(This column is adapted from a post for US News & World Report dated 11/25/13.)
So here we are, folks, in the holiday interregnum. Thanksgiving is just behind us, and that protracted period of culinary and retail debauchery known as "the holiday season" is upon us. The attendant perils to blood pressure and BMI loom, so I know what you are expecting from me: the nutrition police version of your Miranda rights. Anything you eat can and will come back to haunt you...
But actually, I am writing to convey a different and perhaps surprising message from a preventive medicine expert: relax and enjoy.
In the pursuit of health, there is the risk of forgetting what health is for. Health is for living -- and while health certainly makes life better, something is seriously wrong if preoccupation with health ruins the good times. Don't let it ruin yours.
I would like to advise against fixing what isn't broken. If we are going to fix something, I don't think it should be the holidays; I think it ought to be the rest of the year. Eat well and be active year round, and when the holidays roll around, let the good times roll.
If you really do eat well and exercise most of the time, it wouldn't matter all that much if you indulged yourself a few days out of the year. It's what we eat most of the time, not from time to time, that has a major impact on every measure of health. It's our routine level of physical activity that calibrates our fitness level, not an annual couch-a-thon.
That said, I suspect you'll find that if you do take care of yourself year round, your attitude about the holidays will also evolve. For example, I am routinely asked -- by friends, patients, journalists, and contacts in cyberspace -- if I ever "indulge" myself. The answer is: Absolutely yes! But I suspect my idea of indulgence may be different than yours. Having familiarized myself fully with only truly wholesome foods, they are the only kind I like. I not only love foods that love me back, I don't love any other kind. So even my indulgences tend to be good for me (my wife's pumpkin pie, for instance!) -- and foods that many people find indulgent, I would find unpalatable. Everyone can get there by trading up choices, eating better year round, and putting taste buds through rehab.
Much the same is true on the activity side. If you are routinely active, you will find yourself getting restless if you try to make it through a whole holiday weekend by the seat of your pants. Your feet will want in on the action! That action can come in whatever flavor you like best -- walking, hiking, biking, football, dancing, or whatever. But you will likely find yourself wanting some of that good stuff, and the holiday is a wonderful time to get it in the company of loved ones. Katz Family holiday weekends are a bountiful feast of great foods, but with a lot of great activity to whet our appetites, too. The combination is particularly satisfying.
Clearly, we don't want holiday consequences showing up at our waists. But just as clearly, we don't want holiday cheer going to waste because of a preoccupation with health and weight control.
Holidays were always intended to be special times. Throughout most of human history for most people, daily food intake has been a pretty frugal affair. A holiday was a time to depart from that, and hence the feasting. Throughout most of human history for most people, exercise was part of the daily survival routine, requiring neither gym membership nor specialized footwear. And hence, the couching.
But now, of course, we tend to overeat every day -- then consecrate the holidays by overeating some more. Now, we may get through most days moving little more than our thumbs -- then sanctify the holiday season by reclining deeper into the couch.
Let's keep the holidays special, but build a foundation of health year round. Not because we should -- but because like the holidays, health is fun. It makes life better.
Learn what you need to know to take good care of yourself year round. Learn to love food that loves you back, and to let your animal vitality out of its cage. Let the habit of health, a preference for wholesome foods, and a penchant for activity follow you into the holidays.
Then, when the holidays roll around -- let's not fix what isn't broken. I think we all have the right -- to let the good times roll. From my family to yours: Happy holidays.
Follow David Katz, M.D. on Twitter: www.twitter.com/DrDavidKatz