To Prevent Brain Fog At Work, Watch What (and How) You Eat


Sugar-based, rich, fatty foods have long been a part of holiday celebrations, and with them come the worry of holiday weight gain. A common stigma that Americans gain 5 pounds each year due to holiday indulgences has even made its way into scientific research—but it’s simply not true. 

Contrary to popular belief, holiday weight gain is far less drastic than we think. In 2015, a study performed by the United States Department of Health and Human Services found the majority of participants experienced little to no weight gain (or loss) between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day, even while making little to no effort to control their weight. In fact, the average weight gain recorded among participants during the holiday season was just 0.37 kilograms (about 0.8 pounds).

Even so, in a month filled with cocoa and cookie dough, there’s no shortage of diets to try or tips to read for maintaining healthy eating habits during the holiday season. But what if there was a happy, enjoyable middle ground somewhere between the traditional family treats and the January gym rush? Sarah Hays Coomer, a Mayo Clinic and National Board certified health coach, personal trainer, three-time author and Forbes Health columnist, believes it exists. 

Indulge With Intention

“Deprivation leads to backlash, so, if we’re always about what we can’t do, then we lash out,” says Coomer. “It’s a delicate balance. People are worried about weight and health. We’re used to this all-or-nothing mindset, whereas the life that’s going to feel the best is one where you get to have your indulgences.”

Her secret to seasonal success? Have a plan and do it on purpose.

“Make a list of indulgences that you really love, that make you feel good and that you want more of. Make sure you have those in the pipeline throughout the holidays,” says Coomer. “If you build it in and you know it’s there and that you’re allowed to have it, then there’s no ‘I’ll eat now and have none tomorrow.’”

To make your plan, Coomer recommends picking the indulgences that matter most to you and choosing them in their best form. 

“If you have the richest, truest version of what you really want, you don’t need that much of it,” she says. 

If you’re worried about portion size, Coomer suggests pre-making treats and freezing them so you’re only eating one cookie versus a tray of 12. But don’t be afraid to dream big. It’s not the size of the indulgence that matters, but the intention—be present and enjoy it to the fullest.

Judy Ho, Ph.D., a licensed clinical and forensic neuropsychologist, tenured associate professor at Pepperdine University, published author and 2021 Forbes Health Advisory Board member, also finds that it’s common for people to throw caution to the wind when it comes to healthy eating habits at this time of year. 

“People think they deserve a free pass to treat themselves around the holidays, which are centered around food as a social tool and a reward,” she says. “There’s a lot of social influence going on—if others are eating, you may eat, too, even if you’re not hungry. Research shows people tend to overeat more in groups and sometimes overdrink to keep pace with the group.”

Eating can also be a way for some people to cope with and distract themselves from holiday emotions or stress, says Dr. Ho, and studies show comfort eating increases during the holidays. When the cravings or social pressure do set in, ask yourself how it feels.

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“How does it feel to have three drinks every night and eat cookies all day at work?” says Coomer. The answer? After a few days, likely, not great. 

The promise of a clean slate on Jan. 1 often provides another temptation to abandon healthy eating practices during the holidays, says Dr. Ho. This perspective is often misinformed, though, as research suggests 80% of people who make New Year’s resolutions abandon them by February. 

Instead of relying on resolutions, Dr. Ho offers simple solutions to help relieve stress around holiday eating without missing out on your festive experience:

  • Eat slowly and mindfully.
  • Use smaller plates. 
  • Wait 20 minutes before going back for a second serving of something. (If you’re really hungry, the hunger and fullness cues take about 20 minutes to settle in).
  • Have a healthy snack before going to a party so you’re not tempted to eat everything you see.

Though these tricks may feel most applicable when the cookie cravings set in, Coomer encourages people to put these practices in place now. 

“Indulgence should be year round. If throughout your entire year and life, you can indulge and enjoy and not feel deprived, then you don’t get to this one month where you feel like you want to throw it all out,” she says. 

Trust Your Gut

What we eat during the holiday season goes much further than weight gain. With weather turning bitter and viruses on the rise, it’s important to not only find balance, but also ensure our bodies’ nutrition and defense systems aren’t sacrificed along the way. That protection begins in the gut. 

