Oh, the holidays. Before you say “bah, humbug!”, rest assured we’re going to help you stay healthy.
Everyone knows the holidays are a spare tire waiting to happen. Alcohol, rich desserts and indulgent carbs are practically throwing themselves at you, begging to be eaten and taking it personally if you don’t. You know what we’re talking about – food is emotional, and powerfully so. It’s that bizarre twinge of guilt for attempting to say no to foods which, come holiday season, seem to take on actual feelings. It’s almost like you’re insulting the food if you don’t eat it. There’s a reason for this. Rich foods, particularly sugary desserts, have long been combined with emotional events. In the Middle Ages, these items were called subtleties, and they still exist today: in the form of Easter chicks, Easter bunnies, Valentine’s hearts, advent calendars, Christmas cookies, and so on.
That’s really great, you say. But it still doesn’t help me say no to unhealthy foods or avoid gaining ten pounds before the New Year knocks at my door.
Hey, we hear ya. So, here’s a quick-and-easy realistic guide to getting through the holidays, enjoying them, and maintaining your sanity.
Part 1: It Ain’t Just the Sugar
A lot of holiday health guides point to the obvious no-no: sugar. Of course you want to stay away from sugar, but that’s probably not realistic, no matter how disciplined you are. We suggest you instead focus on limiting portions. A lot of times, we simply expect too much from ourselves. “No sugar, period. I will be healthy and eat only bean casserole, being careful to remove the crispy fried onions.” This works fine for about five minutes, until peer pressure, Aunt Louise and mulled wine conspire to destroy your best-laid plans. Before you know it, you’ve eaten three cookies, two slices of pie and eighty-three truffles. You feel guilty, bloated and sick, you give yourself a pep talk, and at the next party…you do it all over again.
Step 1: No ridiculous standards. Do not set a goal for yourself that you know you probably won’t reach (from past experience or awareness of your weak points). This just makes you feel bad, and no one is putting that pressure on you, so be nice to yourself. Who needs the added stress? Find a middle ground. If you normally end up indulging through the holidays, try giving yourself a “one freebie” rule: one treat at every party or event.
Step 2: Portion control. The amount of indulgence is more important than anything else. If you love carrot cake, eat a big bite or two, and stop. It won’t taste any better if you eat the entire thing, and you’ll have accomplished two great things: some enjoyment and some discipline. One bite of sugary cake isn’t great, but it’s not going to be cause for regret. You can try out a few of your favorite treats this way without doing any serious damage to your health or waistline – but limit yourself to just a few things at each party or event.
Step 3: Stress! Do you ever wonder why people get sick during the holiday season? It’s not just because we’re indoors and sharing the same old air. It’s not just because of all the sugar in everything. It’s also because of the stress. The holidays are the most depressing, dangerous, stressful time of year. That’s a fact with no sugar coating. Yet it’s supposed to be the happiest time of year. And therein lies the problem: pressure. Combine lack of activity from being indoors with excess amounts of sugary foods with the pressure of gift-giving, travel and entertaining, and it’s no wonder people have a hard time when Santa comes to town. Give yourself a break. The best thing you can do – possibly even better than obsessing or feeling guilty about food – is to get as much exercise, rest, and “me time” as possible. Part 2 of our Holiday Survival Guide will tell you just how to do that.
What are you more likely to be afraid of:
A shark or a candy bar?
Driving in your car or flying on a plane?
Falling out of your bed or being hit by lightning?
The flu or avian flu?
It’s interesting how we humans assess risk. It turns out, we’re pretty bad at it. Our risk of choking on a candy bar is 3,000 times greater than being attacked by a shark. Our risk of being killed in a car accident is over 44,000 times greater than dying from an airplane crash. No one in America has died from avian flu, but 36,000 people died from the “regular” influenza virus just last year. You have a greater chance of dying from falling out of your bed than from a snakebite, shark attack, airplane crash, stampede, skydiving, dog bite, bee sting, and lightning strike…combined. And then doubled.
It’s interesting how our evolutionary development intersects with the rapid changes in human society over the last 50 years. We simply haven’t caught up, physically or mentally. A fascinating article I caught the other day explains our faulty risk assessment in greater detail, but what concerns me most is how this judgment quirk of the human brain has an impact upon our health.
A few noteworthy points:
The brain fears what is new or unusual, rather than what is likely.
The brain also has a cumulative way of reasoning. So, if you’ve (just hypothetically) gotten away with an unsafe behavior in the past – say, driving under the influence, or speeding recklessly, or eating junk food in high school without gaining much weight – your brain rationalizes that you can continue taking the risks, even though the odds are stacked considerably against you (again, a hypothetical “you”).
The brain has a bad risk memory, and a bad consequence memory, too. Though junk food might cause you to have a spare tire now, the memory is that you “have always been able” to eat junk food. We consistently underrate our risk and overrate our success. We consistently underrate consequences. That’s just part of human biology. It served us well when we had to worry about being attacked by a mammoth or filling up on all the seeds and berries one could possibly ingest in the likely event that food might not come around for a while. But, these days, with the food and drug supply being what it is, coupled with consistently sedentary behavior, hours in front of computer screens, and long commutes, it’s no wonder we are witnessing widespread health problems.
This isn’t an issue we can solve in a day. It’s simply something to be mindful of as we go about our daily business, making all manner of choices. The real things to fear – heart disease, lung cancer from smoking, fatal diseases caused by obesity – are literally hundreds of thousands of times more likely than any (admittedly scary) prospect of death by large animal or flying transport. My take on all this? Make smarter choices in how you move, what you eat, and how you handle stress, and you’ll outlive all the people worrying about avian flu and spinach. You’ll feel better, too.
