Find a healthful path around the pantry and fridge this holiday season

Find a healthful path around the pantry and fridge this holiday season

Design: Lorena Lopez/University of Miami
By Life@TheU

Design: Lorena Lopez/University of Miami

Find a healthful path around the pantry and fridge this holiday season

By Life@TheU
Learn from University of Miami Health System experts who can help support your health and well-being.

With the holiday season usually comes a variety of gatherings, which almost always involve food and beverages. And while the pandemic may have reduced the number of events, many individuals may experience challenges making healthy choices or sticking to a restrictive diet while facing the temptation of delectable holiday treats. Unwanted stomach or gastrointestinal issues can ruin anyone’s day, let alone knock one off the healthy course. Here are some helpful reminders from experts at the University of Miami Health System, including ways to make positive food choices that promote health.

Stomach issues—food and inflammation.

Known as the body’s natural response to fighting infection, injury, and toxins, inflammation can damage healthy cells, tissues, and organs when widespread and chronic. It can lead to a number of issues including fatigue, fever, mouth sores, rashes, abdominal pain, and chest pain. Over time, the response can contribute to life-threatening conditions like cancer, heart disease, rheumatoid arthritis, type 2 diabetes, asthma, and Alzheimer’s disease. 

Chronic, widespread inflammation is commonly caused by excess body fat, particularly visceral fat stored around major organs and in the belly area. What you eat and refrain from eating—specifically sugar and animal products—can impact your body’s inflammatory response and waistline. But consuming a variety of colorful foods—or a rainbow of antioxidants and phytochemicals—can help maximize the nutritional value of your diet, according to Lesley Klein, a dietitian with Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center at the University of Miami Health System. Each color of food is beneficial for reducing the risk and advancement of different health conditions. Learn more about food and how to get the most health benefits out of your diet.

Food and mental health.

Individuals with eating disorders struggle with the symptoms on a daily basis. Per the American Psychiatric Association, the three primary eating disorders—anorexia nervosa, bulimia nervosa, and binge-eating disorder—are conditions that involve disturbances in typical eating patterns along with unhealthy thoughts around food and body image. During the COVID-19 pandemic, the number of people in the United States experiencing worsening symptoms has increased, according to Dr. Michelle Pearlman, a gastroenterologist at the University of Miami Health System. 

At the root, individuals with eating disorders struggle with mental health, leading them to often experience anxiety and obsessive-compulsive disorder, according to the American Psychological Association. During a pandemic, feelings of uncertainty—about falling ill, meeting basic needs, and being able to pay the bills—have escalated these concerns making life more challenging and making it easier to feel isolated, anxious, and depressed. Learn more about eating disorders and how to manage symptoms.

When stressed, individuals often turn to emotional overeating or opt for starchy, crunchy comfort foods. On occasion, these food choices are OK, according to Federika Garcia, a clinical oncology registered dietitian at the Sylvester Comprehensive Cancer Center. But she stresses the importance of including more nutritious foods that will support the immune system, especially when under pressure. Learn about mindful eating and how to snack wisely.

Lead by example.

When it comes to food and nutrition, parents may find it challenging to teach their children to lead a healthy lifestyle, particularly if they themselves struggle to maintain a fit body weight. In the U.S., where one in five children qualifies as obese, one of the biggest determinants of a child’s weight is the parents’ example.

For children to develop healthy habits, parents must set the example and make being hearty a way of life in the home, according to Dr. Amanda Fifi, a pediatric gastroenterologist and the director of pediatric nutrition at the University of Miami Health System. She suggests that every member of the family should be eating in the same sensible way and should be active for some part of the day, without framing it as “exercise.” Learn more ways to incorporate healthy habits as a family, such as involving older children in buying and preparing food. 

For parents struggling with picky eaters, there are several suggested ways to approach your child. Among the results of a recent study, researchers found that forcing food on kids reinforces pickiness, and this fussiness becomes ingrained around age four. But parents should be patient, suggests Dr. Oneith O. Cadiz, a pediatrics expert at the University of Miami Health System, who notes that behaviors that are reinforced with attention—positive or negative—will persist. Find more tips for handling the picky eaters in your family.

Make your way around the grocery store.

Food shopping during a pandemic can be daunting, particularly for people with diabetes. Learn to get in and out of the store efficiently with recommendations from Maddison Saalinger, a registered dietitian; and Shelley Nicholls, a certified diabetes care and education specialist and nurse practitioner at the University’s Diabetes Research Institute. Their tips—whether you plan to visit the store or place an order to have your groceries delivered—include planning, list-making, and buying seasonal produce. Learn more.

Learn to manage leftovers.

With many of us cooking at home or ordering takeout and delivery from restaurants, it’s important to avoid eating food that has spoiled. Dr. Michelle Pearlman, a gastroenterologist at the University of Miami Health System, warns that spoiled food can lead to gastroenteritis (bacterial and viral infection), stomach upset, diarrhea, and vomiting. Pay attention to expiration dates on packaging for store-bought items and safely store them in the fridge or freezer, depending on how long you plan to store them before use. Learn more about leftovers and food safety.

Consider the benefits of a plant-based diet.

Making changes to your diet and opting for plant-based foods can help you combat heart disease—the leading cause of death in the U.S. The impact of these changes can be seen not only in weight loss and improved mental clarity, but also with elimination of medications and reversal of diseases like diabetes, as observed by Sabine Gempel, a board-certified cardiovascular and pulmonary specialist and a physical therapist at the University of Miami Health System's Cardiopulmonary Rehabilitation Program. Since diabetes increases the risk of cardiovascular disease—which increases the risk of negative COVID-19 outcomes—a plant-based diet can positively impact your overall health.

Despite all the benefits, many people have a preconceived notion about protein consumption and are concerned about not getting enough protein from eating vegan and vegetarian foods. But, Gempel believes fruits, veggies, beans, legumes, and whole grains might be a simple solution. Start small and find strategies to make changes to your lifestyle and diet.

Food and exercise.

Whether you’re going for a long-distance run, practicing yoga, or lifting weights, your body will need fuel to keep you going and get stronger. Knowing when and what to ingest—including protein, carbohydrates, fluids, vitamins, and minerals—can encourage muscle growth and recovery. As noted by Jason Stevenson, a registered dietitian/nutritionist and board-certified sports dietitian with the University of Miami Health System, consuming the right kind of protein and carbohydrates before exercise has more impact on your body composition and performance than what you do post-workout. Get more exercise and nutrition tips.


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Live Well with UHealth is a series that highlights curated content from articles previously published on UMiami Health News, a website that shares health tips and insights into research discoveries that change lives, brought to you by the experts at the University of Miami Health System. This story highlights the following articles.