“We know 70% of the immune system is located in your gut,” says Miguel Freitas, Ph.D., vice president of health and scientific affairs at Danone North America. “That fact alone proves that the foods we consume interact with the bacteria in our gut and also interact with the immune cells in our body.” 

Gut health is increasingly recognized as the foundation of overall health, says Freitas, and a recent study published by Danone (a food company focused on probiotic and gut health research) found 43% of people surveyed recognized the link between gut health and the immune system. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) also acknowledges the value of gut health and encourages microbiome-based solutions to help predict, prevent and cure disease and infections in public health.

Before you add your microbiome to your list of things to worry about this holiday season, Kristie Leigh, a registered dietician and senior manager of scientific affairs at Danone North America, says it’s going to take more than a few candy canes to create a drastic negative change in your gut health.

“The changes in diet need to be fairly different and fairly consistent to see a difference in the gut microbiome,” says Leigh. “Some heavy indulgent foods and some alcohol are not great, but they won’t do too much damage.”

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However, that doesn’t mean you won’t feel the effects of dietary changes during celebrations. “What we will see is changes in digestion,” she adds. “Heavier foods, more alcohol and dinner parties can show up in terms of gas, bloating and [stomach] rumbling.” 

Stress can also take a toll on the gut. “When you’re stressed and anxious, you feel more bloating in the digestive system and discomfort. ‘Butterflies in your stomach’ comes from that,” says Freitas. Stress and anxiety can lead to symptoms like:

  • Bloating 
  • Abdominal rumbling noises
  • Abdominal pain
  • Feelings of tension 
  • An increase in bowel movements, sometimes with pain

The good news is simple adjustments can help keep your gut health strong even while enjoying holiday fare. To find balance in your gut, Freitas and Leigh recommend trying these tips:

  • Eat a small meal full of fruits and vegetables before you go to holiday functions. It will ensure you’re getting nutrients and that any festive foods being served won’t have as large an impact on your overall diet. 

  • Consume fermented foods, such as yogurt, kombuchas, sauerkraut and home-pickled vegetables in your everyday diet. Consuming fermented foods consistently and frequently can help with the minor digestion issues that come with heavy holiday foods. 

  • Exercise and move your body to help your blood pump and move food through your digestive system. 

  • Eat foods with fiber, such as fruits, vegetables and whole grains

    to help move things through your digestive tract. 

  • Drink plenty of water and stay hydrated to help move nutrients through your body as well.

  • Get enough sleep to support overall health and gut health. “A lot of repair and work happens in your body when you sleep,” says Leigh. “If you’re not getting enough, your body can’t rebuild. If you’re not getting enough sleep, it can also impact the foods you choose to eat, which can then impact gut health,” adds Leigh.

Another simple way Freitas and Leigh recommend promoting gut health this holiday season is considering the incorporation of probiotics. This type of good bacteria is proven to have a particular benefit in both gut health and immune-related functions. Probiotics can be consumed via foods or supplements, but Freitas prefers food over pills. Probiotic foods are able to buffer stomach acid, thereby increasing the chances of the probiotic surviving its trip through the digestive system. They also contain nutrients you won’t find in a supplement capsule, and they’re often more enjoyable to consume, which encourages people to eat them.

With that said, if you’re interested in washing down a probiotic supplement with your eggnog this year, Freitas and Leigh encourage you to research some brands to determine whether their products are backed by research when it comes to supporting gut and immune health. Next, pay attention to the names of the probiotic strains included in the supplement, which are typically a combination of numbers and letters—not just a type like Lactobacillus or Bifidobacterium. If you can find research supporting the benefits of the specific probiotic names on a product label, that’s even better. 

Many people shopping for a probiotic supplement focus on the number of colony-forming units (CFUs) on the label, which indicates how many bacteria exist in a sample. However, more isn’t necessarily better. In fact, Leigh calls this “the kitchen sink approach.” “They throw a bunch of strains in there and get the numbers high, but that doesn’t mean it’s more effective.” Instead, focus on the specific probiotic strains and their research-backed benefits.

