Avoiding holiday excess (and what to do if you overdo it)

Monique Tello, MD, MPH

Contributing Editor

The holidays are famously a time of celebration, and where there is celebrating, there is usually too much alcohol, too many rich foods, and not enough sleep.

Here are some basic tips on not overdoing it — and how to manage when you have.

Common sense rules

You know the saying “Don’t go to the grocery store hungry”? The reason is pretty obvious. If you’re famished, you may not make the best food choices. Well, the same applies to holiday parties. If you are truly hungry, have something healthy and filling beforehand, like a beautiful salad. Pressed for time? Eat an apple.

Already there? Look at the appetizers. Is there anything reasonably healthy? Pick up a small plate and choose from the healthier options, like crudités (vegetable slices), shrimp cocktail, even fruit and cheese (no crackers). Avoid fried snacks and processed carbohydrates. Enjoy! Take the edge off your hunger, then walk away from the table.

Are you the host? Serve delicious hors d’oeuvres that also happen to be healthy. Some ideas: make or purchase fresh guacamole, sprinkle with red pepper flakes, and serve as a dip with crisp sweet red pepper slices. Or try red pepper hummus sprinkled with crushed toasted pistachios, served with bright green cucumber rounds. Easy, and easy on the eyes as well!

Stay hydrated

Drink water, and a lot of it, to feel full as well as minimize alcohol intake and its effects. Are you the host? Serve a fancy festive mocktail: sparkling water with cranberries, orange slices, and a sprig of rosemary. Another idea: try lime-infused seltzer with mint (basically a virgin, sugar-free mojito). At a party with an open bar? Ask for a seltzer with a twist of lemon. Feeling bold? Ask for it in a martini glass with extra olives, drink with flourish, and be the envy of everyone, as you stay blissfully (and soberly) hydrated.

Prepare yourself, pace yourself

Know you’ve got a big function coming up? Live the days leading up to it as healthfully as possible. Get your steps in, work out, eat your veggies, shun the fried foods and carbs, and sleep like a baby. The event may be a late night laden with junk food and drinks, but if you walk in feeling fit and proud, you will be less likely to lose control. If you’re feeling good about yourself, you’re more likely to keep to your limits.

Is Aunt Ida bringing her world-famous pecan pie that’s only served once a year and you’re dying for a slice? Then have a slice! If you allow yourself a special indulgence, you’ll be less likely to waste your time (and calorie allotment) on cheap, mass-produced boxed baked goods.

Did you overdo it anyway?

Did you already pig out on pigs in a blanket? Feeling sick on chips and dip? Too many champagne toasts? All is not lost. Take a step back, get a glass of cold water, and go for a walk. Sometimes just removing yourself from the temptation is enough. Never underestimate the power of water. And fresh air is remarkably, well, refreshing.

Is it the next day? Feeling the aftereffects of too much rich food or alcohol, such as headache and nausea? Again, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate. Try to get up and out for a walk, or even a jog. Fresh air and increased blood flow brings oxygen to all the angry cells, and helps flush toxins out.

Stick to very light foods, like fresh fruit slices and yogurt. Try to avoid over-the-counter pain relievers such as acetaminophen and ibuprofen. These medications when combined with alcohol can cause irritation of the lining of the stomach, as well as liver or kidney damage. The real problem underlying your headache is dehydration, so focus on no-sugar-added beverages like water, coffee, or tea. Ginger tea especially works wonders. Use store-bought ginger tea bags, or make your own from slices of fresh ginger steeped in boiling water. Other soothing (and safe) herb teas include chamomile and mint. Need to be fully functional right away? If you absolutely have to, NSAIDs like ibuprofen will be more effective than acetaminophen. Just use with caution, and make sure you’ve had plenty of nonalcoholic beverages to drink as well as something to eat.

When to seek help

Severe stomach pain or persistent nausea and vomiting after too much alcohol can signal a medical emergency, such as a stomach ulcer or inflammation of the pancreas. If you’re worried, call your doctor.

Are you regularly overeating or drinking too much alcohol? If you have trouble staying in control, and especially if the overindulgence is having a negative impact on your relationships, work, finances, or health, then please talk to a doctor. These can be signs of a possible substance use disorder or eating disorder, which are medical problems that need to be specifically addressed.

And remember

No healthy diet and lifestyle plan is ever “ruined.” You can never overdo it enough to justify giving up on your body. It’s always a good time to start over. You do not need to wait for January first. You’ve only got one body, one life, and you always come first. Take care of yourself this holiday season.

Cheers!

Related Information: Harvard Health Letter

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