Nutritional Training to Beat Holiday Stress

Follow this food plan to celebrate in good cheer.

Medically Reviewed by Michael W. Smith, MD
4 min read

Let's face it, the holidays are stressful. With all the demands we place on ourselves during the holidays -- endless festivities, shopping, entertaining, decorating, family gatherings -- it's no wonder we feel exhausted. And every year we promise to do better, but we don't. So what to do?

How about a little pre-holiday nutritional training?

Yes, you can fight stress with food -- just as food can cause stress. Stress releases the hormone cortisol, which raises blood sugar levels. That's great if you're fleeing a saber-toothed tiger, but too much cortisol on a regular basis gives you that achy, irritable, screamy feeling. This can lead to pie and eggnog abuse at the buffet table, and those fats and sugars you gobble can lead to more stress on the body. It's a damaging cycle that sends your liver and gallbladder into overtime, and socks away unburned fat in funny little pudges around your middle.

"Food is often used to remove stress, yet more often, it creates it," says Roberta L. Duyff, RD, a food and nutrition consultant and author of the American Dietetic Association Complete Food and Nutrition Guide.

Obviously, you'll feast occasionally during the holidays, but you'll feel calmer if you create an anti-stress diet routine for the times in between. Remember, the key to avoiding stress is to anticipate it and counter it going into the holiday season. Ready? Begin by posting this training plan on your refrigerator door:

  • To keep calming brain chemicals such as serotonin on an even keel, eat colorful foods full of vitamins, suggests Bruce S. McEwen, PhD, head of the Laboratory of Endocrinology at Rockefeller University in New York. Look for red, green, orange, and yellow fruits and vegetables -- melon, berries, peppers, and winter squash.
  • Make sure you get some protein, preferably from rich fish chock full of omega-3 oil. Salmon and caviar are loaded with it.
  • Stick with whole grain breads, crackers, and pastas. Load up on oatmeal.
  • Always have a bottle of water at hand.

When you're the last one standing after that shopping marathon, you can attribute it to your nutritional training regime. For inspiration, check out this menu plan:

Whole grain waffle with almond butter
Vitamin C -- citrus juice
Oatmeal with banana and skim milk
Slice of multigrain toast
Green tea or even a cup of coffee (we won't tell)

Half a bagel with peanut butter
A no-fat yogurt, preferably plain with berries you toss in

Big salad with dressing on the side (dip each bite, don't dump on salad)
Hummus on a pita
Veggie wrap with plenty of leftover turkey

Some lightly salted edamame (soybeans)
Two mini-rice cakes with cottage cheese and a sprinkle of crab seasoning
Handful of walnuts

Meatless marinara and pasta with veggies thrown in
Slice of whole-grain bread
Chinese steamed veggies and rice, sauce on the side
Spinach burrito with plenty of salsa
Couscous with falafel

If you wouldn't know a couscous if it bit you back, Duyff has other suggestions for making the three-meal-a-day obligation easier during the holidays. "Make everything quick and easy," she says. "You need time to chill with your family." Pick up a cookbook full of five-minute recipes.

And, of course, indulge in some comfort food. Without stress, comfort food would not have been invented and we would all be the poorer for it. "When you're stressed, you want to go back to the time 'when'" -- when life was simpler, when things tasted better, when you didn't know what you do now. This can vary by generation, Duyff points out. Comfort food for a baby boomer might be meatloaf, for a younger person, sushi or pizza.

If you like creamy soups and chowders, cut the damage a little by using evaporated skim milk or canned pumpkin as a thickener. Substitute apple juice for sugar or fluids in cakes.

If you can't cut the calories and fat without desecrating your comfort item, dish up a serving in advance and put the rest away.

Just keep your eye on the prize. You and your family will feel more cheerful during the holiday fun -- and when you do stop in front of the shellfish platter on the buffet table, you will be glad you had tuna with sunflower seeds for lunch. More room for stress-free lobster! Yum!