Here’s the excellent and highly-enjoyable – and not even scary – article on our risk assessment ability. You’ll want to check it out. Clickativity
Great health isn’t just about food or supplements, though everybody does tend to focus on those things. Great health is also about fitness, enjoyment of life, emotional satisfaction, and mental strength, too. Welcome to the Monday Moment: just a little gem from Mark that we’re passing on to you – because feeling good is healthy!
Monday Moment: One of Mark’s essential rules for life is forgiveness. Learn to forgive people – and not for them, either. It’s for you! That’s why forgiveness is so great: it frees up head space so you can feel good about yourself and your life. We don’t forgive others when they goof or hurt us so that they can go on living happily ever after – forgiveness is so you can live happily ever after. Don’t invest in thinking about how your boss, your neighbor or a pal has hurt you. It does take energy to learn a new habit (like letting go) but try it a few times and it will become old hat. It’s easier to feel good than it is to feel bad, so as the old Asian proverb goes, if you’re holding a hot coal, drop it!
My Inaugural Sherlock Award goes to Health Day News, as posted by the Poughkeepsie Journal. The Sherlock Award is given to the latest MOTO – Master of the Obvious. It’s for “breaking” health and fitness news that isn’t breaking anything except my patience. To be clear, the Sherlock Award isn’t about making fun of that news – the news is accurate. Rather, it’s about my puzzlement over reporting on things I thought were already part of the general knowledge bowl we call “Common Sense.”
This article reports that exercise can help treat depression, anxiety, insomnia, stress, Alzheimer’s, and a host of other mood imbalances, mental disorders and health problems.
It’s human nature to compare life now to life “in the good old days.” And in the good old days, it seems nobody had a shrink or took Prozac. This doesn’t mean people weren’t depressed or stressed out “back then”; nevertheless, if you believe the statistics (always a dicey proposition), a significant number of Americans have something really unpleasant going on upstairs, whether it’s trouble sleeping, dealing with stress, or feeling good about life.
Isn’t it obvious? Most of us sit in front of a computer all day. We go home and sit in front a television. It doesn’t take a genius to surmise that moving around might be something humans were meant to do. In fact, scientists know that exercise – even mild movement like walking or doing chores – releases dopamine, serotonin and all kinds of other wonderful enzymes, compounds and hormones into our bodies. Our brains are natural little medicine factories; many of the drugs created to treat issues like stress and depression or insomnia and anxiety mimic the very compounds our bodies are capable of making – when we move.
Read the article, savor their glorious triumph, and treat your body right today.
Pfizer announced yesterday that they were abandoning their newest “miracle drug”, torcetrapib. Rolls off the tongue, doesn’t it? Torcetrapib.
Turns out that in a recent large-scale controlled study, “rolls-off-the-tongue” killed more people than even the previous miracle drug, Lipitor. Pfizer had invested over $800 million in their most recent attempt to stem the rise of heart attacks and stroke by lowering cholesterol.
The main focus of torcetrapib was to raise HDL (the “good” cholesterol that has been shown to reduce fatty plaque formation on arterial linings). Since Lipitor is coming off patent soon, Pfizer needs a new blockbuster to fill the income pipeline – now at $51 billion a year. Meanwhile, news wire services are suggesting that this is a huge setback for millions with heart disease who have been awaiting another magic pill to reverse the damage brought on by poor lifestyle choices.
Here’s the deal: as long as the medical community continues to approach heart disease by promoting cholesterol reducing drugs, they will fail.
Cholesterol is not necessarily the bad guy here. It is the inflammatory processes of C-reactive protein and homocysteine, occurring within the arterial walls, that begin the process of coronary artery disease. These inflammatory processes are the real culprits. Cholesterol production is merely the response mechanism! Attempting to avert heart problems by reducing cholesterol is literally akin to removing scabs from wounds as they try to heal. (If that analogy turns your stomach, you’ll have an inkling as to how sickened I am by Big Pharma.)
The root cause of inflammation is a combination of poor diet, sloth and stress. The good news is that most cardiovascular disease is completely preventable and largely curable without side effects.
Cholesterol is the unfortunate scapegoat in all this. It’s a shame, because this endlessly-eviscerated lipid is one of the body’s most useful and dynamic substances. Among other duties, it’s a necessary component of every cell membrane and it’s involved in hormone production. The body makes about 1400 mg a day just to keep reserves up. Unfortunately, when you have a stressful lifestyle, toss in a bad diet and lack of exercise and you can get an inflammatory process within the arteries that causes lesions on arterial walls. The inflammation problem is completely unrelated to amounts or types of cholesterol.
Nevertheless, the ever-inventive human body adapts to this inflammation sequence by using cholesterol as a band-aid to cover up the lesions until healing can take place – which, of course, almost never happens since most of us keep living the inflammatory lifestyle with little regard for how destructive it is. We’re inflammation rock stars.
Eventually, the cholesterol band-aids harden (sclerosis), narrow the arteries and sometimes break off, causing a heart attack or stroke. Of course, we blame the cholesterol for all this and embark on a national campaign to rid the body of this important substance by dousing everyone with drugs, instead of focusing on the foods (and other stresses) that promote inflammation in the first place. And these drugs have some pretty nasty side effects. And yet, we continue to worship at the idol’s altar.
Bottom line: In my opinion, diet, exercise, stress reduction and prudent supplementation should be the primary focus of any primary care physician.
UPDATE 12/11/06: Another interesting analysis.
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