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Thyroid Health Challenge: Eating Well During The Holiday Season

With the holiday season approaching I figured it would be a good idea to discuss some “healthy eating strategies” for those who are following a strict diet.  When I dealt with Graves’ Disease many years ago I started my natural treatment protocol in the fall, and so I also had to avoid many of the foods I was accustomed to eating during Thanksgiving and the rest of the holiday season.  It admittedly was a challenge, but believe me when I say that it is worth making the sacrifice.  And it’s also important to understand that you can still have a wonderful holiday season even when eating a restricted diet.

When I talk about a “restrictive” diet I’m mainly referring to an autoimmune Paleo diet [1].  However, even following a standard Paleo diet is challenging for many people.  Of course this depends on the person, as if someone is following an autoimmune Paleo diet for a couple of months and then makes the transition to a standard Paleo diet, many of these people will find the standard Paleo diet easy to follow since they have a few more food choices.  On the other hand, if someone is used to eating a lot of refined foods and sugars, along with fast food, then they probably will find a standard Paleo diet to be very challenging to follow.

Is Cheating Allowed During The Holiday Season?

I know that for some people this question will seem like a silly one to ask.  But every year I get asked this question from at least a few patients.  Of course they might not use the word “cheating”, as everyone will word this question differently.  By the way, some people hate using the word “cheating” when it comes to eating foods that are not permitted on a specific diet.  And I can understand this, as most people associate the word “cheating” with being dishonest, and one of the definitions of cheating is to “act dishonestly or unfairly in order to gain an advantage”.  So perhaps it would be best not to use the word “cheating” and instead ask if “straying” from the diet is allowed.

Here are a just a few examples of how people will ask if they can stray from the diet they are following:

Although you can make the argument that the holiday season is one of the toughest times to follow a strict diet, the truth is that throughout the year there are many occasions where you can try to justify straying from the diet.  Here is just a short list:

I realize that most people want to get well, and many people are willing to follow a strict diet, regardless of the time of year.  On the other hand, many people will postpone getting well until after the holiday season, which I think is a big mistake.  For most people the holiday season starts around Thanksgiving and ends after the New Year, and so we’re talking about delaying your quest to improve your health for 5 to 6 weeks.  Instead of doing this, just think of how good you will feel on the first day of 2018 if you spend the holiday season focusing on improving your health, and not doing things that will worsen it.

Yes, I realize that for some people this is easier said than done, but that’s why I decided to write this blog post.  For those who are striving to get into a state of remission, I want to not only encourage you to eat well during the holiday season, but I also want to give you some useful information to make it a little easier to eat well during this time.  So with that being said, here are ten action steps you can take to set yourself up for success during the holiday season:

1. Try to eat at home as much as you can.  This is the best way to ensure that you will stick to the diet, as you of course can control what you bring into your own home.  This is assuming that the rest of your family is on board.  While I realize that everyone in the household may not follow the same restrictive diet (i.e. autoimmune Paleo diet), hopefully you can at least convince them to give up the main common allergens, including gluten [2]and dairy [3].

2. If traveling for the holidays, stay somewhere where you can cook your own meals.  It can be very challenging to follow a strict diet while out of town, but you can do it if you prepare ahead of time.  For example, if you are staying at a hotel, try to stay at a place where there is a kitchenette so that you have access not only to a refrigerator, but a stove as well.  And it would be great if the place you’re staying at is located within driving distance of a Whole Foods, Trader Joes, or another health food store.  Of course these days most other grocery stores sell organic and gluten free food, but you will usually have a better selection of organic food at a health food store.

If you would like to go out to eat while out of town, do some research ahead of time.  While you can start by looking up some of the local restaurants, another approach is to call a few local health food stores and ask if they have any suggestions with regards to healthier restaurants that have organic and/or gluten free options.

If you are staying with friends or family members for the holiday season, then hopefully they understand your situation and are open to you preparing your own meals, or to at least assist with the cooking.  They might even be willing to prepare some dishes that you can eat, although this is where you have to be careful, as if they aren’t health-oriented then they might unintentionally add ingredients that include some of the excluded foods.  For example, if they make a turkey for Thanksgiving, they might add seasoning that has one or more “forbidden” ingredients, such as gluten.  I realize that some people will feel too embarrassed to explain their dietary restrictions to the host, but doing so can be important in order to avoid being exposed to an ingredient that might have a negative effect on your health.

