Moderate Your Holiday Moderation
With the holidays now upon us, Halloween through Easter is a long time to play the moderation card and slack off on diet, exercise, and your (hopefully) healthy lifestyle. It’s actually the time when your diet should be the most healthy and “clean” as cold temperatures, travel, and holiday stress are enough to take a toll on your well-being.
“Everything in moderation” is a common line used by those trying to support their decision to eat and live a certain way, while at the same time feeling as though they need to justify their lack of discipline and dedication to their health to others. During the holidays, many people travel excessively, consume foods and alcohol they normally wouldn’t and/or shouldn’t consume, attend parties and family gathering often with people they’d rather not be around, and forego exercise and movement. Soon, their idea of moderation becomes immoderation and consequently their health and fitness falter.
You don’t need to live in an isolated air-purified bubble and eat perfectly clean and natural all the time to be healthy. However, in reality, there are many products that have no place in your diet of “moderation” if you wish to be as healthy as you possibly can. On the other hand, this also means that you need not deprive yourself of desserts and good tasting food in a healthy and nutritious diet.
High cacao content chocolate, maple syrup, and honey all have their place in a healthy diet. While eating foods that have refined sugars, high fructose corn syrup, and yes even agave, have no place in a healthy diet – even if it’s one of moderation. (Agave is super processed and has more fructose than high fructose corn syrup.) So swap out those sweeteners for pure ones. You can eat them now and then, dependent upon your health, your activity level, and how well you metabolize and digest them.
Listen to Your Body
Listening to your body means that if you eat something sweet and you’re a raging lunatic or irritable after, then hey – you shouldn’t eat that! If you get tired after eating sweets, even honey or maple syrup, then they’re not for you. But if you feel fine after some treats made with these real ingredients and you don’t have health problems which they may contribute to (e.g. pain, inflammation, a named disease), then by all means indulge – in moderation.
These foods also have a place in high intensity and long duration exercise programs. So if you ran a marathon or just exercised hard for one hour or more, having a sugary snack afterwards to replace glycogen is most often warranted – just not one loaded with fake colors, flavors, and processed ingredients. How about some sugar after a one hour walk? Nope. If you need (or crave) sugar after that walk or any light exercise then you were anaerobic (exercise at too high and intensity) and you need to work on your fitness training, not support it with the wrong foods.
Artificial flavors, colors, preservatives, and lab-made chemicals sweeteners such as sucralose (Splenda) and aspartame (Nutrasweet) should never be a part of your diet. These sweeteners are hundreds of times sweeter than sugar and they support sugar cravings in individuals and even increase insulin levels. Actually, there’s now good evidence that these sweeteners alter gut bacteria and increase blood sugar levels even though they’re not actually sugar!
Your Thanksgiving Day Turkey Coma
Many people still associate eating turkey during Thanksgiving with brain and body fatigue they get after the big feast. However, the amino acid tryptophan in the turkey is really not the culprit for the post-dinner coma. All the high carbohydrate foods, especially the sugar (including alcohol) consumed during Thanksgiving stimulate the release of insulin which then carries most of the other amino acids from the blood into the muscles, except for tryptophan. Left hanging out in the blood, and now unopposed by other amino acids, tryptophan is allowed to cross the blood brain barrier. When it does get to the brain it triggers an increase of the neurotransmitter serotonin, which has a sedating effect on your body. (Think Lexapro & Prozac if you’re familiar with these common SSRI medications.) Furthermore, this increase in serotonin can continue on and increase melatonin levels, so you get more sleepy. Melatonin is the hormone made by your pineal gland at night when it is naturally time to sleep.
But there’s more than the accentuated tryptophan-serotonin triggered by insulin that causes the post-meal drowsiness. The more stuffing, potatoes, gravy, sugary cranberry sauce, pie, and other carbohydrates consumed that result in your body producing more insulin will cause your blood sugar to eventually come crashing down, so you’ll become even more tired. Actually, over time, too many carbs, especially those refined carbs, can lead to depression – almost like Thanksgiving every day in your body, and that’s not a good thing. Then to add insult to injury, realize that your body cannot store all this sugar as glycogen for later use nor can it be used immediately for energy, so it must store it as fat. Yep – good ol’ fat on your body. This process also demands energy so you’ll feel even more depleted physically and mentally as your body works on making you fatter.
