Last year, I sent out my holiday newsletter with a three-step plan for approaching health during this festive season. This year, I expanded the plan to five steps with the addition of practical tips from the Levels team!
The holidays make healthy eating hard for two main reasons:
- Loss of routine and control
- Cultural norms around holiday eating
It’s just harder this time of year to make choices that provide our cells with what they need for optimal function. Then, tack on:
- Increased alcohol use, which disrupts sleep
- The stress of travel and holiday expectations
- Challenges to exercising, like cold weather, busy schedules, and travel
Taken all together, the hustle of the holidays can be a recipe for fatigue, mood instability, and weight gain. And the routine disruption and increase in social gatherings can increase our likelihood of getting sick.
So here you have it: the Levels five-step plan for staying healthy during the holidays as best we can. (All products listed are our personal favorites, with no financial relationship.)
1. You do you—for you.
One aspect of the holidays that can sometimes feel tricky—depending on your friends and family—is having different health habits than others. But you know your body and what best supports your health and well-being, whether during the holiday season or otherwise. One of the first steps to keeping your health on track for the holidays is to be unapologetic about focusing on your health and setting clear boundaries to keep yourself physically and mentally healthy. Here are some solutions to those questions about why you’re lacing up your shoes or what’s on—or not on—your plate.
- “I try to be very open and honest about why I might be eating differently than others to avoid people feeling judged or feeling awkward myself,” says Lauren Kelley-Chew, MD, Head of Clinical Product at Levels. If someone notices that she’s not loading up on carbohydrate-heavy dishes and they ask why, she’ll tell them. “I might say, ‘I’ve started eating fewer refined carbs because they just don’t work for my body; I don’t feel good when I eat them, but I’m super into these,’” she says. Then she’ll point to something she is enjoying, like a salad, protein, or veggie dish.
- Lynette Diaz, a member of the Support Team at Levels, opts for a similar tactic when it comes to food questions. “I tell them all about how I can see my glucose responding in real-time and how my goal is to have steadier glucose because it makes me feel my best,” she says.
- Taylor Maniscalchi, also on the Support Team, says communication goes a long way. “I’ve had food allergies for the last 10 years,” she explains. “Share your dietary needs with people early and let them help you—or offer to bring something you can have that everyone can enjoy. It’s not embarrassing; it’s not shameful. You’re likely not the only person who would like some healthier options!”
- “At this point, everyone knows I’m going for a run—or getting another form of exercise—every day when I’m staying at their house,” adds Jennifer Chesak, a Levels journalist. “I’ve also made it clear over the years that my food choices are not a judgment on or responsibility of anyone else—just something I need to do for myself as someone who has dealt with chronic illness all my life. I also like to cook, so I’m always happy to make several healthy dishes everyone can enjoy.”
- It’s not just about food and exercise: mental health matters, too! I don’t let my weekly therapy lapse during the holidays (I do it remotely on Zoom, so that I can do it from anywhere); in fact, I make sure it’s scheduled in an effort to bring my best self to the holidays. (Looking for a therapist? Try affordable and convenient BetterHelp.) Additionally, I like to wrangle others into meditation with me. Ask your family if they want to join you for a 10-minute guided meditation. I bet many will say yes!
- On a recent trip with my brother, sister-in-law, and dad for a family destination wedding (during which we all stayed at the same Airbnb), we had a check-in meeting on the first night to set intentions for the week. It was a pleasant surprise to see that we had overlapping intentions to eat healthy, exercise, get good sleep, be productive in our remote work, and meet other health-adjacent goals. From this conversation, we were able to craft a plan for the week to support each other in fitting it all in. We made a meal plan and cooking schedule (rather than defaulting to eating at restaurants each night), scheduled some evening group workout, and took a few morning walks
The Book of Boundaries, by Melissa Urban (Levels investor and Founder of Whole30)
This book can help you learn how to express your wishes and needs in an effective way with family and friends around the holiday season. It is incredibly empowering and includes precise scripts for how to share your preferences.
