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Honor Your Gut Feelings for the Holidays

by Dr. Linda Lee

Honor Your Gut Feelings for the Holidays
by Linda Lee

Most of us look forward to the winter holidays as a time to come together with friends and family, to express gratitude for what we have, to reflect on our involvement in our communities, and to remember those who still affect us deeply, even though they may no longer be part of our physical lives.

Many of us will celebrate these joyful gatherings by sharing comfort food — meals that stir our memories not only as we prepare them, but also as the flavors and textures roll across our taste buds. Holiday foods taste good not just because they help us recall fond memories, but because of the ingredients they contain.

Many baked goods, gravies, sauces, styles of whipped potatoes and stuffing, and chocolate candy contain butter, shortening, or meat-derived fats. And in fact, fat is what makes a food seem rich, full, and satisfying.

Research has even shown that there are biochemical reasons why we humans crave fat. When dietary fat stimulates our taste buds, a part of our brain will produce pleasure-producing chemicals, called endorphins. Endorphins are neurotransmitters that are known to be released in the brain in response to activities that give us a sense of well-being, like after strenuous exercise or even sex. So it's no wonder that we have such pleasant associations with the holidays!

But even good things can have a negative side. Though your taste buds and your brain are telling you to eat more of these rich foods, your gut may be telling you differently. Eating foods that are high in fat may worsen symptoms of gastroesophageal reflux (e.g., heartburn, indigestion, and belching). And if you have irritable bowel syndrome, then fatty, rich foods can make your gut feel even more irritable, so that you might find yourself more bloated and visiting the bathroom more often.

Studies now show that the over-stimulation of your taste buds by rich foods might also contribute to unwanted weight gain, because your taste buds actually lose their sensitivity to fat such that you then need to eat even more fat to produce the same brain response as before.

So what are some strategies to make sure your taste buds get appropriately stimulated but not over-stimulated?

Watch your portion — and plate — sizes. One trick that caterers employ all the time is to use cocktail-sized plates; you will eat at least one-third less by not putting too much on your plate at one time. A small plate will also give you time to develop a sense of fullness before deciding if you want to go back for seconds. Pick only one or two small party-food items to put on your small plate, and then surround those rich items with fresh fruit and vegetables to make it more colorful to your eye (and thereby more satisfying to your brain).

Before running off to attend work-related holiday events, consider having a small healthful snack, like an apple and a big glass of water, to stave off ravenous hunger later. You might find you end up spending more time getting to know your co-workers if you don't feel the need to make a beeline for the buffet table as soon as you arrive. After such events as these, if you can, take a brisk walk (20 minutes would be great!) with your friends to help reduce your blood sugar levels.

As you nurture those personal relationships this year, don't forget to take care of yourself, too. Eat as many home-cooked, healthful meals as possible, but by all means spend precious time celebrating with family and friends. Tingle those taste buds but be mindful about not over-stimulating them so that the holidays can be enjoyed with the fullest sense of well-being.

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