Holiday Health: Tips on Not Fixing What Isn't Broken

Indulge on the holidays - and show restraint the rest of the year.

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Every year at this time, health journalists' thoughts turn to the holidays. Not how to celebrate them – but how to ruin them, gently.

Eat + Run -- David Katz
David Katz
Well, I guess that's not quite fair. First, it isn't the reporters – it's their editors and the marketing folks. They know that the readers and viewers are expecting, as they do every year, tips on getting through the holidays with minimal harm to waistlines and coronaries. And the intent, per se, isn't to ruin the holidays – it's damage control.

[See: 9 Holiday Health Hazards to Avoid.]

But the effect is much the same. The advice populating pages and airwaves is all about the art and science of seasonal restraint. I am drawn into many such interviews myself, opining on all the ways to avoid overeating, making bad choices and paying the piper. But really, I would like to go another way altogether. I say: Have a good time!

The word "holiday," of course, derives from "holy day" – and in many cases, that's what our holidays still are. Even the secular ones, such as Thanksgiving, are "holy" in the sense of being sanctified, because of the deep meaning they hold for us. I consider an annual reminder to celebrate my good fortune quite a holy mandate indeed because I am truly blessed with a beautiful wife, wonderful children and a healthy family. In the immortal words of Mary Bailey in "It's a Wonderful Life:" After that, who cares?

The implications of either "holy" day, or holiday, are that the day should be special. In some cases, that brings specific marching orders, from deep reflection to penance and fasting. But for the most part, holidays are about celebration in the ways we like best – and that means family and friends, food and couches, fireplaces and football. The nature of the food and the upholstery have changed over time – as has the background entertainment, evolving from harpsichords to quarterbacks, but the ideas are the same. A holiday is a time to indulge ourselves in those special things we love to do: relaxing, feasting and entertaining diversion.

[Read: Food is Not Just Fuel, and That Matters for Your Diet.]

But the standards for holiday fare evolved over the long sweep of human civilization and under vastly different circumstances than prevail now. Throughout most of human history for most people, daily food intake has been a pretty frugal affair. A holiday was a time to depart from that, and hence the feasting. Throughout most of human history for most people, exercise was part of the daily survival routine, requiring neither gym membership nor specialized footwear. And hence, the couching.

But now, of course, we overeat every day – then consecrate the holidays by overeating some more, perhaps with particular abandon. Now, we may get through most days moving little more than our thumbs – then sanctify the holiday season by visiting a panoply of preferred couches and being careful to keep the chips and dip within reach.

[Read: 365 Days of Halloween.]

If we had always eaten a lot and exercised very little every day, I suspect our holidays would have evolved very differently – because the ones we have now might seem like that proverbial busman's holiday or coals to Newcastle. For the perennially sedentary and overfed, a "holiday" might mean a hike and some trail mix.

In any event, I trust you see the problem. The fault lies not with our holidays but with the rest of the calendar. So I would like to advise against fixing what isn't broken. If we are going to fix something, I don't think it should be the holidays; I think it ought to be the rest of the year. Eat well and be active year- round, and when the holidays roll around – let the good times roll. Actually, you will be surprised how effectively the former attenuates any potential harms of the latter.

First, if you really do eat well and exercise most of the time, it wouldn't matter all that much if you indulged yourself a few days out of the year. That, as noted, was the idea of holidays all along. It's what we eat most of the time, not from time to time, that has a major impact on every measure of health. It's our routine level of physical activity that calibrates our fitness level, not an annual couch-a-thon.

[Read: A Shame-Free Food Lifestyle.]

That said, I suspect you'll find that if you do take care of yourself year-round, your attitude about the holidays will also evolve. For example, I am routinely asked – by friends, patients, journalists and vagrants in cyberspace if I ever "indulge" myself. The answer is: absolutely yes! But I suspect my idea of indulgence may be different than yours.

Having familiarized myself fully with only truly wholesome foods, they are the only kind I like. I not only love foods that love me back – I don't love any other kind. So even my indulgences tend to be good for me (my wife's pumpkin pie, for instance!). And foods that many people find indulgent, I would find unpalatable. Everyone can get there by trading up choices, eating better year-round and putting taste buds through rehab.

Much the same is true on the activity side. If you are routinely active, you will find yourself getting restless if you try to make it through a whole holiday weekend by the seat of your pants. Your feet will want in on the action! That action can come in whatever flavor you like best – walking, hiking, biking, football, dancing or whatever. But you will likely find yourself wanting some of that good stuff, and the holiday is a wonderful time to get it in the company of loved ones. Katz Family holiday weekends are a bountiful feast of great foods but with a lot of great activity to whet our appetites, too. The combination is particularly satisfying.

[See: 8 Healthy Activities for Fall.]

Clearly, we don't want holiday consequences showing up at our waists. But just as clearly, we don't want holiday cheer going to waste because of a preoccupation with health and weight control. Learn what you need to know to take good care of yourself year-round. Learn to love food that loves you back and to let your animal vitality out of its cage. Live well, year-round – not because you should, but because healthy people have more fun, and better lives. Let the habit of health, a preference for wholesome foods and a penchant for activity follow you into the holidays.

Then, when the holidays roll around, as they have and will every year, relax and enjoy – and don't fix what isn't broken. You can go with the festive flow, and stay well – even as you let the good times roll. From the Katz Family to yours: Happy holidays!

[See: Top-Rated Diets Overall.]

Hungry for more? Write to eatandrun@usnews.com with your questions, concerns, and feedback.

David L. Katz, MD, MPH, FACPM, FACP, is a specialist in internal medicine and preventive medicine, with particular expertise in nutrition, weight management, and chronic-disease prevention. He is the founding director of Yale University's Prevention Research Center, and principal inventor of the NuVal nutrition guidance system. Katz was named editor-in-chief of Childhood Obesity in 2011 and is president-elect of the American College of Lifestyle Medicine. He is the author of "Disease Proof: The Remarkable Truth About What Makes Us Well."