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Healthy You

More Tips on Healthy Eating for the Holidays

Tuesday, November 19, 2019 2:21 PM

Recently NorthShore University Health System hosted an online chat on ways to eat healthy during the holidays. Thank you for the overwhelming response! Below, NorthShore dietitian Vanessa Lennie answers more of your questions on healthy holiday eating. Keep an eye out for our next monthly chat to participate.

Family at holiday table

Q: I heard that getting a good night's sleep can help with eating. What effect does sleep have on healthy eating?
A: The answer to this is a bit complex, so bear with me! We have two hormones that regulate our hunger and satiety: Ghrelin is a hormone that lets us know when we’re hungry, and leptin is the hormone that signals to our brain that we are satiated, or full. Another hormone, cortisol, is commonly known as the “stress” hormone or the “fight or flight” hormone. Cortisol has many roles, and it may also indirectly increase our appetite by stimulating ghrelin production.

Studies have shown that sleep deprivation can impact our endocrine regulation of energy homeostasis, increasing levels of ghrelin in our blood and ultimately, increasing our feelings of hunger. Basically, this means that we are likely to feel hungrier when we don’t get a good night’s sleep.

Moreover, studies have also shown that our cortisol levels also increase with less sleep. A good night’s sleep also helps to regulate feeding behavior and choice, with higher levels of cortisol predicting stress-induced eating as well as binge-eating. Over time, this endocrine dysfunction can result in weight gain.

In addition to this complex system of hormonal regulation and its impact on our appetite, adequate sleep is important for decision-making—including decisions at meal and snack times. Sleep also impacts our energy levels; getting enough sleep means you’re more equipped to make healthy choices, including staying active throughout the day!


Q: What can I do BEFORE the holidays to help myself eat better when the time comes?
A: The day of a holiday where a big meal is traditionally served later in the day, like Thanksgiving, don’t skip meals! The act of “saving up” for the calories you plan to consume at that big meal often results in overeating and discomfort later. Eat a normal breakfast, drink plenty of water (a quick rule is to aim for half of your weight in ounces—so a 150lb person should drink 75oz) and you’ll be more likely to make healthy choices later in the day.

Around the holidays, focusing on what you CAN have versus what you CAN’T have can also be a predictor of success. Complete restriction of entire food groups or “all or nothing” thinking can set us up for the restrict-binge cycle, meaning that the act of giving yourself permission to eat your holiday favorites could actually result in you eating a normal portion of them (versus overeating).

Labeling foods as “good” vs “bad” adds a powerful emotional component to making decisions about food and identity. The act of destigmatizing foods, giving yourself permission, and practicing this mindset (believe me, it does take practice) can be very powerful! And, you can practice this year-round to prepare for more challenging times like the holidays.


Q: If you could give just one tip/change someone could do for eating holiday healthy, what would that be?
A: Focus on building a balanced plate. For most people, that means making ½ of your plate veggies, ¼ of your plate a source of protein (can be animal or plant-based), and ¼ of your plate a starch or whole grain.


Q: I tend to get some very bad heartburn the day after Thanksgiving, I call it the Black Friday Belly Burn. What foods should I avoid in order to not feel so bad on Friday
A: I’ve experienced the BFBB myself in years past! It’s likely due to consuming a larger-than-normal or higher-fat meal. To avoid feeling the burn on Friday, limit or avoid the following:

  • Alcoholic beverages
  • Fatty/greasy foods
  • Spicy foods
  • Caffeinated beverages

These things can all irritate the lining of your GI tract (which starts in your mouth!) and relax the muscle that connects our esophagus and our stomach.

It helps to wear loose-fitting clothes and avoid lying down for at least 3 hours after eating. Going for a 15-minute walk after Thanksgiving dinner might also be helpful for stimulating digestion.