By Susan Blumenthal, M.D. and Beth Hoffman
The holidays are a time for celebrating with family and friends. As we reflect on the things that we are most thankful for this holiday season, don't forget the importance of good health! While the holidays are brimming with joy and happiness for many, it can also be a stressful time with traveling, visiting relatives and trying to maintain diet and exercise goals. This holiday season, when faced with choices about behaviors that will influence your health today and tomorrow, a wonderful gift you can give yourself is to make choices to ensure a healthier future today and in the years to come. Here are some simple steps to staying healthy while fully enjoying the festivities of the season:
1) Eat Healthy
Eating a balanced diet, rich in fruits, vegetables, fiber, whole grains, healthy sources of proteins, vitamins including D, folate, and calcium that is low in saturated fats and salt are critical ingredients in a recipe for a healthier future. Eating smart will help you to maintain a healthy weight and reduce your risk of chronic illnesses including heart disease, stroke, type 2 diabetes, and certain cancers . In the 21st century, science is revealing that rather than individual nutrients being the key, the health effects of food result from the interactions of nutrients and other substances within and among the foods we consume. Maintaining healthy eating patterns, however, can be difficult during the holiday season. The USDA recently released, My Plate, a visual guide to healthy eating that simplifies making choices for nutritious meals by emphasizing the foods that are healthiest for us and the proportions in which to consume them. The best way to avoid overeating is to maintain a routine eating schedule during the holidays, pile your plate with vegetables and fruits, eat mindfully, taking the time to enjoy your food, and consume a healthy breakfast every day. Starting the morning with a small but satisfying breakfast, such as whole grain cereal with skim milk or an egg with whole wheat toast, will provide you with more control over your appetite. Whether you are hosting the meal or bringing a few dishes to share at the event, make your recipes healthier by reducing fat, sugar and calories (e.g. use fat free chicken broth, reduce the amount of oil and butter, use sugar substitutes, and replace cream with fat free yogurt or sour cream when preparing mashed potatoes or casseroles). At holiday meals, choose lean turkey meat, whole grains, fruits, vegetables, broth-based soups, salads, and other foods that contain lots of water and fiber. Not only are they healthy choices but they will add to a feeling of fullness and satiety. Variety is also important -- sampling a small amount of everything that has different textures and colors on the table can help alleviate cravings! And remember, everything in moderation -- one piece of pumpkin pie will not tip the scales!
2) Cook and Eat Safe
Food safety is very important when you prepare your holiday meal. To reduce the risk of food-borne illness, safely thaw, prepare and cook all meat, poultry and seafood. To keep bacteria at bay, first thaw frozen meat in the refrigerator in cold water or in a microwave oven. Thoroughly clean surfaces, utensils and your hands after touching raw poultry as bacteria can be transferred to other food. Make sure to thoroughly cook all food to the temperature recommended by the FDA (click here for more information). Wash all fruits and vegetables and store leftovers in containers in the refrigerator or freezer. Finally, with the holiday season coinciding with increased travel and the cold/flu season, wash your hands often and use alcohol based hand sanitizers to prevent the spread of viruses and other microbes.
3) Stay Active
Physical activity is one of the most important steps you can take towards a healthier future. If you are not currently exercising, start slowly and build up. Aim for at least 30 minutes at least five days a week of moderate-intensity aerobic exercise with strength training, or 1 hour and 15 minutes per week of high-intensity aerobic exercise. Pick activities you like -- take the stairs instead of elevators, dance, engage in a power walk instead of a power lunch. Try a pedometer and aim for 10,000 steps a day. This holiday season, enjoy being active with friends and family -- bundle up and go for a walk together or play a game of touch football. Visit fitness.gov to learn more.
4) Stay Hydrated
Whether you are traveling or hosting a holiday event, changing routines and the stress of the season can make it easy to forget to drink plenty of water throughout the day. Drinking water can help with jet-lag if you are traveling, and also help you control your appetite and prevent excessive eating. A reasonable goal is 4-6 cups a day and even more preceding your holiday meal so as not to feel famished when dinner begins.
5) Stamp Out Smoking
If you don't smoke, please never start. If you do smoke, the holiday season can be a great time to utilize family support to quit. Smoking is the leading preventable cause of death in the U.S and is linked to heart disease, cancer and stroke . Furthermore, second-hand smoke significantly impairs the health of those who are in contact with smokers. Not smoking is the number one thing you can do to safeguard your health today and in the future!
6) Limit Alcohol Consumption
If you drink, do so responsibly and only in moderation. Alcohol adds calories. And while one glass a day of red wine might help prevent heart disease, alcohol abuse accounts for 79,000 preventable deaths every year, and is associated with an increased risk of liver disease and some forms of cancer, as well as tens of thousands of motor vehicle accidents annually . Please never, ever drink and drive.
7) Get Plenty of Rest
Between traveling, shopping, and attending holiday events, it can be difficult to get enough sleep during the holiday season. But getting a good night's rest will leave you refreshed and can also help to reduce stress. Most adults require 7 to 8 hours of sleep per night. Even if you are traveling or away from home during the holidays, try to maintain a regular bedtime routine. Avoid caffeine, alcohol, heavy meals, and exercising right before bedtime. Create a dark, quiet, and comfortable environment to help you fall asleep. Getting adequate sleep will give you a boost to feel your best and enjoy the holiday season.
