The most wonderful time of the year might be wreaking havoc on the well-being of Americans, with a new survey from the American Heart Association (AHA) revealing that the holiday season is more stressful than tax season. And it’s this increase in stress that can cause people to overlook their health.

The findings, part of the AHA’s Healthy for Good initiative and conducted by Wakefield Research, shed light on the challenges adults face in prioritizing mental and physical health during the festive season. In fact, 79 percent of people surveyed agree that—during the holidays—they are so focused on creating special moments for others, they ignore their own needs.

Of the 1,000 US adults surveyed nationwide, a significant number (63 percent) claimed that the holiday season is one of the most stressful times of year. Juggling work, family, finances, and daily responsibilities while trying to fulfill holiday obligations during this time becomes overwhelming, which can lead to chronic stress for many.

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The survey uncovered that eating healthy (69 percent), exercising regularly (64 percent), and getting enough sleep (56 percent) are the top three areas that respondents have trouble prioritizing during the holiday season. Additionally, more than half of the participants (51 percent) revealed that it takes weeks to feel less stressed after the holidays, with over a quarter of mothers reporting a recovery period of one month or more.

How to stay healthy during the holidays

The demands of the holiday season can be challenging, but Noah Praamsma, MS, RDN, Nutrition Education Coordinator for the Physicians Committee for Responsible Medicine, suggests that incorporating simple healthy habits can help manage stress and enhance overall well-being. 

Praamsma emphasizes the importance of managing chronic stress and other risk factors to stay healthy during the holidays and into the New Year. “Stress can lead to unhealthful eating patterns, and unhealthful eating can lead to stress. It’s best to avoid this loop entirely if you can,” Praamsma tells VegNews. 

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“If holiday stress is inevitable, food can be a great way to minimize its impacts. A whole food, plant-based diet can give you plenty of energy to deal with stressful traveling or high-pressure holiday situations. Planning meals in advance can help reduce the stress that might otherwise come with cooking for large groups of people. And vegetables may even help regulate a stress hormone called cortisol,” Praamsma adds. 

Praamsma says that poor-quality diets, on the other hand, can negatively affect our sleep, lower our energy levels, and have been linked to anxiety and depression.

To assist individuals in maintaining healthy habits during the holidays, the AHA also recommends eating reasonable food portions and focusing on colorful fruits and vegetables. Incorporating physical activity and prioritizing sleep are also essential for overall well-being.

“A key strategy to eating a healthful diet during the holidays is making healthful foods available and easily accessible. Often, our houses and gatherings become full of ‘special foods’ around Christmas, many of which are high in fat, sugar, and even animal products,” Praamsma says. 

“Filling the pantry and refrigerator with mostly healthful foods instead of tempting sweets will make choosing the healthy option easier. The same goes for your daily meals and snacks: a plate full of the foods our bodies need makes saying no to the ones it doesn’t—such as sweet treats and animal products—easier.”

Maintaining healthy habits

Our nutrition needs don’t change during the holidays. “Eating healthful foods is important all year round,” Praamsma says. “But eating healthfully in December is especially important as flu season kicks off. A plant-based diet rich in fruits, vegetables, whole grains, and legumes contain vitamin C, zinc, and selenium that support a strong immune system.” 

Connecting with others is another vital aspect of the holiday season. Encouraging individuals to express their feelings and lean on loved ones for support can contribute to a more enjoyable and stress-free holiday experience, and foster happier and healthier hearts.

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By incorporating these simple habits, individuals can navigate the holiday hustle and bustle with greater ease, ensuring a healthier start to the New Year. “It’s never too late to start building healthy habits, but it’s also never too early. Beginning a New Year’s resolution early in December can be an excellent way to prepare for the stress of the holidays, instead of just reacting to it,” Praamsma says.

For people who are looking for a reset on January 1, Praamsma suggests thinking about how you can build healthy habits into your lifestyle. “Begin cooking the healthful recipes you already know how to make, and plan to learn new ones,” Praamsma says. “Think about where in your routine you can exercise regularly. And sleep is huge for mental and physical health.”

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