Surviving the Holidays with Food Restrictions

Surviving the Holidays with Food Restrictions

As we head into the holidays, food takes center stage in many a celebration.  While it is wonderful to break bread with friends and relations, it can be a tremendous source of stress when your body is unhappy with some of our most common ingredients and cherished traditional foods. And at this time of year food has this crazy emotional hold on us!! Stress, obligations, extra social events and just plain old nostalgia all have a way of changing our routine and burying even the strongest of wills! The sights and smells stoke a powerful cephalic response that can have your mouth watering in seconds… it’s game over!

I do believe food should be shared in love and social circles, and I cherish the many traditions of old – in fact, it is a wonderful, nourishing thing to do. As a nutritionist, I love a healthy celebration with slow foods and joyful traditions. The issue is when, for one reason or another, we do not do well with a particular food…To say nothing of just trying to make more healthy choices than not….!

There can be any number of reasons why some foods just don’t agree, from allergies and sensitivities, illness, chronic disease like diabetes, thyroid conditions, autoimmune disease to anxiety, depression, dementia or head injury. I have heard the naysayers who believe all this restriction is ridiculous, but like it or not, there are those times when some restriction or elimination is the key to restoring health, or at least reducing symptoms.

Worse unfortunately, are the substitute foods which are equally unhealthy if some things are added to make them like the real thing. I often don’t recommend the substitutions, although they may be acceptable once in a while for special events.

If all goes well, over time and with a skilled nutrition practitioner you may be able to reduce the number of foods you eliminate. The degree of flexibility you have is highly individual. Your goals, the severity of reactions, or the impact on your progress all factor in. There is no one-size fits all. If you have to be very strict, I recommend coaching so that will-power is not your only strategy, and to help identify solutions to help combat that feeling of being left out.

As someone who endured years of terrible digestion, weight battles and a concussion before becoming a nutritionist – I know a thing or two about how missing out on favourite foods feels – I don’t wish it on anyone. And I will never forget how pathetic some people made me feel. My clients report just how rude some family and acquaintances can be about eliminations. But I do know how powerful it can be to reduce the inflammatory burden on the body – regardless of the root cause, and many of my clients do too. Because it is so valuable and because it’s such a struggle, I have made it a major practice focus to help people stay on track.

I am fortunate… the foods I avoid now are mostly a matter of choice. I choose to eat more nutrient dense, anti-inflammatory, low glycemic, and reduced toxin, whole foods than not. But… I do enjoy the odd treat, because I can – I am in a much better place.

The most common foods to eliminate are gluten grains (wheat, rye, barley, spelt, kamut), soy and dairy, which seem to be the backbone of virtually every holiday food. Celiac clients usually need to eliminate both, and corn as well. Gluten is forever off their list.

So… back to the holidays. What are we to do?! Take heart… Whether you are a guest or host… check out some suggestions to help keep the holidays bright.