2. Offer yourself some grace, but know when to rein it in.
Don’t worry about the occasional holiday “indulgence,” “cheat meal,” or perceived diet “fail.” In the instances when we indulge, we are generally putting convenience, pleasure, or cultural and family norms as the priority. And that’s okay. Instead of stressing, re-focus on using other meals to get as many nutrients as possible. Here are some tips from the team for finding balance between those special holiday favorites and your usual healthy habits.
- “Take each day at a time, so you aren’t stuck in a sugar craving spiral from October to January 1, says Priya Bhasin, Levels Support Associate. “Don’t view the holidays as one big chunk of time as in ‘Oh, I am just going to eat whatever desserts I want for the holidays, and then I’ll get back on track.’”
- “I rest easy knowing that most of my plate is going to be high-quality, good-for-me, glucose-stable foods,” says Maniscalchi, who enjoys cooking. “But am I going to say no to the gluten-free and refined sugar-free pumpkin pie my dad special ordered for me just because it’ll spike me? No, I’m not. I’m going to eat that pie, then go chase my nephew around to soak up the glucose!”
- “If you’re going to have a dessert or ‘spikey’ food,” Bhasin says, “ thoroughly enjoy it and don’t let it ‘ruin’ the whole day with guilt, but then also try not to let it set you off eating all the desserts all day long.”
- “I often travel with a tiny bottle of 100% liquid monk fruit,” adds Kelley-Chew, “and then use that to easily make little treats to satisfy sweet cravings. For example, I’ll add a little monk fruit to plain yogurt.”
- “Reduce or eliminate alcohol and cannabis consumption,” suggests Justin Stanley, who is on the Levels Engineering team. “My willpower becomes zero otherwise.”
3. Amidst holiday busyness, focus on getting the cells as much healthy food as possible!
Become laser-focused on consuming as much healthy information as possible to feed and support your cells.
On a typical day, I’m focused on providing my cells maximal micronutrients and phytonutrients, probiotics, omega-3 fats, 50+ grams fiber, and unrefined whole-food fats and proteins. You can read more in my previous newsletter: 9 Elements of Metabolically Healthy Meals.
So how does this look in practice when it comes to the holidays? Here are some additional strategies for before, during, and after a holiday party.
Before the holiday event or party:
- Start the day with a breakfast high in fiber, protein, and fat, and skip refined carbs (they’ll increase your cravings). Chia seed pudding or eggs with avocado are good options, both of which yield an average of <15 mg/dL blood sugar rise based on Levels data. We have a metabolically healthy brunch walkthrough on Levels Kitchen.
- “Before heading home for the holidays, I’ll email my family or family friends with recipe ideas and then offer to make it together. For example, before Thanksgiving, I shared Dr. Casey’s blood sugar stable brunch. Everyone was drooling over these almond flour pancakes, had the opportunity to read about the health benefits, and was even more excited about enjoying them together,” says Sonja Manning, Chief of Staff at Levels.
- “Exercise the morning you know you’ll be having a more indulgent meal,” Diaz adds.
- “Don’t show up super hungry to a holiday party,” says Cosima Travis, a member of the Product team at Levels. “Have a nutrient-dense snack or small meal before you head out. That also ensures you aren’t drinking on an empty stomach.”
- If metabolically healthy food will be scarce at the event, pregame the event with glucose stabilizing nuts, seeds, olives, smoked salmon, hardboiled eggs, chicken breast, or a protein-packed green smoothie beforehand.
During the party:
- Always offer to bring a food item to any holiday event, and then bring what you want to eat. Additionally, if you’re going to be with family or friends for several days, offer to cook one or two meals, start to finish, and make them as metabolically healthy as possible. Here’s what I did for brunch at a recent family reunion. The help will likely be very appreciated! For some ideas of what to make, check out our Levels Kitchen series or Levels Recipe Library.
- Bhasin’s go-to contribution to any holiday meal is sheet-pan veggies. “You can mix any three to four veggies, extra virgin olive oil, and salt on parchment paper in a giant sheet pan and roast it,” she says. “It looks amazing, and it’s the easiest way to get massive amounts of veggies in.”
- “I’m now one of three family members with dietary restrictions,” Maniscalchi says, “so we can typically coordinate to get some awesome healthy options around the table. And usually, unless we announce to the fam that it’s gluten- or grain-free, or whatever it is, they have no idea.”
