You’ll never hear about it in any holiday song. Still, everyone knows that decking the halls can be as stressful as it’s supposed to be jolly. Just ask Joan Ifland, PhD, who believes that, for many, feelings of stress associated with this time of year are directly related to what we eat.
“During the holidays, people experience more stress because they’re [often] eating more processed foods,” says Ifland, one of the world’s leading experts in processed food addictions.
Blame the sugar, fat, and salt that manufacturers add to amp up the flavour of highly refined foods. Although consuming them might feel pleasurable in the moment, Ifland says those three ingredients can create chemical imbalances in the brain that can lead to depression, anxiety, and irritability.
The more we experience those feelings—and the stress that accompanies each—the more likely we are to reach for more processed foods to soothe them. It’s a vicious cycle that Ifland has been studying and documenting for 25 years.
“Through a series of mechanisms, [processed] raise adrenalin levels that then reactivate the addictive brain cells—and you start eating again,” she says.
It’s true the “eat bad food-feel stressed” cycle Ifland has written about extensively can happen at any time of year. However, the Fellow of the American College of Nutrition noted it’s exacerbated during the holidays because processed food abounds, whether offered by the gracious host at a social gathering or consumed amid the mad rush of holiday preparations.
The good news is there are ways to end the year on a healthy and more relaxed note.
Tips from a pro
Ifland is the chief executive officer of Food Addiction Training, LLC, and is a leading innovator in the field of recovery from food addiction. She shares some insights about how to prepare for the holidays and its associated overindulging.
“Step one is awareness,” Ifland says. “‘What am I eating? Oh, I ate that and even though it seemed like it was yummy, I know I had a crash 20 minutes afterward.’”
Keep in mind where you’re being reminded of processed foods, too, she added.
At this time of year, the holiday gathering, with its lavish edible spread, is often the culprit. Simply saying you won’t indulge may not be enough to spare you from getting sucked into that vortex of stress and indulging, Ifland warns.
“You get [to] and after an hour or two, you’re eating [unhealthy],” she says. “It’s because cravings and loss of control build up over time.”
Take your own
Instead, take your own snacks—think crudités, healthy proteins, or other foods that are as close to their natural, unprocessed shape and form as possible—and keep it near you. If that’s not possible, avoid standing in a place with a clear view of the hors d’oeuvres table.
Be sure to get a glass of water as soon as you arrive, and hang onto it. It keeps one hand busy, and reduces the chance of someone passing you a cocktail chock full of simple syrup and alcohol.
Know when to leave
Still, Ifland knows that as time passes, so, too, does our resolve, and we start to consider making exceptions, having just a nibble or two.
“That’s an indication the craving chemicals are building up in your brain, under the stimulation of the social event, and then it’s time to go,” Ifland says. “It’s okay to leave at that point and just avoid the agony of the mental battle: ‘You don’t want to eat that. Yes, you do.’”
Be easy on yourself
Whatever happens, go easy on yourself, Ifland advises. Changing our behaviours to break the processed food addiction cycle can take years. But the benefits? We feel those sooner than later.
“Within four days (of eliminating processed foods), energy and mental clarity come back up while cravings may stop. And then within a couple of weeks, your blood sugar and blood pressure are heading toward normal and you’re sleeping better,” Ifland says.
“There are so many foods that have been deliberately processed to make them addictive. It can take a couple of years to get off all of them. When people know it’s a long, slow process, they give themselves permission to celebrate their wins.”
Finding the true holiday spirit
Getting into the holiday spirit, for many, often means getting into the spirits. But pouring yourself a tall cold one to make things merrier might actually make the season far less bright, especially as we enter our second holiday season of the COVID-19 pandemic.
According to researchers at the Canadian Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, binge drinking increases around the holidays, which is often related to social or financial stress that comes with celebrating at this time of year.
Meanwhile, Canadians are already drinking more because of the pandemic. According to Statistics Canada, nearly one-quarter of Canadians reported their alcohol consumption increased since March 2020, citing stress as a main reason.
Still, stress and alcohol can create a toxic cocktail for our brains, no matter how much we might think we’re being released from our inhibitions when we imbibe.
“Alcohol [can] highly addictive,” says Joan Ifland, a processed food addiction expert. And it can have potentially serious consequences that include impairing cognitive skills and our self-control. While that might feel fun in the moment, any feelings of comfort and joy experienced while tippling are fleeting, Ifland warned. After all, alcohol is a depressant.
Despite thinking we’re more relaxed after a glass of wine or two, drinking may be related to an increase in the stress hormone cortisol. High cortisol levels are associated with everything from weight gain and acne to fatigue, irritability, and high blood pressure.
Healthy friends, healthy holidays
Whether it’s on Zoom or in person, it’s nearly impossible to break bad habits if you’re the only one trying to do so. Spend the season with those who share similar values and goals for holiday cheer. Surrounding yourself with others who celebrate in safe, healthy ways makes it easier to stay on track.
Sometimes that can mean forgoing large virtual or real-life gatherings altogether. Call on only one or two friends and go for a walk instead of gathering around food and drink. Not only do you get a more sustainable endorphin rush from the exercise, but research also shows that physical activity may actually reduce appetite, and that can curb those problematic cravings that ultimately increase stress.
Helpful supplements for the season
Oil of oregano has antibacterial, antifungal, antiviral, and potential cancer-preventive properties. Carvacrol, an active ingredient in the oil, is a strong antioxidant. The oil can be used to clear lungs and bronchial passages by mixing with a carrier oil (olive oil) and rubbing it on the chest and aching muscles or by boiling it with hot water or adding it to a vaporizer to inhale the steam.
Elderberry (Sambucus nigra) is packed with nutrients including calcium, vitamin C, fibre, iron, and antioxidants that are known to help stimulate your immune system and fight inflammation. Elderberries have shown positive effects on the length and severity of flu and common cold symptoms. Find them at your natural health store as a syrup, in teas, gummies, lozenges, or pills.
Vitamin C has long been a go-to supplement for colds and flu. A critical analysis of 29 research trials involving 11,306 participants found that vitamin C reduced the duration of colds by 8 percent in adults and 14 percent in children. Researchers also found that the severity of colds was significantly reduced. Vitamin C comes in a number of forms, including chewables, tablets, capsules, and effervescent drink powders.