Even with a supplement, remember probiotics are not a magic pill for perfect health, but rather a part of the larger gut-focused effort to support overall wellness. Freitas and Leigh recommend taking a probiotic as an additional layer to your diet while also incorporating fermented foods and healthy lifestyle habits, especially during the holiday season.

Learn More About The Best Foods And Vitamins To Support Immune Health This Holiday Season Make Movement Merry

Between holiday travel and traditions, it’s easy to feel as though there’s no time for normalcy, especially when it comes to your fitness routine. With the pile-on of events and tasks to do before the holidays hit, it’s not shocking that Americans exercise less in winter months, least of all in December, according to a four-year study tracking American exercise habits. 

But the holidays don’t need to be a time to send all physical health efforts down the drain. Established exercise routines can stay intact—and can even make you feel better.

The holiday season can demand flexibility, which makes maintaining routines difficult. But just because physical activity might look different during this time doesn’t mean you’re not reaping the same rewards. 

“If you’re a photographer and you want to pick up a camera and take pictures of what fall or winter looks like to you, that’s movement,” says Coomer. “Anything that gets you off of your couch is helpful. It doesn’t have to look like how you think it has to look like. There are lots of different ways to move without plugging away at a gym.”

Walking is another easy way to move without equipment or classes. It can also be done in a group when time is tight and family activities take priority over gym sessions. Just grab your sneakers and go.

Explore Easy Exercises To Try While Traveling This Holiday Season Establish Your Touchpoints

If you’re looking to maintain a fitness routine or pull yourself out of some unhealthy habits ahead of the new year, Coomer suggests using a helpful technique she calls “touchpoints.” 

“These are rituals or interruptions that allow you to make a choice from a conscious place, so you’re not just on autopilot. It’s not just a knee-jerk reaction,” she says. In a moment when you’d normally choose an easy, unhealthy behavior, touchpoints wake you up enough to make a conscious decision. “They are buttresses, adding an awareness step before the action,” says Coomer.  

To figure out what your touchpoints may be, Coomer suggests asking yourself the following:

  • What are the things that are going to buttress you and reinforce your days? 
  • What do you do in the morning, afternoon and night? 
  • What are the things that keep you in touch with your body? 

“Everyone’s touchpoints will be different. Some people get out of bed and want to go for a run, and some are barely functional and their ritual might be a cup of coffee on the porch,” says Coomer. 

Touchpoints can also come from noticing dissonance or pain, Coomer adds. If you notice feelings like brain fog in the morning or lower back pain after a day of work, insert a touchpoint to help, like setting a time for a snack or an afternoon stretch. 

To help identify your touchpoints, make a menu of things that make you feel good, awake, engaged and at peace. “Play with these options on this menu so you can see which feel like a chore or a relief you could do every day,” says Coomer. “If it’s truly something that feeds you, you’re going to crave it.” 

Read More Of Sarah Hays Coomer’s Tips On Keeping Healthy Through The Holidays

Once you’ve established touchpoints, take them on the go—to a friend’s house for Thanksgiving or a parent’s house for Hanukkah. No matter the holiday or location, your touchpoints will be there to serve as a form of relief and grounding. 

“You can find a micro version to do anywhere,” she says. “And if you don’t do it, you’ll probably find you’re suffering from that. If it does slip, you’re going to notice. And that’s okay—to let good healthy things you’re doing fall by the wayside and notice.”

It’s also okay if exercise habits are among those touchpoints that are slipping, Coomer says, but the important thing to recognize is why.

“If it’s slipping, what is it slipping for? If it’s slipping for your kid’s dance recital, then that’s okay. If it’s slipping because of end-of-year accounting and it’s a hard time of year, then you need those touchpoints more than ever.” 

Touchpoints can also be quick, small actions to bring you back to focus when you’re in a pinch or on the go. Some examples include:

  • Holding an ice cube in your hands
  • Running your hands under cold water
  • Doing a plank
  • Stretching or snapping an elastic or rubber band

Much like indulging with intention, touchpoints allow you to be present and clear-minded so you can make the decision you really want and set your day up for success, no matter the season. 

“What people don’t realize is that when they fall into routines that aren’t serving them, they generally feel worse,” says Coomer. “If you’re truly in tune with how your body feels and letting your body be your guide, it’s going to be very clear when it’s not okay.”

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