- “Get kids and family involved in the cooking,” Bhasin says. “Everyone is way more likely to eat the veggies if they helped chop them. Here is my favorite set of kid-safe knives.”
- Here are some additional contribution ideas:
– A healthy charcuterie: bell peppers, endive, cucumbers, Flackers or Ella’s crisps, olives, kale chips, hummus, guac, halved hard-boiled eggs or deviled eggs, smoked salmon, sliced apples, raspberries, nuts, cashew cheese, regular cheese.
– Appetizer: Stuffed mushroom caps
– Low-carb nutrient-rich entrée: Cauliflower, chard, mushroom bake
– A healthy dessert, or our new Levels Kitchen brownies
– Alcohol alternatives: Put 1-2 tbsp of any juice (i.e., pomegranate) in a full glass of unflavored or flavored seltzer (I love Spindrift), add several dashes of bitters, squeeze in a lemon or lime wedge, serve in a wine glass. Or, bring a low-sugar non-alcoholic aperitif like Ghia or Wilfred’s that you can splash into seltzer.
- Even if the event isn’t a potluck, you can still find ways to DIY a metabolically healthy meal. For example, Kelley-Chew sometimes turns the main dish into a salad by piling leafy greens onto her plate before adding a smaller portion of the main item. And Chesak will eat her main meal from the charcuterie board if necessary, by filling up on fresh-cut veggies, hummus, olives, nuts, cheese, guacamole, and more.
- Pre-event mindfulness tip: Take 3 deep belly breaths before entering any gathering. Get yourself centered and grounded so you can show up with your best energy!
After the party:
- Suggest a post-dinner neighborhood stroll or—my personal favorite—a dish-cleaning dance party! If you do one thing this holiday season, be the family member who suggests a quick stroll!
- Mindful reflection: Take stock of what nutrients you may have missed and replete them the next day. If you had no omega-3s, make sure you get sardines, salmon, chia, or flax tomorrow. No fiber? Go for chia, beans, lentils, and flax. No probiotics? Eat some sauerkraut or kimchi, unsweetened yogurt, or low sugar kombucha.
- Get some sleep. “I find Beam sleep super helpful,” Travis says, “especially if I’m jetlagged. It offers a balance of ingredients and isn’t overloaded with melatonin.” For me (Casey), I love magnesium for good rest: I generally take 300 mg of magnesium-L-threonate, 1000 mg of curcumin, and 1000 to 2000 mg of omega-3 (EPA/DHA) about an hour before bed to set myself up for deep sleep.
4. Make nutrients as convenient as possible.
The holidays are hectic. Make life a little easier if you can. During the holidays:
- Use Instacart, Fresh Direct, or other grocery delivery services during this time of year if it makes your life easier. Buy the pre-chopped/pre-packaged produce, like pre-spiralized zucchini noodles or pre-minced garlic. Get pre-cooked and shelled hardboiled eggs. Lean on frozen cauliflower rice and greens as a dinner base to avoid the hassle of prepping fresh produce. This is the time to invest in time-saving shortcuts to keep yourself sane!
- Treat yourself to healthy takeout: salads or bowls from Dig Inn, sweetgreen, Chipotle, Erewhon, etc. The busyness of the holiday season is the time to make things a little bit easier on yourself if you can.
- Send a box of Daily Harvest smoothies and harvest bowls to wherever you’re headed so you know you’ll have access to whole-food-based meals. “If there are snacks, foods, electrolytes, supplements, etc., that I know I want, don’t want to lug in a suitcase, and am worried I won’t be able to find,” Bhasin says, “I just send them ahead if possible.”
- “It can be challenging to get enough fiber while traveling! I pack a mini jar of super high-fiber basil seeds or chia seeds and sprinkle them on my meals. They are perfect to add to yogurt, salads, or just about anything!” says Manning.
- Keep individually portioned nuts, nut butters, olives, fish, 88% dark chocolate, and vitamins handy. More travel snacks here.