8) Enjoy Family, Friends and Strengthen Your Social Network
Oftentimes the focus at holiday events is on food, rather than on the friends and family who have gathered together to celebrate the season. Shifting the focus of the day to visiting with loved ones and away from food can make it easier for those trying to maintain healthy eating behaviors during the holidays. Planning ahead can be a helpful tool, as can maintaining as close to a normal eating schedule as possible. As mentioned above, make sure to eat regularly throughout the day and avoid treating a holiday meal as the only meal of the day . When eating, focus on your own plate, rather than suggesting second helpings for others . Have the conversation at the table focus on the positive atmosphere and love of friends and family rather than on the food. Remember, social support is an important ingredient in a recipe for a healthy, happy life, with many studies showing that relationships influence our long-term health in ways that can be as powerful as a healthy diet and getting enough sleep! Having strong connections to others can improve your health and longevity. It's also more fun and easier to engage in healthy behaviors if others join you. These benefits extend to givers and receivers of support. A lack of connections, on the other hand, is associated with increased mortality by as much as 50 percent, depression, and a decline in cognitive function later in life. It's the quality of relationships that makes the difference, so visit with your friends and family in 2012, make new contacts and enjoy developing meaningful connections.
9) Set Realistic Expectations
Many people get wrapped up in trying to make every aspect of the holiday season perfect. Set realistic goals for yourself -- do not expect that you will find the perfect gift for everyone, focus on weight maintenance rather than weight loss and don't punish yourself if you indulge every now and again.
10) Take Time for Yourself
While it can be enjoyable to spend extra time with family and friends at social gatherings this holiday season, make sure to find your own stress buster and time in the day just for you. Take a walk, read a book, practice yoga. Bundle up with a blanket and cup of hot tea and exercise your mind by playing Sudoku, reading a book, doing crossword puzzles or beginning to learn a new language or skill. Choosing fun and meaningful activities as the New Year begins makes life more enjoyable!
11) Travel Safe
Whether you are driving or flying this holiday season, make sure to travel safe. If you are driving, always wear a seat belt and get adequate sleep before getting behind the wheel. Research shows that driving after being awake for more than 20 hours is similar to driving with a blood alcohol level at the limit of 0.08, with recent studies estimating that driver fatigue was linked to 1 in 6 fatal motor vehicle accidents annually [6, 7]. Getting enough rest is also important if you are flying, particularly across time zones. Finally, with 2 million people crossing national borders every day, the spread of infectious diseases like flu is just a jet plane away. If you are travelling internationally, make sure to speak with your doctor about any necessary immunizations or health safety precautions (such as drinking only bottled water) that might be relevant for your destination.
12) Give Thanks and Give Back
More than 50 million Americans will struggle to put food on the table this holiday season, so consider making a donation to a local food bank or dedicating a day of service to help those who are hungry. Many food banks and local charities also support toy drives for children living in poverty. Visit the Feeding America and Snap to Health websites to learn more about how you can contribute to preventing hunger in your community and in our country.
13) Be Ready in Case of an Emergency
Be prepared in the event of a disaster occurring during the holidays, such as a tornado, hurricane, or severe snow storm. Develop a family plan and communication strategy. For more information, call 1-800-Be-Ready or visit www.ready.gov and www.fema.gov. Know what you can do to keep safe from the flu: practice good hygiene, wash hands, cover coughs, get vaccinated for seasonal flu (this year's vaccine provides protection against H1N1 as well) and avoid settings with people who are ill. Check out www.flu.gov to learn more.
14) Be a Savvy Health Consumer
Read as much as you can and use trustworthy Internet sites (see list below) for reliable health information. Know your health plan. Be informed. Knowledge is power when it comes to your health and the health of your family, business and community. By following the steps in this prevention prescription, you can enjoy a healthier future this holiday season, in the New Year and beyond!
Recommended Websites for More Information:
 FDA. Dietary Guidelines for Americans, 2005.
 Berrett, Michael. Twelve Ideas to Help People with Eating Disorders Negotiate the Holiday. Retrieved 25 Nov 2011.
 Hickey, Tracey. Hickey: "Coping with Eating Anxiety During Thanksgiving." November 20, 2011. Retrieved 25 Nov 2011.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Fact Sheets: Alcohol Use and Health. July 20, 2010. Retrieved 25 Nov 2011.
 Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. Inhaling Tobacco Smoke Causes Immediate Harm. December 9, 2010. Retrieved 25 Nov 2011.
 "Two Out of Five Drivers Admit to Falling Asleep at the Wheel, Finds AAA Foundation Study." Retrieved 28 Nov 2011.
 National Sleep Foundation. Facts About Drowsy Driving. 2007. Retrieved 28 Nov 2011
 Wilper AP, Woolhandler S, Lasser KE, McCormick D, Bor DH, Himmelstein DU. "Health Insurance and Mortality in U.S. Adults." American Journal of Public Health, Sept. 17, 2009 (online); print edition Vol. 99, Issue 12, December 2009.
Beth Hoffman graduated magna cum laude from Brown University. She is a medical student at the University of Pennsylvania School of Medicine and a former Health Policy Fellow at the Center for the Study of the Presidency and Congress in Washington D.C.