The sugar-insulin-tryptophan connection is also the reason why a warm glass of milk before bed helps some people sleep. It’s the milk sugar (lactose), not the calcium or any other nutrient in the milk. This is the same reason why some nice hotels offer a candy on the pillow or a cookie before bed to their guests. (Yeah, it’s a nice gesture too.)
Healthy Holiday Fats
How about those vegetable/nut/seed oils – the refined ones that are in so many products? Many of these oils are genetically modified (GMO) and while no one is exactly sure of the health impact of such modification, most are also inflammatory-type fats especially in the presence of sugary, carbohydrate-rich foods which they are often baked and processed with. These oils (corn, peanut, soy, safflower, canola, sunflower, cottonseed, and grapeseed), have no place in a healthy household pantry, yet they are definitely hard to completely omit from your diet if you are to venture outside your home. So moderation has its place here, but it should be contained and it definitely depends on where you choose to eat. If you’re grabbing a common Whole Foods product with canola oil now and then, maybe that’s okay, but the less you consume the healthier you’ll be. If you have health problems, even if you just feel tired, achy, or “old” then your moderation of these oils should be close to if not absolutely zero. Of course if you’re eating at some fast-food or box-type restaurant then you’re likely to be consuming oils such as soy and corn which are much unhealthier than canola. Partially hydrogenated oils (trans fats) should never be consumed. Cottonseed oil should be left for textile processing, not for human physiology. Remember, all these oils are refined and processed so they can be used for cooking; they’re far from their natural unaltered states.
Butter, coconut, red palm, lard and other pasture raised animal fats (such as duck) are the only fats you should be cooking with. Extra virgin olive oil and unrefined, untoasted sesame seed oil are great fats to add to dishes after cooking. You can heat the olive oil a bit (keep it under 325) but never the sesame seed oil as you’ll destroy the benefit of the sesamin which acts as a natural anti-inflammatory.
Drink Merrily in Moderation
Caffeine and alcohol consumption are common substances that are very individualized when they pertain to health. Moderation is a somewhat grey area here. If you need caffeine to give you energy then you’re past your point of moderation. Same goes if you need alcohol to alter your mood or wind down at the end of a long day. If you have a withdrawal headache without your typical cup(s) of Joe then again – too much. Interestingly, the more stress you’re under the more you’ll tax your adrenal gland hormones with caffeine substances and the more you’ll desire caffeine (which is a drug) to make up for that missing energy source. There are also nervous system stimulants in caffeine-containing products called methylxanthines, which will hinder your health even more at this time. Moderation here is more relative to your stress level. If your stress is higher than what you can handle then that’s what you need to moderate first. Of course, when it comes to alcohol, then moderation should always play a part. Don’t forget that alcohol is a sugar, so it follows under those same guidelines as mentioned previously.
Always a Party Somewhere
If you’re at an office holiday party or your kids are at a friend’s birthday and they’re having a traditional refined, bleached flour cake with artificial frosting made with hydrogenated oils then you can use the “everything in moderation” line, right? I’d disagree, as difficult and perhaps uncomfortable as it may be. Why teach your kids to eat like the unhealthy masses that are often sick or taking a medication most likely in large part because of their diet of moderation (excess in many cases)? My kids take a pass and bring their own treats to celebrate. They don’t need to give into the peer pressure of an unhealthy practice – one that is more than “in moderation” especially at this time of the year. There are excuses every weekend if not daily to indulge on foods that are truly damaging to your health. Moderation soon becomes a habit, the habit becomes poor health, and the poor health becomes a disease. A diet of unhealthy moderation will leave you more susceptible to the flu, winter depression, weight gain, and a slew of other health problems including perhaps the start of a major disease.
So the point here is this: moderation has its place in every aspect of health – diet, exercise, sleep, work, play, etc. Let’s not abuse the cliché line as an excuse to consume foods that are truly detrimental to health. If you can’t grow it, stay away from it. If you can grow it and it has been altered (including being sprayed with pesticides or herbicides), be aware of the consequences it may have on your health. Real, unaltered foods are where moderation has its place, based upon how you feel, react, and of course how much you enjoy the product.
I wrote this article for the December 2014/January 2015 edition of Paleo Magazine. You can view the pdf here.