EnduranceDoc's Guide to Healthy Holiday Eating

aka - How to avoid the perils of too much egg nog, turkey, and holiday cookies

As the holiday period approaches, one of the biggest concerns to endurance athletes is putting on a few excess pounds.  Various sources report that the average person gains from 2 to 7 pounds over the holiday period.  Here are some useful (and hopefully somewhat entertaining) tips to help control weight gain over this period of over-indulgence.

One thing to consider

- For starters, get off to a good start - eat a healthy breakfast.  After a full evening of heavy food and beverage consumption, people may have a tendency to skip breakfast.  Either the stomach is still feeling full from the night before or the brain is feeling a bit guilty about that third dessert, but people seem to think that skipping breakfast is a method to make up for consuming excessive calories the night before.  The problem with skipping breakfast is that by the time lunch rolls around we are seriously hungry.  Then we start looking through the fridge and next thing we know we are warming-up a huge plate of left-overs and the over-eating begins again.  People generally over-eat more when they are really hungry.  Likewise, don't show up at the holiday party with an empty stomach and a ravenous appetite.  Your caloric intake will certainly be a lot less if you have a snack beforehand and arrive at the party without your stomach rumbling in HUNGER.

- Bring your running shoes with you when you travel.  I realize that this is automatic for most people, however don't let changes in your daily routine and the unavailability of your favorite running routes be a deterrent to getting in a few runs.  Do not expect to stick to your typical training schedule (if you can, that is a huge bonus), but, if you can roll your pie-filled belly out of bed early in the morning, throw on the shoes and head out for a nice easy 30 minute or so run.  This will help burn off a few of the calories from the night before, clear your head from some of the stresses of traveling, and give you a fresh start to the day.

- Take a leisurely walk at night.  There is nothing worse for your digestion, metabolism, and heartburn then going to bed with a full stomach.  After the eating frenzy has concluded, bundle-up and head out for a nice 15 to 30 minute leisurely walk.  This really helps improve digestion and helps to burn a few calories before going to bed.

- Let's talk a little about what to eat.  One important recommendation is to eat some healthy meals in between the holiday parties.  Try to balance out the big "not so healthy" meals with some whole grain breads, fresh fruits, vegetables, yogurts, baked fish, or whatever healthy foods you prefer, or most likely, are able to acquire (if you are traveling).

- Avoid too much simple sugars.  Certainly this is a time where we all indulge in cookies, cakes, pies, and all kinds of yummy desserts; however try to cut back on simple sugar intake outside of the indulgent desserts.  Simple sugars not only applies to the obvious cakes, cookies, candies, etc.; but additionally to the "white stuff."  The "white stuff" includes white breads, white rice, regular pasta, and white potatoes.  Focus instead on whole wheat or multi-grain breads, brown rice, whole wheat pasta, and sweet potatoes (red potatoes are better than white potatoes, but sweet potatoes have more complex carbohydrates and fiber than any other potato).

- Utilize a fiber supplement.  You may be saying, "I don't have any problem going to the bathroom, why do I need a fiber supplement?"  Well, here are a few reasons:  Americans in general do not get anywhere near enough the recommended daily amounts of fiber (25 to 30 grams daily), so just about everyone could benefit from a fiber supplement.  A soluble fiber such as psyllium (Metamucil or a much less expensive generic equivalent) really does wonderful things in your intestinal tract.   Psyllium is very smart; if the stools are too hard psyllium will draw water into the intestines and soften the stools.  If the stools are too soft or watery, psyllium will absorb the water in the intestines and make the stools firmer.  Psyllium has absorptive capabilities; although there is no medical research that proves this, in theory psyllium can absorb cholesterol and fat out of the intestinal tract.  Also, medical research suggests that increased fiber in the diet lowers the risk of colon cancer.  I generally recommend mixing one tablespoon of the powder in juice, water, or milk (my preference).  Mix it good and drink it fast.  It is a little grainy, but not too bad.  If you let it sit for too long it will become thick and gelatinous.  I also recommend that you consume this before your largest meal of the day.  This tasty treat will fill you up a bit, so you may have a tendency to eat less.  A few important notes: fiber causes gas; it affects some people more than others, but you may want to "test drive" it a few times before you start using amongst large groups of friends and relatives.  Also, make sure that you drink plenty of fluids throughout the day while you are using psyllium.  As previously discussed, psyllium draws water into the intestines; well, if you are dehydrated and there is not enough water available to draw into your intestines the psyllium will have the opposite effect and you could become quite constipated...

- Try not to eat anything within 2 to 3 hours before going to bed at night.  Growth hormone is an important that helps our bodies build muscle, break-down fat, and recover.  The majority of growth hormone production occurs at night while we sleep.  However, increased blood sugar decreases growth hormone release.  After a large meal, your blood sugar transiently increases and can take up to three hours to return to normal.  Therefore to maximize growth hormone release, try not to consume any food within 2 to 3 hours before sleep.

- Allow yourself to catch up on needed sleep and rest during this period.  The average endurance athlete routinely does not get enough sleep, which, paradoxically, is a critical part of training and recovery.  The holiday period is a time when most people are working a little less hard than usual and have a few extra days off (I apologize if this does not apply to you).  Utilize these extra days to catch up on some well-needed and well-deserved sleep.  Turn off your alarm clocks and your telephones, pull the blinds all the way down and sleep till you wake up; I guarantee you that you will feel really good if you let yourself do this two or three times or more over the holidays.