While most look forward to Christmas with anticipation and excitement, even the most jolly soul will admit the holidays are stressful. Managing the needs of work and personal commitments, attending parties, buying the “perfect” gifts, dealing with traffic & schedules, the threat of lousy weather, and the highs & lows of extended family time all contribute to anxiousness. Of course, 2020 has offered a whole new level of stress with trying to balance all of these demands under the COVID-19 pandemic and lock-downs. How do we cope? We eat, of course! Baked goods, lots of carbs, seasonal desserts, flavored drinks and constant snacking play havoc with both our emotions AND our waistline. But there is a way to manage through this without adding to both the anxiety and bathroom scale.
Better Food Choices
As I’ve written on numerous occasions, excellent dietary choices are driven by the nourishment trinity:
- Quantity / Mix of macronutrients
- Frequency of consumption
Choosing quality ingredients and preparation methods, reducing the carbohydrate and sugar ingestion to a bare minimum while ensuring consumption of high quality fats, protein & vegetables, and incorporating intermittent fasting to give your body a chance to digest, heal and use internal fat as an energy source are all critical aspects of an ideal dietary regime. When the body is under stress, thinking about “food as fuel” is more important than ever, as that food has to be able to provide micronutrients, antioxidants and manage the hormone response that is so critical in influencing our feelings and behaviors.
The Power of Seeds & Nuts
Quite simply, seeds and nuts are nutritional powerhouses, packing both quality and quantity/mix of nutrients in a small food. Three of the main benefits from seeds and nuts are:
- Good quality fats: You may have heard about Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids, so critical for managing energy, inflammation, blood pressure, cognitive and endocrine system health
- Antioxidants: Seeds and nuts contain high levels of poly and mono unsaturated fats, Vitamin E, vital minerals and typically are high in fiber, which can help promote healthy gut microbes
- Satiation/calm: The good fats and fiber content help seeds and nuts provide satiation, but some of the cognitive compounds they possess can also have a calming effect on the body.
Maximizing the Nutritional Value of Seeds & Nuts
With seeds and nuts being such nutritional powerhouses, I should eat them all the time, right? Wrong. There are two important consumption behaviors that are critical to maximize their value and minimize unintended problems:
- Mix of Omega-6 and Omega-3. One of the problems in the American diet is the relationship between Omega-6 and Omega-3 fatty acids consumption. It is significantly out of balance, with us consuming as much as 10X more Omega-6 vs. Omega-3, and that imbalance can actually cause inflammation. This imbalance exists because of the high levels of vegetable oils we consume while not consuming foods high in Omega-3 such as cold water fish (ie, Mackerel, Salmon, Herring), walnuts, and seeds like flax and chia. So, if you’re going to consume seeds and nuts, do so with a target to balance out the Omega-6 vs. Omega-3 fats, and mix them to get a ratio closer to 2-to-1, even 4-to-1.
- Frequency. Snacking, in general, is a recipe for weight gain. Why?
- Every time you eat you stimulate insulin, and the more carbohydrates you eat, the more insulin you stimulate. When your body releases insulin, fat metabolism is shut off.
- When you eat high carbohydrate meals, your body can only store so much glucose in the cells, the excess then getting stored as fat!
- Because you experience insulin spikes accompanied by blood sugar lows on a carbohydrate diet, this yo-yo effect causes you to eat more often as your brain receives mixed signals.
- The more you eat high carbohydrates and fats together, the more likely the body is going to store additional body fat. The carbs will trigger insulin, which shuts off fat metabolism, and the body is programmed to get the sugar out of the blood first to prevent hyperglycemia. As the body becomes more insulin resistant, and the insulin becomes ineffective at opening up the cells to store glucose, the body has to find a place to store these calories, so it deposits fat around organs, the waist and thighs. Once the cells are full, the remainder of the carbs PLUS the fat consumed will be stored as…you guessed it. Fat!
How to maximize the benefits of seeds and nuts this holiday season?
- Create a trail mix combined with various seeds and nuts that includes high Omega-3 foods like chia seeds, flax seeds and walnuts, but exclude high fructose-containing fruits. Have it in an easy-to-access container that you can incorporate into your meals.
- Choose your meals wisely. Try to keep meals to quality fats and proteins, with minimal carbohydrates and sugars. Incorporate your seeds and nuts into these meals. One great way to eat a filling, low carb meal is to eat a large salad with mixed greens, vegetables, seeds and nuts, some quality protein of your choice, and an authentic olive oil to power-up the nutrition AND flavor. If you are going to eat a big carbohydrate meal, do not include high amount of fat in that meal.
- Avoid snacking as much as possible. Focus on satiating meals with quality nutrients, and minimize the frequency of snacking, which includes eliminating sugar-laden drinks in-between meals. Even if you do eat sweets and empty calories, including intermittent fasting into your holiday meal schedule can help offset some of the negative impact. Aim for at least 12 hours per day of no eating, but feel free to consume non-caloric beverages during this time such as coffee, tea, sparkling water, lemon water or other drinks without sweetness, sugar or calories.
- Choose a range of seeds & nuts. Macadamia nuts & pecans are nutritional powerhouses, but very high in fats so you have to monitor the quantity. Sunflower and pumpkin seeds offer a wide range of minerals, are great additions to salads, vegetables and yogurt, and can help buffer the urge to eat sweets.