How to Stay Healthy Over the Holidays

How Filipinos Celebrate the Holiday Season

Holiday Feasts: The Struggle is Real

The holidays are just around the corner. We know that this is the time for joy, celebration, reunions and thanksgiving. If you are into healthy living, are on a diet, or on a strict regimen, it might evoke mixed emotions; a little bit of worry, anxiety, or even fear and a whole lot of excitement and anticipation.

We know all too well that Christmas is a big deal for Filipinos. In fact, Christmas season in the Philippines starts during the “ber” months. This is because Christmas is a time for celebration, family gatherings and reunions with friends and colleagues. It’s the time when Christmas parties happen left and right and you either get the chance to throw a dinner party for family and friends, or to enjoy those yummy dishes that your relative makes, the one that you’ve been waiting all year round to have. It’s also the time where you swear you’ll stick to your diet, or you swear to have everything in moderation, chances are you’ll end up saying, “next year na, Pasko naman” or minsan lang naman ‘to.

If you have been putting in all the work to change your nutrition and lifestyle for some time now, the struggle is more real because you know that it’s so easy to just re-gain twice as much the weight you lost, in half the time it took to lose it.

It’s not easy to stick to the rules when there is so much temptation surrounding you. The good news is that there are definitely some steps you can and should take to make sure you stay healthy over the holidays.

Food is at the heart of Filipino celebrations.

In the Filipino culture, one of the highlights of the Holidays will have to be the Noche Buena feast. It takes time, careful planning and meticulous preparation to get it just right so that all of your guests are leaving with a big smile, and full belly. Each and every course, from the pica-pica to the appetizer, to the main course, (that Lechon!), and of course to the dessert, are more than enough to keep you full until the end of Christmas day. Not to mention the beverages; numerous cans and bottles of soda, beer, wine and spirits, and endless pots of coffee and brewed tea, maybe even some sugary milk tea.

While it’s true that food is the star of the Holiday Feast, it actually goes beyond the food prepared. We, Filipinos, show our love and care and generosity through the food that we cook and prepare for our guests. When we cook, we cook with our hearts. With every bite we take, little drops of love fill our hearts until it overflows and we share it with our guests and loved ones. This great Filipino tradition shows our deeply rooted values of love for family and community.

Favorite Filipino Holiday Foodfare

As Filipinos, we love to prepare sumptuous meals for our guests, and the typical Holiday Feast has some main staples. Every year, dishes make a come back, with some only making a rare appearance for the Holiday Season. While there are many different dishes and each household has their own signature menu, let’s have a closer look at the more common ones.

Any Filipino gathering is deemed incomplete when there is no noodle dish. Traditionally, a bilao of pancit will be present. A close runner up would have to be the Pinoy style spaghetti. Noodles are a symbol for long life, and are generally equated with celebration and joy, to the point where if it is present in the house or in the office, the next question is “Ano meron? Or Sinong may birthday?”

Pancit can be prepared in a whole lot of different ways, sometimes depending on which region prepares it. The format is similar across the board: noodles, meat (pork, chicken, organ meats and/or seafood) and vegetables as sahog. The Pinoy style spaghetti stands out because the sauce is sweet and there are bits of hotdog mixed in.

The problem is noodles can be considered a high carbohydrate food item. Eating more of the noodles makes your blood sugar spike and throws your blood sugar balance off track. One way to counter this is to have more of the vegetables and the meat, and less of the noodles. If you are having spaghetti, avoid the hotdog. Keep the serving portion limited. If you can have less than ⅓ a cup, all the better.

Something Fried: Bring on the fried chicken, lechon kawali, lumpiang shanghai, and crispy pata! Perhaps it’s the taste and the texture of fried foods that make it so darn appealing to our Pinoy palates. One important focus when eating fried foods is the oil that was used. It is very important to know if the oil that was used is pro- or anti-inflammatory. Generally speaking, oils that were used for deep frying are those that are processed so that it can be used several times and can withstand high heat cooking. These processed oils are likely to be pro-inflammatory. These oils trigger and perpetuate a chronic, low-lying inflammation throughout the body, which feeds most of the chronic diseases, like heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, that plague us.

Something Grilled: serve up the liempo, lechon manok and pork barbecue stick! Among many of our inihaw dishes, these are the ones that make a fairly regular appearance in our handaan during the Holidays. It’s tasty, familiar, can be ordered in bulk, and not tedious to prepare. Just slather in the marinade, fire up the uling, and watch the flames do its magic. The problem is the actual grilling and charring the meat to a black crisp. This leads to the production of substances, like heterocyclic amines (HCAs) and polycyclic aromatic hydrocarbons (PAHs), that have been shown to compounds known to damage our DNA and potentially increase the risk for developing cancer. The solution: choose leaner cuts of meat and avoid grilling the meat to a burnt crisp. 

