5 Ways to Love Your Gut During the Holidays
Tis the season to eat too much, drink too much, and indulge in naughty foods. No one expects you to abstain — what would be the fun in that? — but it’s important to know how holiday eating affects your gut health, so you can enjoy yourself strategically.
The Holidays and Your Gut
It’s easy to get carried away during the holiday season. There’s peppermint bark in the break room, fresh gingerbread at your relatives’ house, and eggnog lattes crooning to you at your local coffee shop.
Unfortunately, two months of eating abandon does more than just extend your waistline. Fatty foods, fried foods, sugary foods, salty foods, and alcohol can all cause indigestion and acid reflux (also known as heartburn).¹ Meanwhile, in a digestive double whammy, increasing your consumption of unhealthy foods typically means eating less fiber-filled vegetables, fruits, beans, and legumes, which can negatively impact your gut microbiome (the collective genetic material of all the microbes living in your gastrointestinal tract).
Come January, we’ll all recommit to our healthy diets and regular exercise routines. But until then, here are some helpful hints for avoiding indigestion and protecting your gut microbiome during the holidays.
1. Indulge selectively
Loosening your dietary restrictions is part of the fun of the holidays. But in our culture of excess, most people don’t indulge just on the actual holidays. Instead, we celebrate an entire holiday season, where every day offers a new opportunity to tempt our taste buds. As a result, many good dietary intentions get swallowed up in holiday cheer.
Go ahead and indulge, but instead of the holidays being a free-for-all, make smart tradeoffs. Forgo the pretty-good plate of cookies your neighbor left on your doorstep for the absolutely dreamy dessert at your office dinner party. Just because you are not technically adhering to your diet doesn’t mean you don’t have choices. Choose wisely, and save your indulgences for the really good stuff.
2. Try Intermittent Fasting
This time of year, food — and especially treats — seem to be available 24 hours a day. One way to have your proverbial holiday cake and eat it too is intermittent fasting: a pattern of eating in which you consume all your meals and snacks within a designated block of time, typically 6-10 hours. Instead of focusing on what you eat, intermittent fasting focuses on when, the basic idea being that your gut — and your whole body — does better when it gets a nice, long break.
To understand the relationship between intermittent fasting and gut health, think of your gastrointestinal tract like a smart car. It is constantly sensing changes in its environment and saving energy for the enormously taxing job of digesting your food. Like any well-run engine, it’s not good for your gut to stay running all the time. It needs down time. That’s because besides digesting your food, your gut has many other items on its to-do list, such as getting rid of toxins, hosting your microbiota, repairing and regenerating your gut structure, and warding off the pervasive cold and flu viruses that ramp up this time of year. When you concentrate your eating into one block of time, you give your gut time to focus on the other things it does to keep you well.
3. Don’t Forget the Superfoods
The holiday season smorgasbord is certainly full of less-than-healthy foods, but it’s not all a diet disaster. Even a traditional Thanksgiving menu includes plenty of seasonal superfoods, including green beans, cranberries, pumpkin, sweet potatoes, and aromatic spices like cardamom, cinnamon, clove, and nutmeg. With the rising popularity of plant-based diets, it’s not unusual to see vegetables taking more of a starring role on the holiday dinner table. A modern holiday spread might feature roasted root vegetables, baked acorn squash, pan-fried Brussels sprouts, and steamed broccoli.
When you sit down to eat, start with the healthy superfoods to appease your hunger. Never attack meats, treats, and breads while you’re still hungry.
4. Give Yourself the Gift of Sleep
You may think that everything in your body shuts down while you sleep. But while your brain may not be conscious, there is all kinds of activity happening when your body is at rest. In fact, it’s during sleep that all the housekeeping activities needed to repair, maintain, and optimize your body’s critical processes happen — especially those in your brain and digestive tract.
You can imagine your body is a giant amusement park. During the day, it’s open to the public. That’s when all the fun — like eating, drinking, and socializing — happens. At night, it shuts its gates to the outside world. But that doesn’t mean all is still. Behind the scenes, your body is busy working to beautify the grounds and maintain the equipment. Without that time to rest and repair, it wouldn’t take very long before nothing would be working properly during the open hours. Say no thanks to Netflix bingeing during the holidays, and give your body the sleep it needs to take care of you.
5. Avoid Artificial Sweeteners
When you’ve overindulged, it can be tempting to try and counter some of the extra calories by reaching for artificial sweeteners. Recent research suggests that may not be a good idea. Several studies have shown that artificial sweeteners can negatively affect the composition of your gut microbiota — that collection of good and bad bacteria that live in your gut and influence many aspects of your health. For example, both saccharin and sucralose have been shown to inhibit the growth of beneficial bacterial species in animals.²
A better idea is to follow the other recommendations in this blog post. If you indulge selectively, eat only within a concentrated block of time, feed your body healthy superfoods, and allow yourself enough sleep to regenerate, a little bit of sugar won’t hurt you.
Here’s to a holiday season that will please your taste buds while taking care of your gut. Enjoy!