With this singular season of lofty ideals, crass commercialism, family gatherings, varying religious significance, aeronautical ungulates, indulgent torpor and culinary debauchery- euphemistically known as "the holidays" -- upon us, where should health figure in it?
At the front of the line, I say. Have a good time!
You might expect me, a preventive medicine specialist, to go another way with this. But honestly, I think the best thing you can do about your health over the holidays is: enjoy yourself. Permit me to make the case.
First, I think pleasure as a source of health fails to get the respect it deserves. It's hard to be seriously stressed out and having a great time simultaneously, so having fun translates to, among other things, stress reduction. The health-promoting benefits of stress mitigation are fairly well established.
Being in a genuinely good mood goes beyond lack of stress, of course. The health effects of fun, per se, are not all that well developed in the peer-reviewed literature, probably because we need to do it more before it can be studied more. But there is a literature linking happiness with health benefits.
Second, the importance of social connections to health may be even better substantiated, and it, too, invites enjoyment. If you spend the holidays fussing, fretting, or fixating on transgressions, you miss the opportunity to be in the moment with people you love, or people you like, whom you may not see very often. There is a strong case to make that cultivating those social connections, finding real joy in them -- is genuinely healthful.
I often say that healthy people have more fun, and that is indeed true; being sick tends to drain fun away. But the case for the converse is also strong: people having fun tend to be healthier. Less stress, less tension, less anger, less guilt- all offer measurable health benefits.
It is certainly true that holiday excesses (food) and deficiencies (exercise) can turn up at the belt line. But the best remedy for this really has little to do with the holidays, and a lot to do with... every other day.
If you eat well and are active generally throughout the year, you will be healthier and leaner than those who are not. If that pattern persists over the holidays, or picks up again after, you will find in it pretty effective immunity against holiday-related health hazards. Build good health year round, and let the good times roll when the holidays roll around.
But there is more. If, in fact, you are active year round -- you may simply be disinclined to spend the whole holiday season on the couch. You may be accustomed to spending some time outdoors, walking, or biking, or hiking, or... whatever. Habits can conspire against health, but they can aid and abet it as well. The habit of activity may goad you into a more active approach to the holidays. My time with friends and family routinely involves hiking, biking, touch football, horseback riding, and dancing. It's fun, it's time to catch up, it's time to cut loose -- and it puts a fine edge on our appetites, making the Katz family delectables that much more so.
The same is true of food choice. If you truly do eat well year round, your taste preferences will be a product of that pattern. I like reminding people that taste buds are adaptable little fellas. If they can't be with a food they love, they learn to love the food they're with. If they spend the year with wholesome foods, that's what they'll prefer. So while you could, if you wanted to, indulge in dubious food choices for the holidays -- the reality is, you won't want to. Once your taste buds have passed through rehab, they will tend to favor foods that are better for you. You won't be making a sacrifice by choosing the more wholesome offerings; you will like them better.
You can kick that opportunity up a notch by using any Katz family recipes that appeal, courtesy of my wife's beautiful website, Cuisinicity.com, with a current feature devoted to holiday fare. Everything on the site is designed to be food you can love, that will love you and your family back -- as it does mine.
Let's summarize. Fun is health. Guilt is not. Eating well and being active year round cultivate health. Fretting about lapses at holiday time has not been shown to do so. By taking care of yourself year round, your preferences at holiday time will be more healthful into the bargain. You can love food and activity that will love you back.
There are all sorts of resources this time of year to tell you how to avoid holiday health transgressions. But to some extent, fixating on those transgressions may be one in its own right. Healthy people do, indeed, have more fun; but people having fun are doing something healthy.
I hope that you and yours will be celebrating in good health these holidays. You are more likely to have fun if so. It may be more likely to be so -- if you have fun, so I hope you do.
There is no reason why good health and good times should roll by one another, heading in opposite directions. Get the formula right, and let the good times, and good health, roll your way, together.
Director, Yale University Prevention Research Center; Griffin Hospital
President, American College of Lifestyle Medicine
Editor-in-Chief, Childhood Obesity
Author: Disease Proof