by Eric Strom, Instructor

With the holiday season coming to an end, many of us are looking to improve our nutritional outlook moving forward. I get stressed during the holidays with eating poorly and not having the willpower to avoid the many potholes of nutrition that are around during the months of November and December.

The endless cookies, pies, and other treats that floated around the fire station and at home were extremely hard for me to avoid.  With that came the weight gain that I had fought all year to avoid, as well as unwanted stress and anxiety. However, this last holiday season, that stress came to an end as I changed my perspective on nutrition. As I learned more about nutrition, I discovered that much of my stress came from the food I ate, especially during the holidays. Refined sugars, which are present in many of the sweets we eat, and ultra-processed food affected my gut health, which in turn affected my mental health via the gut-brain axis. Having that awareness was half the battle. I learned that if I stayed on track with my nutritional intake during the other 10 months of the year, the chances of reducing my holiday cookie intake (refined sugar) were much better. I also changed my perspective on my goals for nutrition during the holiday months. I would limit my refined sugar but still enjoy the sweets that were available. I opted to enjoy the home-baked cookies that my wife would make and avoid store-bought sweets that had been sitting on a shelf at the local store for several weeks. I also decided not to beat myself up for having some cookies and realized this was just a brief period and not a permanent way of eating.

Alcohol (another refined sugar) also can play a role in holiday celebrations and can become troublesome at times. The long- and short-term effects of alcohol are known not to be beneficial to mental and physical health. Alcohol consumption typically increases during the holidays, so reducing my alcohol intake during the rest of the year played a helpful role during the holidays. A lot of my alcohol consumption was a habit of the situation – Thanksgiving dinner, Christmas dinner, Christmas parties, lunch with the boys, old friends in town, and of course, New Year. All these events were, for me, an occasion to drink. If you add all these events up, the potential for overconsumption becomes a reality. For me reducing the consumption of ultra-processed food, refined sugars, and alcohol all played a role in improving my mental health and feeling less stressed during the holidays.

It starts with awareness of what you are eating and drinking and the direct impact it has on your cognitive behavior as well as mental health. The habit loops that we form can be difficult to break and should be addressed incrementally for the best chance of success.

Making small adjustments to our nutritional intake will yield the best results for long-term success:

  • Start with removing those ultra-processed items and replace them with a healthier choice, like a homemade version or fresh fruit, or a vegetable.
  • If you want a bacon cheeseburger, great! Just make it yourself.
  • Try one meal a week with plant-based ingredients only.
  • Include fresh fruit in your breakfast meals. Blueberries added to oatmeal is a great way to include an antioxidant in your daily food intake, and they taste great, as well.
  • I also find that measuring out my food helps me monitor my intake.
  • Lastly, when you eat is important to your long-term health and plays a role in reducing the risk in developing type 2 diabetes and other age-related illnesses. Many health experts promote fasting as a good approach to long term health. I use the time restricted eating format where I don’t eat after 7:30 pm and don’t eat before 7:30 am. For me it reduces bloating and gut issues, as most of my stomach contents have been emptied prior to going to sleep. Remember we are all different and have different issues and lifestyles.

Making some small, incremental changes to our nutrition can benefit our cognitive and mental health. Happy New Year!