Hosting Strategies

  • Ask your guests to identify any problem foods. No one likes to stand out or be a bother, so be sure to provide a private way to respond.
  • Let people know what you can and cannot do. For example, you may not be able to guarantee a nut-free kitchen, or realistically separate gluten from non gluten foods. Be very honest.  
  • Probably one of the easiest ways to get a number of options is to search for paleo recipes. You will quickly find everything from full meals to hors d’oeuvres sure to get your mouth watering and satisfy anyone eating an omnivore diet! From cauliflower hummus and veggies, to cashew dips – there are many wonderful choices. And if the person avoiding foods is an ethical vegan, not avoiding allergens, there is a whole world of recipes available.
  • Roasted vegetables with tahini dressings can be rich, flavourful and work for vegans and omnivores alike. Or roast them, cool, and toss in salads like quinoa and sweet potato with roasted cranberries.
  • Fruit and Nuts can be delicious all on their own. Place around the gathering to give an extra choice to guests.
  • Rice wrapped items are always a hit. Think of both your vegetarian and meat eating guests and go for some variety of fillers.
  • Sushi often avoids common allergens but ensure seafood is ok for all your guests if you are choosing fish.
  • Skewered meats and vegetables are likely to be a hit – serve with a variety of sauces. Easy does it with soy as it is common item to be removed.
  • Salmon with red onion and capers is flavourful. The quercetin in the onion and capers is also helpful for reducing excess histamine from alcohol, and many common holiday foods like charcuterie and seafood. The red onion is also helpful to combat the dreaded nitrates in the cured foods we like to have at parties! Serve on cucumber slices and even the low-carb crowd will be happy.
  • Make a gorgeous vegetable tray. Colour, variety and volume will help make it appealing. Take a cue from caterers and line your tray with curly kale or lettuce to make it look beautiful. Edible flowers can take it up another notch. It always surprises me that my vegetable trays are often the first thing to disappear!! Tastes are changing. A variety of dips will help bring something or everyone – hummus, cashew dip, artichoke dip, olive tapenade, herbed olive oil and balsamic vinegar are all delicious.
  • Your local health food store will likely have a variety of grain-free, seed and nut crackers. Even better, try making a dehydrator version if you have access to one. While there seems to be an infinite variety available in stores, baking the delicate omega 3 and 6 oils is not desirable – dehydrating them avoids high temperatures.
  • Check your labels!!! Gluten, dairy, corn and soy hide in the most surprising places like:
    • Store bought broths
    • Spice mixes and rubs
    • Herbal teas, especially Christmas ones like gingerbread or pumpkin spice
    • Marinades and sauces

Guest Strategies:

  • Consider having food before your event. That way you won’t be as hungry and tempted to break down due to lack of choice. It will be easier to say no if you are at least fed.
  • If you have a serious allergy or reaction, be sure to inform your host, so they do not feel bad that you are not eating a thing. Better yet, offer to bring a dish you can eat and share!
  • If enzymes, probiotics and digestive aids have been recommended, be sure to pack them for your meals and complex snacks.
  • Slow down! Chew thoroughly! Practice gratitude before your meals, and relax. This will all help support digestion and give your body time to register food, to help avoid overeating.
  • Sparkling water with mashed fruits and herbs is absolutely delicious! Skip alcohol of you are on a brain or elimination plan and enjoy fresh sippers of fruit and herbs instead.
  • Consider, with your practitioner’s advice, whether a time restricted feeding window is a viable option for your holiday fueling. This can help with overeating. Be sure to get advice first though. Although it will work for many people, this is not advised for some conditions.
  • Eat nutrient dense, low glycemic, whole foods during the rest of the holidays, so that you minimize cravings. Salads, high quality meats and fish, steamed cruciferous vegetables and anti-inflammatory herbs like garlic, ginger and turmeric can help tame cravings.
  • Don’t let one event derail you!! I cannot tell you how many clients report that the one event they had, turned into a whole week, they later regret. Understand that you may be stoking cravings for various hyper-palatable foods because of how they make you feel, and having nothing to do with nutrients – in fact, often the foods we crave are a clue, but not because they actually deliver a nutrient, but rather, they elicit a chemical response that feels good.
  • Last but not least, remember – willpower is not a great strategy – it usually fails.. Especially if you are sick, allergic, stressed or tired. I teach this to all my clients and arm them with the science of lifestyle change. It’s important to know. We spend so much time blaming it, not moving past it, held hostage by it… What we need are strategies to rig our environment in our favour, and succeed despite willpower. So… for the holidays – be ruthless in controlling the environments you have in your control, and be gentle in your self judgement when you can’t.

I would love to wave a wand to let us eat anything without consequences, but that’s just not where the modern food chain and human health trajectory has taken us.

For more on this, attend one of my workshops of Food and Mood, The Evolution of Food, Science of Taste and Cravings, How to Live Like a Human and more!

Be well or get workin’ on it!

Love, Virginia



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