin the New Year, practicing mindfulness can help you reduce stress and reflect most on what provides you with fulfillment and contentment. Try it out—you may be surprised by how many of life’s ups and downs are in your control. Learn more about mindfulness and how to practice it here.
9) Be Realistic
Many people spend a lot of their time trying to make the holidays perfect in every way, but this year, take a step back and relax. Set realistic goals for yourself, and don’t expect that you will find the perfect gift for everyone or make an award winning holiday dinner. Focus on weight maintenance rather than weight loss, and don’t punish yourself if you indulge every now and again. When brainstorming your New Year’s resolutions, think of one or two realistic, achievable goals that are adaptable to your lifestyle and daily schedule, and you’ll be much more likely to be successful—research finds that only 8% of Americans achieve their resolutions. Consistently track the progress of your resolutions, and if you have a slight setback, don’t give up. Perseverance pays off!
10) Get Enough Sleep
Between traveling, shopping, attending holiday events and seeing family and friends, getting enough sleep during the holiday season can be difficult. Yet getting a good night’s rest will leave you refreshed for the next day’s festive events, help reduce stress, and improve your overall health. Most adults require 7 to 8 hours of sleep each night. Whether you are away from home during the holidays or hosting guests, prioritize maintaining a regular bedtime routine, and avoid caffeine, alcohol, heavy meals, exercise and looking at your computer, phone or tablet right before bedtime. Research finds that artificial light exposure between dusk and the time you go to bed makes it more difficult to fall asleep, so try a book instead of your cellphone. Create a dark, quiet, and comfortable environment to help you fall asleep. If you have trouble sleeping, listen to a book on tape or a podcast that can help you fall asleep. Getting adequate sleep will give you a boost to feel your best and fully enjoy the holidays.
11) Fend off Flu and Other Infectious Diseases
Being sick can quickly disrupt your holiday cheer. With increased domestic and international travel during the holiday season, infectious diseases, like the flu, can spread, so keep safe by practicing good hygiene, washing your hands, covering coughs, avoiding close contact with people who are ill, carrying hand sanitizer or sanitizing wipes, and getting vaccinated for seasonal flu now. Immunization is the most effective way to prevent contracting the flu, but be sure to opt for the injectable flu vaccine this year, as experts are recommending against the nasal spray vaccine. Each year, complications from influenza virus infection, including pneumonia, bronchitis, sinus and ear infections, result in more than 200,000 hospitalizations and between 3,300 and 49,000 deaths annually in the United States. Learn more about the flu vaccine, and check out www.flu.gov to find ways to protect you and your family from this illness during the holidays. If you are travelling internationally, speak with your doctor about any necessary immunizations or health safety precautions that might be relevant for your destination. Check out the CDC’s travel page for information about how to protect yourself from infectious diseases during your holiday travels.
12) Travel Safely
Travel safely this holiday season by following this roadmap: 1) if you are driving, wear a seatbelt, stay calm while in holiday traffic, and get adequate sleep before getting behind the wheel; 2) never drink or use other substances and then drive; and 3) avoid fatigue on long road trips by bringing a companion with you who can take over if you feel tired and by scheduling regular stops every two hours to stretch your legs and have a snack. Research shows that being awake for at least 18 hours is equivalent to having a blood alcohol content level of 0.05%. Recent studies estimate that driver fatigue is linked to 100,000 automobile crashes annually. If you are flying, getting enough rest and drinking plenty of water is important, especially if you are crossing time zones.
13) Get Insured
Having health insurance is critical to receiving the medical care you need. In 2015, one in five Americans without insurance was unable to receive necessary health care, including preventive services, because of high medical costs. 53% of uninsured adults report having problems paying medical bills significantly straining their financial stability, as compared to 20% of adults with insurance.