Something Roasted Whole: Drumroll please! Enter the Lechon! This is the main star in any celebration. If Lechon is present, everyone is definitely going straight for it, and everyone will want the crispy balat. Much like in any source of animal protein, when eating Lechon, think about where the pig came from and how it was raised. Remember that whatever that animal ate, we are also consuming. Whatever the effect of their food is on their bodies, we are likely to experience it too. If you are consuming lechon, make sure that you limit the portion size. Limit it to approximately a matchbox size piece and similar sized piece of balat.

This traditional dish makes a comeback every Holiday season. It’s so popular that people queue for hours just to get ham from one of the most renowned stores in Quiapo. More often than not, it’s store bought. If it is, then there’s a good chance it has additives, preservatives, and other potentially harmful substances. If it was made from scratch, chances are soda or other sweet ingredients were used to make the marinade or the glaze. Again, it boils down to limiting how much you eat. Try to stick to one matchbox size slice, just so you can enjoy this Holiday dish. 

While most of the usual dishes in a Holiday feast may be unhealthy for you, you can give yourself some wiggle room to have just a little bit. Practice moderation and make sure that you go back to your health behaviors the next day.

Some Holiday Behaviors are Unhealthy

Did you know that more people more people are hospitalized over the holidays? Cases range from heart attack, abnormal heart rhythms, stroke, and diabetes. Unfortunately, studies have also shown that those that were hospitalized during this season were also more likely to have succumbed to these cases.

Experts attribute this surge being triggered by unhealthy behaviors, like overeating and too much drinking, during the Holiday season. It’s also the time of the year where we are more likely to let our guard down and let go of our inhibitions. Kasi minsan lang naman, konti lang naman, di naman siguro makakasama, Pasko naman. Holiday stress was also identified as one factor that increases hospitalization from cardiac cases during the holidays. Stress from there reasons are probably all too familiar: heavier traffic, the stress of christmas shopping, meeting deadlines before the holiday break, how to host the best Christmas party or dinner ever.  Not to mention the overfatigue and lack of sleep from the back-to-back Christmas parties.

Having pre-existing conditions and risk factors, such as diabetes, hypertension, obesity, abnormal cholesterol levels, smoking, and lack of exercise, also increase the risk for hospitalization over the holidays. Even outside the Holiday season, these conditions are heavily influenced by nutrition and lifestyle behaviors.

Using the Functional Medicine perspective, let’s look at why our Holiday behaviors are unhealthy. The high carbohydrate, super sweet, super salty, overindulgent Holiday meals brings about a surge in our blood sugar and blood pressure.  The delicate balance of our blood sugar and other hormones gets thrown off course. Along with other lifestyle factors, such as high stress,lack of sleep and physical activity, these poor food habits also trigger and perpetuate inflammation all throughout our bodies. It is this inflammation that is at the root cause of heart disease, among other chronic conditions. With inflammation comes oxidative stress. Again, another factor that worsens the condition of your body as it brings about more damage to our cells.

Now, in the perspective of heart disease, the combination of blood sugar imbalance, increased inflammation, and increased oxidative stress is just the perfect storm for a cardiac event (like a heart attack or irregular heart beat). If you are already at a higher risk, like if you have pre existing heart disease, diabetes, and obesity, along with high risk behaviors, such as smoking, drinking alcohol, and no exercise, it’s like pouring gasoline on an open flame.

The big question is, how can we avoid this? Don’t let the Holiday season completely take over how you address your nutrition and lifestyle behaviors. While it is difficult to completely avoid giving into the delicious (but often unhealthy) Holiday foods, and saying no to the invites to parties and dinners, it is important to observe moderation and maintain self-awareness and self-care.

Even if it is the Holiday season, don’t skip regular appointments with your doctor. Learn how to address stress and maintain positive coping mechanisms. Avoid overfatigue and lack of sleep, even if there are back-to-back Christmas parties. You are not required to lose control and go overboard with eating and drinking at any party. Focus on enjoying the company of the people you are celebrating with. Maintain your movement regimen, like going to the gym, walking daily, doing yoga, etc. Just because it’s the Holidays doesn’t mean that your exercise also needs to take a break. Most importantly, seek medical attention if you have these symptoms: chest pain, pain in the jaw, ears, neck, and nape, difficulty in breathing, dizziness, severe headache, fatigue among others.

