Even though I’m a physician and nutrition expert I have to admit the holidays fill me with angst. That’s because there’s a tug of war that takes place in my heart between wanting everything to taste delicious and be good for everyone’s brains and bodies.
At this point, though, I’ve gotten so good at this dance of sneaking in scrumptious and healthy foods that no one seems to notice that anything is missing from the menu. Not even my mother and mother-in-law who could survive on pastries alone. Instead of the blueberry pie, I grew up eating made with Cool Whip, cream cheese, and canned blueberries laden with high fructose corn syrup, I hack the recipe and make my own crust out of flax seeds, walnuts, almond flour, coconut oil, grass-fed ricotta and monk fruit and top the whole thing with fresh wild blueberries. On Christmas morning, no one blinks an eye at my chia seed pudding.
The holiday season is the time of year when the excitement of festivities can take precedence over our health. But it doesn’t have to. What you might not have known is that the average American gains three to five pounds every holiday season. Over a decade, that’s up to 50 pounds. With that in mind, here are some of my strategies I recommend to care for my clients’ brains and bodies:
Omega-3 fatty acids are a big plus any time of year because they increase neuronal flexibility improving the communication between neurons in your brain. In layman’s terms that means the synapses in your brain communicate more like text messages than snail mail. New neurons are also formed in your brain (neurogenesis), which helps with cognition, learning, and memory. Omega-3s are also one of nature’s best anti-inflammatory agents and studies show that post-menopausal women with higher levels of Omega-3s in their blood have larger brain volumes and larger hippocampal volumes, which has been shown to be associated with better abstract reasoning and also plays a role in learning and memory.
A few fun ways to incorporate Omega-3s are:
- Adding salmon roe to a crudité with grass-fed goat or plant-based cheeses
- Including an oyster platter as part of your appetizer menu
- Dishing up the main course of poached wild salmon with dill
- Adding pumpkin seeds and walnuts to your salads
Instead of sending friends and loved ones baked goods this year (or eating the ones they send you!), buy your nearest and dearest, and yourself, dark chocolate. The purer the cocoa (at least 85% or more) the higher the number of polyphenols and flavonoids in the dark chocolate. Polyphenols are anti-inflammatory and flavonoids increase neuronal activity, which helps boost the function of your brain by improving attention, verbal learning, and memory. Not only will dark chocolate help your brain work better, but it can help prevent the development of cardiovascular disease, diabetes, cancer, and cognitive diseases like Alzheimer’s.
Holidays and champagne cocktails often go hand in hand, but how do we balance alcohol as a known toxin for our brain, with the evidence that gatherings with a serving of alcohol tend to increase social connectedness? One way is to choose organic and dry-farmed wines over brandy or vodka, which are often mixed with sugar. Be mindful to try and wait a few days in between cocktail parties since alcohol consumption is known to slow down your metabolism for up to 24 hours after the festivities.
Nowadays, there are so many fun, festive alcohol-free options as well. From stores like Boisson (with locations in NYC, LA, and SF) and apéritifs like Ghia, you can’t go wrong even if you decide to skip the alcohol altogether.
Movement is the merriest way to stay on top of your health during the holidays – and always. Above almost any medication I can prescribe, exercise outperforms most treatment interventions.
There’s no need to put extra pressure on yourself this season. Start where you are, whether a 20-minute brisk walk or a fast-paced run, evidence shows 20 minutes of vigorous exercise three times per week is enough to ward off depression. Stay clear of the holiday blues with family walks, running holiday errands on foot, or a quick spin on your bike. Pair this with your favorite playlist, podcast or audiobook for motivation.
So, this holiday season remember there are some good-for-your-brain, healthy and delicious options for you and your loved ones. Your body – and mind – will thank you for it.