Marie-Josée (MJ) Salvas Shaar, MAPP '07, CPT, has studied, tested, coached, and taught smart health habits for over 13 years. Combining positive psychology with fitness and nutrition, she created a coaching method that builds better sleep, food, mood, and exercise habits, as described in her book, Smarts and Stamina: The Busy Person's Guide to Optimal Health and Performance, which includes 50 practical health-building activities. Today MJ gives keynotes for corporate wellness programs and offers continuing education for wellness professionals, who can license her Smarts and Stamina Online program. Full bio. MJ's articles are here.
Article roughly 925 words. Reading time 4 minutes.
Three years ago, “the most wonderful time of the year” became a much dreaded time of year for me. New family dynamics required 5 Christmases (tell me about it!). Of course there was also the office party – wouldn’t be proper to miss it, right? And I also went to my best friend’s get together: it was my first year living away and I had not seen her in months, so I didn’t want to let her down.
I made it to all of these events, and despite me not being a drinker, I ended up sick as a dog for New Year. While everyone was toasting and hugging at midnight, I was praying to fall asleep so I could be relieved for a few hours – kind of took the fun out of the holidays!
I recently came across new research that helped me understand exactly what happened that year, and I’d like to share it with you along with my recommendations so you don’t run into the same situation.
Too Little of a Good Thing
Increased partying often means reduced sleeping. When we are sleep deprived, we don’t feel our best and so we look for comfort in food. The pleasure in food comes mainly from sweet, salty and/or fatty tastes, and from layering flavors and textures. We also know that being sleep deprived leads to diminished motivation and self-regulation. So fewer hours of sleep not only means we find the fatty foods even more appealing than usual, but also that we will be less able to resist it. And with it being highly available throughout the Holiday season, we eat a lot of it.
Too Much of a Not So Good Thing
Lab rats were assigned to one of two conditions: low-fat versus high-fat diets. Only four days into the experiment, the muscles of the rats in the high-fat condition became less able to use oxygen, making their hearts work harder and discouraging the rats to be physically active. That’s why most of us feel lazy and skip our workouts over the Holiday season.
But there is more. The lab rats in the high-fat condition made significantly more mistakes when it came to finding their way out of a maze they knew, showing that their memory was also weakened. In other words, eating too much fat impedes high physical energy and impairs cognitive abilities.
“It’s nothing short of a high-fat hangover,” said Gerald Weissmann, M.D., Editor-in-Chief of The Federation of American Societies for Experimental Biology Journal
Surviving the Holidays
If like me, you want to maintain some mental and physical vigor this Holiday season, clearly you can’t fall for all the opportunities others will encourage you to take on. So how can you find the delicate balance between your own needs and other people’s wants? Here are a few suggestions:
- Use taste saturation. In The End of Overeating, Dr. David Kessler explains how “taste saturation” works. After eating the same thing for a while, our taste buds lose interest and so we stop eating. If another flavor is available, we may try it, and since having one bite is much more difficult than passing altogether, we end up grossly overeating. So plan accordingly. Love your mother’s sausage stuffing? Go for it, but then pass up on the chips.
- Manage expectations. If Aunt Rita’s party is the third one this week, let her know ahead of time that you won’t be able to stay late. Knowing in advance will make it less of a shock when you say it’s time to go, and so you won’t be pressured to stay as late.
- Connect meaningfully. Research by Angela Duckworth shows that kids who are best able to resist the appeal of a marshmallow when asked to wait to eat it are the ones who focus on some other activity. If your focus is on establishing a true connection with your loved ones or hearing a detailed story from someone’s early years, you will be distracting yourself away from food. Chances are it will also be easier to leave at a reasonable time since you’ll have had a good chance to savor quality time. Better yet, you will be creating shared memories to cherish for the year to come.
- Work in some workouts. Flushing out some of the added alcohol and fat is essential, and some light cardio is the best way to do it. It may not be the time of year to beat all your previous records when you just feel like staying near the fireplace. However, staying active is key.
- Respect yourself. A lot of Holiday traditions are perpetuated because we fear others may be offended if they are broken. Meanwhile, everybody is secretly hoping for the year they vanish. If you find yourself in this situation, have the courage to bring it up and start the conversation about what is best given today’s new situation.
Lastly, if you’d like suggestions on how to manage your own party in a healthier way, see my Holiday article from last year: 10 Strategies for Moderate Indulgence.
There is an important connection between what we eat, how much we sleep, whether we work out, and how our brains perform. The link is direct and tough to ignore – unless of course, you’ve eaten so much fat and slept so little over the past few days that you already can’t think straight!
Hope my recommendations help you start 2010 full of Smarts and Stamina!
Happy, Healthy Holidays!
Dement, W. (2000). The Promise of Sleep: A Pioneer in Sleep Medicine Explores the Vital Connection Between Health, Happiness, and a Good Night’s Sleep . New York: Random House.
Duckworth, A. L., Peterson, C., Matthews, M. D., & Kelly, D. R. (2007). Grit: Perseverance and passion for long-term goals. Journal of Personality and Social Psychology, 92(6), 1087-1101.
Kessler, D. (2009). The End of Overeating: Taking Control of the Insatiable American Appetite. New York: Rodale.
Murray, A.J. Knight, N. S. Cochlin, L.E. et al (2009). Deterioration of physical performance and cognitive function in rats with short-term high-fat feeding. FASEB Journal. Doi:10.1096/fj.09-139691.