In the next section, we will discuss more in detail how to maintain a balanced nutrition that should be observed all year round, and most especially over the Holidays.

Observing Balance and Moderation in Nutrition

One of the challenges when it comes to following nutritional advice is that it can get confusing because there are so many sources of diet and health tips available.  The way to sort through all that information is to get the basics right first. You can follow these basic principles no matter which nutrition plan you prescribe to.

Hydration is a must. It is essential for life and ensuring optimal function of all bodily processes. When it comes to staying hydrated, here are some general rules to follow.

Rule 1: Avoid soda, sweetened and sugary beverages, powdered juices and drinks.

Rule 2: Stick with water as the main source of hydration. Another acceptable source is freshly brewed tea (Green tea and decaffeinated or herbal teas are great choices). You can choose to add some slices of fruit to infuse your water and enjoy the flavor.

Rule 3: To keep hydrated, bring water with you wherever you go. No plastic bottles (especially if it is single use). I suggest to use either a glass container or a steel water bottle/tumbler.

Rule 4: On the average, aim for at least 2 liters of fluids per day. To be more specific, you can use your body weight to estimate your daily hydration needs. Get your weight in pounds and divide by half. The resulting figure is the number of ounces of water to consume each day.

While adopting healthy and positive behavior changes is highly recommended, it is important to know what your current status is and acknowledge what you are willing to do and what you are capable of achieving.

If you are already following a certain diet and lifestyle, that’s great. Stick to what you are already comfortable doing. But if you are just about to start, or if let’s say for example you absolutely don’t like vegetables, or if your main staple is fast food then shifting to any particular diet can be overwhelming. Even more so during the holidays. That just doesn’t help anyone become more successful in incorporating changes in nutrition and lifestyle. Am I saying that you shouldn’t make a change? Nope. I’m saying start with simple steps, steps you can commit to doing and more importantly sustaining.

For example, start by avoiding processed foods and fast foods. That in itself contributes to a great deal of improvement in your health. Maybe avoid soda and sugary beverages (yes even the sugar-free, zero-calorie, “all natural” ones) and instead have freshly brewed tea or infused water or sparkling water. If you’re goal is to remove rice from your diet, start by replacing half of your serving of rice with vegetables, then slowly wean yourself off of rice. You can even try some starchy vegetables in place of rice. Before you know it, you’re completely off of rice.

Goals vary from person to person and results are just as varied. You can work with your Functional Medicine practitioner and the collaborative care team to create your own strategy to achieve your health goals.

Rule 1: We need protein at every meal because they are essential components of our tissues and they are much needed in many of our bodily processes. Many imbalances, symptoms and even diseases arise from lack of protein. Protein also helps to prevent a sharp spike in sugar, and consequently insulin, unlike when we eat simple carbohydrates.

Rule 2: Keep your protein sources varied. You can get protein from animal and plant sources. Sources of animal protein include fish, chicken, pork, beef, and seafood. When it comes to animal protein, the more important question is where did your animal meat come from? You are what you eat ate. The problem with where the meat came from is that you might also be consuming toxins, hormones, pesticides, (from animal feed) and other potentially harmful substances. So to provide counterbalance, limit consumption. When it comes to plant protein, it’s important to remember that you often need to combine different plant protein sources to get the full spectrum of amino acids (essential amino acids) that your body needs. Whether you choose an animal protein or a plant protein, or both, the important thing is that you have to have protein in every meal.

Rule 3: Eating protein should also be done in moderation. Keep an eye on your serving portion. A good portion of animal protein per meal is 3-4 oz or about a matchbox size or ¾ of the palm of your hand. For plant protein, one serving is approximately the size of your fist or around ¾-1cup.

Rule 1: Sources of healthy fats include the following: from avocados, fatty fish, nuts and seeds, olives, sea vegetables, grass-fed meats, etc. They are considered healthy because they have more of the omega-3s fatty acids. Healthy fats are anti-inflammatory, along with many other health benefits. Avoid fats that have more omega-6 fatty acids. Examples of these are fats from processed foods, salad dressings, and sauces; as well as processed vegetable oils like canola, grapeseed, safflower, etc.

Rule 2: Beware if “low-fat” and “fat-free” products. Those products supposedly with less fat were replaced with added sugar and artificial fillers. Again, it might not hold true for all products. I suggest to read the label and go through the ingredients list and nutrition facts

Rule 3: Aim to have one serving of healthy fat in every meal. One way to do this is to add an extra drizzle of olive oil or coconut oil on your vegetables.