- I love to gift healthy tools and then teach loved ones how to use those tools to make a healthy meal while we’re together: For example, gift a Spiralizer + Spiralizer cookbook and show people how to make pesto zucchini pasta. Or give a mini-Cuisinart with nutritional yeast and brazil nuts, and make plant-based parmesan. Give a mini-donut pan and show your family how to make healthier donuts (using monk fruit instead of sugar).
5. Do whatever it takes to motivate yourself to move.
Exercise doesn’t need to look the same during the holidays as it does the rest of the year. These are unusual times. It’s getting some movement that matters.
- Get outside first thing for a few minutes of outdoor sunlight exposure. It meaningfully helps with energy and motivation to be active. (Great podcast on this here.)
- If you’re not involved in the food prep, get outside and take people with you. Chris Jones, Head of Member Experience at Levels has these suggestions: “Make a snowman, have a snowball fight (watch out for rocks in the snow), go sledding, play a game of family football or soccer, offer to walk your uncle’s dog, or—better yet—join the cousins when they walk the dog.”
- “I always try to exercise the first morning in a new place or even the same day I arrive if time allows,” Kelley-Chew says. “I think of it as a ‘reset run,’ if it’s a run. It makes me feel good and also starts the day off with something healthy, which helps me carry that mindset through the rest of the day and trip. The timing of this seems important for me. If I wait to exercise until day two or three, I’m a lot more likely to get off track in the meantime.”
- Schedule workout classes you’ll be excited to do! “ClassPass is really helpful if you’re in a city,” Maniscalchi says. “I can pop into a gym or a studio class in most places I visit. Additionally, a lot of gyms offer multi-day guest passes for people visiting the area. I also just pack my running shoes and resistance bands. I can run anywhere and do a quick banded workout in my room or in the backyard.”
- Use an online workout program while traveling, and pull in the family to join you for a class. (Openfit and Peloton On-Demand have dance cardio and family cardio classes—anyone can do it!). On a recent trip with family, I took a Cody Rigsby Peloton dance cardio class with my older brother and it had me (and my 11-month-old nephew!) cracking up and full of joy (and we certainly broke a sweat!).
- Make it a challenge! After dinner at Thanksgiving this year, I challenged my sister-in-law, dad, and brother to a plank competition. Within 30 seconds of the challenge, we went from sitting at the table to being on the floor in plank position!
- “I just rope people into things,” Maniscalchi adds. “I get Dad to come to a spin class with me, my boyfriend to do bootcamp with me, my sister and nephew to take a post-meal walk to the park so we can talk unfiltered for a while. Physical activity that doubles as time together is perfect!”
- Find an active family member and ask them if they want to design a collaborative circuit-training session with you in the house, local park, or hotel gym. At a family reunion recently, my 17-year-old cousin and I met at the hotel gym and each came up with a 30-minute circuit, which together made an hour workout. I had us do a 10-minute interval run, squats, push-ups, leg lifts, and kettlebell swings, and she had us do a different 10-minute run plus lat pulldowns, back squats on the Smith machine, and leg presses. (Added bonus of this strategy: you might learn some new exercises!)
- “I take long walks to make my holiday calls to friends and family I’m not able to be with,” Chesak says. “Pro tip: if you’re at a gathering that’s getting overwhelming for whatever reason, step out to take a call from so-and-so (or to make one) while you stroll around the block. It’s not rude, and you’ll return rejuvenated.”
- “Doing some holiday shopping?” Jones adds. “Try going local. It’s good for the local economy. Plus, walking around shopping is great exercise, even if your wallet is a little lighter afterward.”
Wearables help keep me on track!
Lean on your wearables for support. If I feel overwhelmed, especially during the holidays, I always look at my data first. Is my sleep average lower? Are my glucose spikes all over the place? Has my recovery and HRV tanked from alcohol, travel, or stress? Have I gotten 90+ minutes of aerobic exercise this week (the amount associated with being protective for mental health)? Wearables uncover specific variables that impact my psychological state, clarifying exactly which behaviors I need to lean into—diet, movement, sleep, meditation—to get back on track.
The holidays are a marathon, not a sprint. I want to fully contribute to and enjoy the holiday magic, so investing in healthy habits is important to me. Prioritizing my physical and mental health is an investment I’m making to support a special holiday season for myself and everyone around me.