How to Keep Your Gut Health on Track During the Holidays
Indulging in our favorite foods and treats is one of the best parts of the holiday season, and the digestive drama that can follow is surely one of the worst. From your lack of control around gingerbread to your love of holiday-themed cocktails, odds are your insides end up feeling more tangled than your box of Christmas lights.
“As a gastroenterologist, I get asked about holiday belly every year,” says Niket Sonpal, MD, assistant professor at Touro College of Osteopathic Medicine in New York. “The time from Thanksgiving to New Year’s Day often turns into a caloric free-for-all, with holiday menus loaded with foods that are on most patients’ fun list, but that can trigger a whole host of abdominal symptoms.”
That doesn’t mean you have to deprive yourself of your favorite holiday goodies, however—there are plenty of ways to do your gut a solid so that you can enjoy the season sans retaliation, starting with these expert-backed tips:
1. Stock Up on Kefir
If you’ve got a festive afternoon lined up, swig some probiotic-rich kefir at breakfast, suggests Kara Landau, RD, NYC-based registered dietitian and founder at Uplift Food. Doing so will line your stomach with an abundance of good bacteria that can help with digestion and reduce unwanted bloating.
2. Add More Resistant Starch to the Menu
Resistant starch is a special type of prebiotic fiber that feeds the good bacteria in our gut, says Landau. The result? Digestion isn’t as much of a drag, and food is passed through the body easier. “You can find prebiotic resistant starch inside a range of foods commonly found on the festive seasonal table, such as roasted potatoes, vegetables, or cooked grains,” says Landau. The trick is to let these foods cool down before you eat them, which allows the resistant starch to form—and your gut bacteria to reap the benefits. (You can reheat them and still score the benefits, assures Landau.)
3. Go for a Post-Meal Walk
It’s tempting to nap after a big holiday meal, but it’s the worst thing you can do if you’re prone to acid reflux. Consider going for a post-meal walk instead—say, to scout out the neighborhood decorations. “Walking helps your abdominal muscles contract, and helps your stomach move the acid and food into the intestines sooner,” says Sonpal. “This decreases the probability of reflux occurring.”
4. Take Note of Past Food Reactions
If you ate something during last year’s holiday season that didn’t agree with you (or worse, caused an allergic reaction), it’s best to steer clear of that particular food so as to not repeat history. A year isn’t a long time to your stomach and small intestine, says Sonpal, and re-exposure may cause a more significant reaction the second time around.
5. Drink Enough Water
We tend to consume less water during the holidays, while increasing our intake of dehydration-promoters like salty treats, caffeine, and alcohol. This can result in a digestive traffic jam. “Water helps keep your digestive system well-lubricated and moving, helping you to avoid constipation from dehydration and stress,” says Sonpal. The more water you drink, the less likely it is that your curmudgeony stomach will get in the way of your enjoying the festivities.
6. Keep Up With Your Fiber Intake
The majority of holiday foods we consume lack fiber—meanwhile, microorganisms love to feast on the stuff. “Without enough fiber in our diet, microbes start to gobble up the mucus barrier in the gut as an alternative food source,” says Sonpal. This alters the bacterial composition and metabolism in our gut, which then causes bacteria to trigger inflammation and make us feel sick. Amping up your veggie and grain intake during the holidays can help lower the odds that your stomach will go postal when you want to indulge.
7. Have One or the Other
The combination of fancy cocktails and sweet treats can add up quickly and cause digestive stress well into the next day. Before your next soiree, opt for drinks or desserts instead of overdoing it on both, suggests Chicago-based registered dietitian Maggie Michalczyk, RDN. You’ll consume fewer empty calories and sugar overall, prevent a hangover the next day (well, hopefully), and ensure that your stomach doesn’t punish you (as much) for cutting loose.
8. Eat Smaller Portions, and Take It Slow
Being mindful of how much you eat at a time can help you ward off bloating. Keep an eye on the portions that you put on your plate, and take the time to actually chew your food instead of swallowing it whole—especially if you’re munching on foods that you don’t normally eat the rest of the year. Once you start to feel any sort of fullness, stop eating. “Your stomach’s actually a muscle, and it’s used to being worked to a certain degree,” says Allison Sanders, RDN, clinical dietitian specialist at Indiana University Health. “If you’re eating more than you normally would, the muscle tightens and you’ll feel a little more uncomfortable.”
9. Have Some (More) Chocolate
Besides being delish, cocoa—which is the dry, non-fatty component of chocolate—is rich in antioxidants. Research suggests that high-cocoa dark chocolate may promote specific types of friendly gut bacteria that help to keep inflammation in check and our digestion regular.