Enjoy the holidays and make healthy choices

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The holidays can be a time of great joy, bringing back cherished memories - and creating new ones in our lives - as we gather with our loved ones to celebrate. But the holidays also can be a time of great emotional and physical stress for any number of personal reasons.

So it's no wonder many of us struggle with our moods this time of year. But we don't always connect our moods to the foods we eat. The scientific truth is that the foods we eat can either aggravate or alleviate our stress. It's a matter of choice and balance. And it's not so much about the quantity of food we consume. It's about the quality of that food. There are simple ways to fully enjoy the holidays and the wonderful foods around us in a way that brings us into the New Year in a much happier, healthier place

Be careful with sugar and processed carbohydrates

We're inundated with temptation this time of year. Everywhere we look, there's something to remind us of just how delicious the season can be. Candies, cookies, pastries and other treats beckon. While they taste fantastic and light up our brains for that one sweet moment, these refined sugar and flour-based foods wreak havoc with our metabolism.

For generations, we failed to realize how dangerous processed carbohydrates are. We now know they are a central villain in a wide range of health problems, including diabetes and heart disease. It's perfectly OK to have and enjoy them. But do so in moderation, combined on your holiday plate with plenty of healthier choices.

Eat all the veggies your heart desires

Not all carbohydrates are bad. All vegetables contain carbohydrates and are very good for us, especially root vegetables, squash, sweet potatoes and greens. Your holiday plate should be dominated by them. Add plenty of fruit to the mix. These are powerhouse foods. Not only do they provide vitamins, minerals and other nutrients, but they are packed with fiber, which naturally satiates you and lowers the impulse to overeat. They also can help reduce pain and inflammation in a way that gives you more energy and makes you feel happier, more resilient.

Go for the healthy fats

One food form which has made a comeback in the past year has been healthy fat sources like butter, eggs, whole-fat dairy, sour cream, nuts, avocados, olive oil, fish and healthy-sourced meat. These foods are the best way to diminish your craving for carbohydrates, lift your energy, boost your metabolism and actually help you lose weight.

You don't have to trim away all the fat from your meat, poultry and fish. If you like butter on your vegetables, go for it. Even though nuts are high in calories, they are healthy fat sources. They will make you more satiated. Here's an easy tip: If you're heading to a party, have a handful of nuts or half an avocado at home before you leave. You will be less tempted when the hors d'oeuvre tray comes around.

Restrict your eating to a 12-hour window

Just look at the clock. Consume all of your food for the day within a 12-hour period. If you're having breakfast at 7 a.m., know that your eating-day ends at 7 p.m. By giving yourself 12 hours of overnight fasting, you will start the next day in a much better metabolic place. Focus on mindful eating portions

Take the time to truly appreciate your food, chew slowly and limit your intake. Let your senses fully absorb the beauty of your meal — the wonderful flavors and scents, the colors, the textures and the people around you.

Thriving through the holidays is, in so many ways, about loving yourself and loving the foods that love you back. Celebrate this season gratefully in a way that prepares you for an even healthier year ahead.

Mark Pettus, MD, is Director of Medical Education and Medical Director of Wellness and Population Health at Berkshire Health Systems. He is the author of The Savvy Patient: The Ultimate Advocate For Quality Health Care, and It's All in Your Head: Change Your Mind, Change Your Health.

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