3. If invited to someone’s home for the holidays either decline, or ask if you can bring your own dish.  While you understandably might feel the need to go to a holiday party hosted by a close friend or family member, if someone who isn’t a family member or close friend invites you to a party feel free to decline.  Of course it’s up to you as to whether or not you tell them why you can’t go.  Another option is to ask the host if you can bring your own dish.  This way you will know that you will at least be able to eat one entree while at the party.

4. Never go to a holiday party hungry.  If you get invited to a holiday party and decide to go, or have one at your place of work, try not to show up to the party hungry.  I know it might seem rude to eat a meal before going to a party, or to bring some healthy snacks along.  Depending on the size of the party the host might not even notice that you’re not eating anything, and perhaps you’ll get lucky and there will be something there you can eat.  But since you won’t know this until you arrive at the party it’s best to be prepared beforehand by eating something before you leave.

5. Not eating is better than eating unhealthy foods.  If you’re in a situation where you are surrounded by unhealthy foods, don’t feel like you need to eat something.  For example, let’s pretend that you were invited the last minute to a holiday party but you didn’t have time to eat a meal beforehand, and you forgot to bring a healthy snack.  So you’re faced with a situation where you either have to eat some unhealthy foods, or you need to skip a meal.  I realize this is an unlikely scenario for most people, but if the scenario arises feel free to skip the meal!

6. Always carry some healthy snacks.  In order to prevent a situation like the one I just described, try to carry one or two snacks with you at all times.  Even if you don’t plan on being out for a long time you never know how the day will turn out.  For example, you might get stuck in a major traffic jam for a couple of hours or get a flat tire.  For some healthy snack suggestions please read a blog post I wrote entitled “9 Healthy Snacks For Graves’ Disease and Hashimoto’s Thyroiditis [4]”.

7. If you eat out take a gluten-digesting enzyme [5] with your meal.  Although you want to do everything you can to avoid eating any “excluded” foods, if you’re in a situation where you might be exposed to gluten or dairy then consider taking a digestive enzyme that breaks these down, as there are a few different companies that sell these.  Just keep in mind that these enzymes don’t completely degrade the proteins of gluten and dairy, and as a result it is not intended for those with Celiac disease [6] or a non-Celiac gluten sensitivity, or those with a dairy allergy or sensitivity.

8. Try to get creative with your cooking.  One of the big problems many people have with following a restrictive diet is the lack of variety.  In other words, they eat the same foods every day, and as a result they get bored.  I honestly can’t say that I’m creative in the kitchen (quite the opposite), but this doesn’t mean that YOU can’t be creative.  Purchase a few recipe books, and if necessary do some batch cooking.  So for example, if you don’t have time to prepare meals during the week you can block out a few hours on the weekend and prepare all of your meals ahead of time for the upcoming week.

9. Mentally prepare yourself for the holiday season.  Just about everyone can follow a strict diet during the holiday season, but some people have a more challenging time doing this than others.  And while stress and other factors can play a role, many times the reason why people stray from the diet is because they aren’t mentally prepared.  I realize that this might be easier said than done, but I know that when I followed a strict diet for my Graves’ Disease condition I didn’t start this diet the day after I was diagnosed.  Although there was no question in my mind that I was going to succeed with the diet, I needed to mentally prepare myself and set a starting date.

And I do the same thing whenever I choose to follow a 21-day detoxification, which also involves following a strict diet.  While I’m sure that some people might spontaneously decide to follow a strict diet immediately, many people need to set a start date, and then mentally prepare themselves for this.  And while many people set a start date of January 1st, you of course can choose any date you’d like, and as mentioned earlier I encourage you to start sooner than later if at all possible.

10. If you stray from the diet simply get back on track.  Regardless of the amount of preparation someone makes, they still might stray from the diet.  Although I would try to be as strict as you can, if you do happen to stray from the diet don’t get stressed out or feel guilty.  Sure, it might set you back a little, but the only thing you can do is get back on track.

So for those who are planning to follow a strict diet during the upcoming holiday season, I’m hoping that this post not only will provide you with some action steps you can take, but hopefully it will also motivate you and give you a feeling that you can succeed. Sure, I realize that following a strict diet during the holiday season isn’t easy.  But let’s face it, following a strict diet isn’t easy regardless of the time of year.  And the benefit of following a strict diet during the holiday season is that once the New Year arrives you will know that the toughest days are likely behind you.  And I didn’t even mention that after one or two months you might be able to reintroduce some other foods, which of course will make it even easier to follow.