There are certain diets where the intake of carbohydrates are restricted and the other macronutrients are increased. In any case, it is prudent to pick and choose the source of carbohydrates that you consume. If you’re going to have carbs anyway, make sure you get the biggest bang for your buck. Find carbs that won’t spike your blood sugar (low to medium glycemic impact) and has a lot of nutrients per serving (high nutrient density). 

Grains are not the only source of carbohydrates. In the FIlipino culture, our main carbohydrate source is most definitely rice. Occasionally, we’ll replace it with bread, usually in an attempt to lose weight or avoid rice for health purposes. Rice or bread, it’s still carbohydrate. You’re getting the carbs and the sugar spike with minimal micronutrients. The response is the same, or maybe even worse, for sugary foods that are made with refined carbohydrates. Alongside bread, these include pasta, pastries, cakes, cookies, pies, crusts, etc. Following the prerequisite of a carb not spiking your sugar and having a lot of nutrients, refined carbohydrates likely won’t make the cut. So, where should we get our carbs? From vegetables. You can get most of it from non-starchy vegetables, which include your leafy greens, cruciferous vegetables, and many other. You can also get carbohydrates from starchy vegetables, although your portions will have to be limited as these can spike your blood sugar too high if eaten in large amounts. You can go for ⅓ cup of boiled and mashed sweet potato (kamote)  instead of rice or bread or pasta.

Rule 1: Vegetables and fruits are colorful because of the phytonutrients they contain. Phytonutrients are plant chemicals that have been shown to have beneficial effects for our health. Some phytonutrients may even be the reason superfoods are considered “super.” The different colors for vegetables and fruit represent the phytonutrient that the contain. So, in order for us to get all the phytonutrients from the wide spectrum, aim to consume vegetables and fruits in different colors.

Rule 2: The source of the vegetables matters. Yes organic has an added benefit in the sense that it has the least amount of pesticides, herbicides, chemicals, etc present. While it may be expensive to purchase all your fruits and veggies organic, one way to help you choose which to prioritize is going through the list of the Environmental Working Group (EWG) known as the Dirty Dozen and the Clean Fifteen Those veggies and fruits listed in the Dirty Dozen are the priority items to purchase organic variants. The Clean Fifteen, on the other hand, includes veggies and fruits that are relatively safe to consume, even if they are not organically grown.

Rule 3: Whole, Fresh, Unprocessed is best. You might be thinking, “Do they come in any other form?” Well, the answer to that is yes. At least, some manufacturers would like you to believe that there are some veggie or fruit particles in “healthy foods.” I’m not saying they aren’t healthy. What I suggest reading the label an examining closely what they other ingredients are. Some might find this too tedious or a tad confusing. It’s easier to remember that whole, fresh, unprocessed is best.

I would say that this is probably the most important tip. Even if you follow the other 6 steps, if you are drinking soda with your salad and having dessert and pastries right after then I would say we’re missing the point. Even if you feel you can’t do the other 6 steps, if you can follow this tip, your body and your overall health will thank you for it.

How to Navigate the Holiday Feast

We, Filipinos, celebrate with dinners, Christmas parties, and reunions because it is through gatherings like these that we express our gratitude and love for our family, friends, loved ones, and guests. This is also the time that we are most likely to give into temptation and overindulgence. It is true that you have no control over what your host will prepare or what dishes are available in the restaurant you’ll be eating in. It’s also true that it’s quite easy to just give into your weaknesses, and end up regretting it. We swear  off all that unhealthy food and behaviors, and promise to get back in shape right after the holidays.

As a guest, there’s not much we can do to influence what foods will be available at the party. There is, however, a whole lot we can do to make sure we don’t gobble up all the potentially less healthy foods that are going to be present. Of course no one wants to feel restricted during the holidays. So here are some tips to help you stay healthy but still Enjoy the holiday feast. Those who fail to plan, plan to fail. Here is a strategic gameplan to navigate the holiday feasts.

What To Do Before You Go To The Party

Sometimes we tend to skip meals to in anticipation for the feast that awaits later in the day. The problem there is that you are slowing down your metabolism with these periods of mini-starvation. You also end up being so hungry when you get to our dinner party that you eat everything in sight without thinking about how much you’ve eaten. You’re also more likely to eat fast and the problem with that is that it takes some time (around 20 minutes) for the “I’m full” signals from your gut to make it to your brain. So, by the time you actually feel full, you’d have been too late and have overeaten.

