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Photo by Kendra McCarrick Beavis
Photo by Kendra McCarrick Beavis

Amid the distraction of all things holly and jolly, it’s easy to put health concerns on the back burner during the holidays. The season of thanks and generosity also happens to be a time of indulgence—lavish dinner spreads, delectable baked goods and lots of sweets. Considering all the temptations, it’s common to forget about the basics that maintain proper health the rest of the year. We asked some area health experts to offer a few morsels of advice on staying well this holiday season—in both body and mind.

The biggest culprit in sabotaging diet and health during the holiday season is overindulgence, according to Dr. Alexis Hugelmeyer, medical director and family physician at The Suah Center in Riverhead. “We actually see an increase in hospitalizations due to heart attacks, congestive heart failure and abnormal heart rhythm during the holiday season,” she said.

Devouring those rich holiday meals means you’re likely exposing yourself to high levels of sodium, or salt, which can drive up blood pressure. Combining high blood pressure with alcohol can lead to abnormal heart rhythm, Dr. Hugelmeyer said. Add to the mix the stress of the season and it can prove too much for many unsuspecting adults.

Those with diabetes should always pay special attention to their sugar intake, especially once the dessert table is unveiled. It’s important to monitor not only the sugary cocktails and homemade cranberry sauces, but also carbohydrates from the meal’s previous courses. If you know that apple pie or sugar cookie will be too good to pass up, plan ahead and eat lightly during the main course.

“If you fall off track one day, that doesn’t mean your diet is ruined,” Dr. Hugelmeyer said. One of the best ways to stay the course is to give away leftovers, even if they make the perfect midnight snack. Pick up containers ahead of time and prepare doggie bags for friends and family—your waistline will thank you later.

The family cook should also think about preparing meals on the lighter side, and perhaps reconsider adding a lot of shortening or a huge stick of margarine to the recipe. Both are major sources of trans fat, which raises your bad (LDL) cholesterol and lower your good (HDL) cholesterol, and has been linked to increased risk of coronary heart disease, according to the American Heart Association.

The cook should also consider serving the main meal earlier in the day. You want to enjoy dinner and dessert, but keep in mind that the body needs time to metabolize all those calories before bedtime when digestion slows down.

After the meal, instead of plopping down on the couch, round up the troops for a short walk to jump-start the digestive process, which in turn boosts metabolism, Dr. Hugelmeyer said. “One of my family traditions after Christmas and Easter is that we all go for a walk around the block together,” she said. You can also kick-start your metabolism by drinking a glass of water a few minutes before eating, which may minimize the urge to overeat, she said.

April Yakaboski, owner and yoga instructor at Aerial Fitness and Hot Yoga in Riverhead, recommends getting into a healthy routine before the holiday temptations even hit. “Prevention is the best cure,” Ms. Yakaboski said. Starting a healthy workout routine now will help with eating habits during the high season. “Because you’re putting in the effort at the gym, you’ll know how hard you’ve worked to be healthy, so you may not grab that cookie,” she said.

Despite the joys the season brings, those planning and hosting holiday events can often become overwhelmed and stressed. Susan Dingle, a therapist and licensed clinical social worker in Southold, offered a few tips to deal with the emotional pitfalls that accompany holiday celebrations.

Strained family relationships can often flare up at the holidays and can make it feel like there’s an “elephant in the living room,” Ms. Dingle said. Conflict tends to lead to a breakdown in communication, which can spiral out of control and become a full-on family feud—and you do not want family tension to ruin the celebration.

“The most important thing is to not get caught in the middle of someone else’s dispute,” she said.  “If the parties try to recruit you to their side, just assure them you love them both and trust they can work it out themselves. Offer general support and acknowledgment, but assure them you have confidence they can work it out if they want to.”

The loss of a loved one can be especially difficult to deal with during family-centered holidays, Ms. Dingle said. To work through those feelings—which can arise no matter how recently or long ago the loss occured—she recommends accepting the sadness as part of the holiday. “I would say honor the loss in some special way and be true to your feelings. If we accept our feelings and not judge them, we’ll notice that the feelings do pass,” she said.

Finally, don’t forget about yourself in all the holiday hoopla. Hosts often neglect their own well being, but Ms. Dingle suggests “giving yourself a timeout in which you can pay attention to your own needs. The basics, like: Did you eat today? Can you take a few minutes to look at the sky? Remember what you’re grateful for and what’s most important to you. Ms. Dingle said she has “learned that the more people tune in to the intangible aspects of the holidays—the values of love, kindness and gratitude—the easier it is to deal with the stresses and disappointments.”