Thanks to the passage of the Patient Protection and Affordable Care Act of 2010 (ACA), the rate of uninsured Americans is at an all-time low of 8.6%. The ACA’s “Patient’s Bill of Rights” prohibits insurance companies from instituting lifetime and annual limits on coverage, dropping patients who file reimbursement claims, and spending more than 20 percent of premium payments on administrative costs. Important victories of the legislation include provisions that prohibit insurance companies from denying insurance coverage to people because of pre-existing conditions or gender, allowing young adults to stay on their parents’ health insurance until age twenty-six, providing free preventive care services including mammograms and colonoscopies, and ensuring parity in coverage of mental and physical illnesses. Additionally, the ACA expanded eligibility for the Medicaid program in states to provide coverage for more individuals with incomes at or below 138 percent of the poverty level (approximately $16,243 annually for an individual and $33,465 for a family of four in 2016).
Since the passage of the ACA in 2010, an estimated 20 million Americans, including more than 6 million young adults, have gained health insurance coverage. However, despite this progress, approximately 29 million people—1 in 11 Americans—remain without health insurance. The Health Insurance Marketplace is currently in a period of open enrollment that lasts until January 31, 2017, so if you are uninsured, give yourself a lifesaving gift by shopping for the best plan for you on www.healthcare.gov.
14) Remember Those in Need
Remember to think of those who are in need this holiday season. One in seven Americans experiences food insecurity, and in 2015, 15.8 million (12.7 percent) U.S. households were food insecure. During the holidays, feel gratitude for what you have and be charitable to those who are less fortunate. Help serve in a food pantry in your area, or make a donation to a local charity. Visit the Snap to Health website to learn more about how you can contribute to preventing hunger in your community and in our country. Visit the Charity Navigator website to learn how you can give to charities that have a big impact on the lives of the people they serve. Make giving to others a year-round priority.
Safeguarding your health is the most enduring gift you can give yourself this holiday season. Health impacts all facets of life. In fact, studies have found that good health is associated with increased happiness, higher levels of workplace productivity, and longer life expectancy. Integrating the fourteen ingredients discussed above into your lifestyle will help ensure you have a healthy and happy holiday season and a fulfilling, productive New Year. Treat yourself to the gift of good health, and its effects will last for years to come!
Rear Admiral Susan Blumenthal, M.D., M.P.A. (ret.) is the Public Health Editor of the Huffington Post. She is also a Clinical Professor at Tufts and Georgetown Schools of Medicine, a Senior Fellow in Health Policy at New America and Senior Policy and Medical Advisor at amfAR, The Foundation for AIDS Research. Admiral Blumenthal served for more than 20 years in senior health leadership positions in the Federal government in the Administrations of four U.S. Presidents including as Assistant Surgeon General of the United States, the first Deputy Assistant Secretary of Women’s Health, and as Senior Global Health Advisor in the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services. She also served as a White House Advisor on health. Prior to these positions, Dr. Blumenthal was Chief of the Behavioral Medicine and Basic Prevention Research Branch and Chair of the Health and Behavior Coordinating Committee at the National Institutes of Health (NIH). She has chaired many national and global commissions and conferences and is the author of many scientific publications. Admiral Blumenthal has received numerous awards including honorary doctorates and has been decorated with the highest medals of the U.S. Public Health Service for her pioneering leadership and significant contributions to advancing health in the United States and worldwide. Named by the New York Times, the National Library of Medicine and the Medical Herald as one of the most influential women in medicine, Dr. Blumenthal was named the 2009 Health Leader of the Year by the Commissioned Officers Association and as a Rock Star of Science by the Geoffrey Beene Foundation. She is the recipient of the Rosalind Franklin Centennial Life in Discovery Award.
Katherine Perez graduated with Honors from Princeton University in 2016 with a degree from the Woodrow Wilson School of Public and International Affairs and minors in Global Health Policy and African Studies. She has previously interned at The Public Health Foundation of India in New Delhi, India, where she worked on vaccine cold chain logistics, and at The Oxford University Clinical Research Unit in Ho Chi Minh City, Vietnam, where she studied the etiology of emerging viral infections. Her senior thesis at Princeton examined the economic and societal impacts of the 2014 Ebola outbreak in West Africa and integrated economic, historical and anthropological analysis in order to critically assess existent health policies to offer recommendations for addressing future outbreaks of infectious disease on both a national and a global scale. Katherine currently serves as a Health Policy Intern at New America in Washington, D.C.