This is particularly helpful if you are on a specific diet (like Elimination Diet) and trying to avoid certain foods. This is also helpful if you are practicing awareness of what goes into your food or how it was cooked. If you eat a home cooked meal or something you prepared then you know exactly what you are eating. You’ll be more attuned to how your body will react to the food you eat.

Eating before going to the party also means you’ll be fine even if you end up avoiding some of the food items at the party. You won’t be too preoccupied thinking about what you can and can’t eat, and instead, you’ll be able to focus on what matters more; the people that you’ll be with in the party.

In case you didn’t get to eat before going to the party, having a ready selection of food items means you can grab a quick meal that you know won’t get in the way of your health progress. You can also have any of these even after the holidays in case you get hungry any tim. Here are some examples of what you can bring with you:  a small back of raw nuts like walnuts, almonds, macadamia, or pecans (no peanuts), a small bag of cut carrots or cucumbers or celery, boiled saging na saba (one piece) or boiled kamote (about ⅓ or ½ of the kamote depending on its size), some almond butter, home-made granola, a can of wild salmon, a jar of sardines (in olive oil please).

These are just some examples. Over time, as you become more confident in your “healthy-meal-building” skills, you’ll be able to incorporate more choices and tailor fit it to your preference. 

Most will be more than happy to accommodate your request. This is especially true if the party will be in someone’s home and the host is either a close friend or a family member. We, Filipinos, consider the food we prepare as the ultimate expression of our gratitude and hospitality, so there’s a good chance that your host will want to make sure that you can enjoy the food prepared.

What To Do At The Party

Suppose that you go straight to the party and didn’t get to prepare. Don’t worry, here are some tips to remember.

This means prioritize vegetables and fruits, good quality proteins, non-gluten grains (if available) and healthy fats. Skip the bread, pasta, pancit, corn, potatoes, or other carb-heavy foods. Load up  half of your plate with vegetables or salads. When I say salad, I mean those made with leafy greens and other vegetables, not the macaroni salad or the fruit salad. One quarter should be from good quality protein (ideally fish, or chicken). You can have a little bit of lechon, or some other pork or beef dish, but limit the portion. Remember one serving of animal protein is approximately a matchbox size or ¾ of your palm.

One quarter of your plate should be from non-gluten grains or from starchy vegetables if there are any. Now, the most common question here is “What about rice??” While there are many different ways to answer that, depending on what your health goal or your health status is, the quick answer is yes BUT again limit the portion. I only recommend ⅓ cup for the whole day. Make it a condiment and not the main star of the meal. I know what you’re thinking. Magugutom ako! There are many other sources of carbohydrates other than rice. You can always replace the rice with starchy vegetables or other vegetables.

Skip the cakes, cookies, pastries, sweets, kakanin and other desserts. Stick to fresh fruits as they are not mixed in the fruit salad. When you do eat fruits, make sure you also watch the amount. Generally speaking, one serving is about 1 cup and, on average, you should be limiting your fruits to a total of 2 servings per day.

Dairy and gluten are among the most common food triggers in our food. These two are always present in any holiday feast and in almost all of the food items available. They trigger reactions in our body that lead to chronic inflammation that puts us at risk for many diseases including heart disease, stroke, diabetes, and obesity. As we’ve explored in my previous article (include link), not only are they more likely to spike your sugar, and consequently your insulin, they are also main contributors to difficulty losing weight.

Among the many negative effects of alcohol, including loss of inhibition, it also acts as a toxin and as a source of extra sugar and calories. It can also deplete important micronutrients, specifically your B Vitamins. If you are going to have alcohol, stick to one glass of wine. Whether or not you choose to drink, remember to stay hydrated all throughout the dinner party.

Yes, the food might take the stage during the Holiday feast, but remember that it is about the people that are present. It is about the host of the party that took the time to prepare the meals in order to express care and gratitude. Sometimes it is during the Holiday feast that you get to see relatives from far away or friends that you haven’t seen in such a long time. That’s the more important aspect of the party rather than the food itself.

A healthy and balanced nutrition and lifestyle is all about self-awareness. It is about knowing how what you eat and what you do affects your body. It’s about what you should and shouldn’t be doing in order to get yourself moving towards optimal health and wellness. These guidelines are for you to know how to navigate the Holiday feast and maintain healthy nutrition and lifestyle behaviors. If there are occasions that you forgot, or didn’t get to follow, don’t be too harsh on yourself. Try again the next day. Remember that your health also goes beyond your nutrition and your lifestyle. It is also dependent on how you nourish your mind, your emotions, and your spirit.


What about you? What was your experience during your
Holiday feast? Share your thoughts and your comments.

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