Pain-free eating for the holidays

Pain-free eating for the holidays

The Clearing Team
The Clearing Team

A little bit of inflammation, like a little bit of turkey at Thanksgiving, perhaps, is a good thing. You probably hear a lot about inflammation being bad for you, but it’s usually a sign of the body trying to heal. Inflammation happens as your body releases chemicals to combat infection. These chemicals excel at combating infection and dampening the harmful effects of bacteria, viruses and other germs, but they also affect healthy tissues in your body. As these tissues try to heal, it’s common for them to feel warm or sore. Over time, prolonged, heightened inflammation can lead to experiencing chronic pain.

If inflammation is something you have to deal with regularly, and if it causes you pain, you may want to prevent or decrease it. You can do this by interrupting cycles of inflammation and staying away from things that trigger inflammation. 

Eating low inflammation foods during the holidays 

Of course, eating during the holidays can take on a whole different level of importance, for better and worse. You may be surrounded by more, probably richer foods than usual, and you may also sometimes be stressed by all the seasonal bustle (which can make it more difficult to choose the dishes that will best support you). 

Moderation, as with many things, is key. Sometimes, swearing off favorite foods or trying to avoid them altogether proves counterproductive, so we think it can be more helpful to use good judgment and to still enjoy yourself. Rather than trying to “eat perfectly,” try eating in a balanced way, picking a little more of what will help you and a little less of what could undermine you. Remember, food is medicine, too.

It turns out the winter holidays can sometimes be great for anti-inflammatory eating, since so many dishes feature the bright, vibrant kinds of fruits and vegetables that are stuffed with antioxidants. With some foresight, judicious planning and discipline in the moment, you can pinpoint the foods that will keep your joints and muscles as pain-free as possible while also pleasing your tongue.

  • The oranges, berries, and cranberries found in many kinds of holiday relishes, for example, help manage inflammation, so it’s worth heaping them on your plate, especially if those relishes don’t contain too much sugar. 
  • Roasted almonds or pecans make for great snacking, and can be mixed with dried cranberries for extra vitamins. 
  • When it comes to mains, steer toward non-fried options like baked chicken and pick sides that star carrots or beets, which brighten your plate while adding beta carotene and selenium to soothe inflammation. 
  • A celebratory salad of arugula, spinach, and nuts, topped with grilled salmon and dressed with olive oil and balsamic vinaigrette is another strong choice. 
  • For dessert, steer toward treats made with dates or fruits rather than sugar-stuffed indulgences. Goodbye chocolate cream pie, perhaps, but hello, warm, cinnamon apple crumble.

Eating strategies that set you up for success

On the flip side are the foods to avoid. Many people dread holiday stress related to foods, since treasured dishes are such an important part of celebrating. It can be hard to feel that you have to nag yourself, deny yourself, or pretend you don’t want seconds. Rather than focusing on feeling denied, deprived, or blocked, some people practice realistic strategies to help guide them through all the many choices that come with piled-high tables. 

  1. Success through substitution: One strategy is to find an acceptable substitute for the foods you’re choosing to cut back on. Rather than “just saying no” to cookies or a slice of pie, you can choose a dessert with lower sugar and more fruit, such as a berry cobbler. You can replace mashed potatoes with mashed cauliflower, and french fries with baked yam slices. 
  2. Enjoy, but cut back a little: Another strategy is to eat a little less of your favorite things without scolding yourself or trying to make yourself feel bad for enjoying them. Cut that slice of cake in half. Opt for sprinkles of a strong-flavored cheese instead of cream sauces. Get creative!
  3. Go slow: For a third strategy, try to eat more slowly. Savor every bite. Let yourself enjoy what you’re eating, and notice what flavors you’re enjoying most. Maybe it’s the cinnamon and nutmeg in the pumpkin pie, for example, and not only the sugar. Maybe you can try making your own version of these desserts that include your favorite flavors as well as lower-inflammation sweeteners like honey or maple syrup. 

We can surprise ourselves, if we give ourselves enough time to try new things, to adjust to and learn to love them. A low-sugar life doesn’t have to be horrible, in other words, and the right spices and cooking methods can help make up for the frying and fats you’re cutting back on for your overall health.

You have the right to enjoy what you’re eating, and there’s nothing to be gained by berating yourself or turning the holidays into a struggle around guilt and frustration. Though fats and sugar can increase inflammatory responses, there are many reasons we crave and enjoy them. It’s better to slowly master strategies like substitution, reduction, and simple enjoyment than to try cutting everything “bad” out all at once. After all, the stress of worrying about food choices can itself increase inflammation, so you’ll want to set yourself up for success.

Tips for low-stress, low-inflammation eating

A few more guidelines to help you pick low-inflammation foods include:

  • Choose maple syrup, honey, or sugar substitutes over processed cane sugars
  • Pick bright, colorful fruits and vegetables...some people even advise trying to “eat a rainbow” every day
  • Steer away from red meat and salty meat (no jerky, salami or ham, if possible)
  • If you can stand it, hot peppers may help curb chronic pain, due to the capsaicin they contain (while research isn’t yet conclusive, some doctors see benefits to eating spicy foods)
  • Refined carbs aren’t as much your friend as whole grains are. Choose darker, seedier breads whenever you can
  • Pick grilled things over fried things (so, grilled fish instead of fish sticks and baked rather than fried chicken)
  • Add splashes of flavor with your favorite spices, sauces, and marinades 
  • If you have the choice between olive oil and butter, choose olive oil
  • Fiber is a fantastic choice to keep your gut bacteria balanced and well fed, so you won’t experience as many digestive issues. Say yes to bran, beans, lentils and fruits 
  • In addition to fiber, keep your gut bacteria happy with fermented foods like sauerkraut, kimchi, and others foods that incorporate vinegar 
  • Kefir, yogurt and other probiotic-promoting foods can help your gut feel stable, especially when it’s handling a lot more richer foods than usual
  • Cytokine-reducing substances and antioxidants, found in many dark green, fluffy vegetables like broccoli, collard greens and kale, can help cut inflammation while adding needed vitamins
  • Wondering if specific spices and flavorings might help? They can! Garlic, turmeric, curry and ginger are all inflammation-lowering choices that happen to taste amazing
  • Everything in moderation, including alcohol. Alcohol tends to hold a lot of sugars, which can make both your inflammation and your chronic pain worse. So low alcohol beverages, or drinks featuring cranberry juice or cherry juice make better holiday choices. If you do decide to drink, opt for wine 

To sum it up...make low-inflammation eating personal 

That’s a lot of information, and it’s not always easy to know which foods work best for you. A food journal can help you pinpoint which foods make you feel better and which make you feel worse. Over time, you’ll gain awareness of what works personally for you, which will help you build a strong foundation of eating choices. 

Remember that as you get used to making the same kinds of choices over and over, it’ll get easier. Certain foods may start to lose their appeal, while you may also start to feel more drawn to healthier options. With a little time and curiosity, your new food choices could become habits before you know it, which makes eating less stressful and more enjoyable in general. You can also enlist friends and family members in your eating strategies, since eating well together is usually better!

Here at Clearing, we wish you truly wonderful holidays full of fun, flavor, and fantastic memories.

This article is for informational purposes only and does not constitute professional medical advice. Always seek the advice of your healthcare professional with any questions or concerns you may have regarding your individual needs and medical conditions.