I gave up buying holiday gifts a few years ago. I was spending so much money and feeling very stressed out about the shopping and ensuring I didn’t leave anyone out, that I realized I was approaching the holidays all wrong. I tried to “out do” my gifts from the previous year or find the perfect “thing” to give a friend or family member. Sometimes I would buy something I knew the other person did not need or probably really want- just to have something to give.
We often teach our children that the holidays are all about presents: Christmas trees are erected to house piles of presents, Santa Claus or St. Nicholas are great because they leave gifts. Somewhere along the way, the spirit got lost.
But there are many ways to give and honor your loved ones during the holidays that don’t require you to break the bank. The holidays are a time to be with family and friends, to relax and to reflect on the year. Consider some of these alternative gift ideas to show what is really important around the holidays.
DIY: Make something they will appreciate- this shows thought and allows you to be creative. Here are some great ideas to get you started.
DIT: Do it Together. For kids (or adults), learn a new skill or do an activity together. Try rock climbing, take a cooking class or painting class together.
Here are some fun activities for kids.
Make a Donation: Think about what they care about most and identify an organization that supports that cause. Make a donation in their name and give them a thoughtful card that describes your meaningful gift.
Give an Experience: Instead of gift cards, give a card that tells them you will take them out to dinner, or to a movie, or to try out a new activity. Instead of giving them a gift card to spend and shop on their own, invite them to an experience you can share together.
Send Holiday Cards: When you include a thoughtful note and message (and not just a signature), the holiday card can be appreciated more deeply than a present.
Give Your Time: Volunteering together can be a great way to honor the holiday spirit. www.volunteermatch.org is a great place to look for volunteer opportunities in your area.
Cook or Bake a Holiday Dish: One of my favorite quotes is from Cesar Chavez:
“If you really want to make a friend, go to someone’s house and eat with him…the people who give you their food give you their heart.” Sharing a meal together can be a very meaningful experience, and eating food made with love always digests better. Try to give a healthy dish (sugar does necessarily mean love) to nourish your friends and family.
What’s your favorite way to honor the spirit of the holidays without focusing on “stuff?”
Does stress, depression, anxiety, or loneliness cause you to reach for food for comfort? Many of us seek out food for pleasure or to numb emotions we are feeling. We try to “stuff” ourselves to alleviate pain, to distract ourselves, or to calm us down when we are feeling stressed.
Some of us will find ourselves cradling a pint of ice cream or curled up to a bag of chips while watching TV to make us feel less alone or to achieve some kind of temporary pleasure. Sugar and salt can act like drugs in our system triggering serotonin to make us feel momentarily happy. Eating can make us forget about things that are bothering us and take our minds away from how we are truly feeling.
Using food for comfort forces us to ignore our feelings and emotions pushing them deep inside so we do not have to confront them. Escaping this habit, or addiction, can be very difficult. Sometimes we will sneak food and stuff ourselves when no one is looking. This is easiest for those of us who live alone. We can eat as much as we want without judgment.
After it’s over, we feel guilty and angry with ourselves and the negative thoughts creep in. This leads to deeper depression and stress and more emotional eating- a negative cycle.
It can be important for us to sit with our pain and acknowledge it- recognize what it is telling us- instead of trying to numb ourselves with food.
Emotional eating is a difficult disorder to overcome- it often requires professional support or counseling, but there are a couple of strategies that one can try on their own. Employing these two strategies can be the first steps in overcoming emotional and binge eating and to help you get to a healthier, happier place.
- Do not eat in front of the TV- ever. Food and TV do not mix. Eating in front of the TV almost always leads to overeating. When you are distracted by what’s on TV, you can’t monitor what you are eating or fully enjoy what you are eating. Your brain might not have registered that you just had a satisfying bowl of ice cream, so you have another. Commercials can also trigger cravings and drive us to eat more than we want- and within a few minutes, you might have eaten all five servings contained within that one bag of chips.
- Eat within full view of others. Try it- what if you only ate food while you were in front of other people? Would you eat the same way? Would you eat as much? If you live alone, this could be tricky. Instead- serve yourself one plate of your food- put away the rest, and eat at the table without distractions focusing just on the food in front of you while practicing mindfulness.
Above all, know that feeling stressed, depressed, and lonely are important feelings to feel. Don’t ignore them- think about the messages they are telling you, make note of how you’re feeling and the circumstances. These are necessary feelings too. They help us grow, to find our paths, and to achieve strength- they should not be hidden, ignored, and should not cause shame.
Photo: Los Liones Trail, Los Angeles, CA
“Beauty sleep” isn’t dubbed so without good reason. Sleep is arguably the most important element of a healthy lifestyle. When we don’t sleep well, our brains don’t function properly, and maintaining other healthy habits becomes challenging.
When we are lacking sleep, we often turn to sugary foods, caffeine or anything that will give us an energy boost. This causes a cycle of highs and lows draining our bodies of critical energy. Even when we exercise- without good sleep, we can’t push ourselves hard enough to see the results we want.
Sleep gives our body time to repair important systems, which keep us looking young. Trying to function on only a few hours of sleep increases the aging process, impacts our metabolism, and makes our skin look dull.
While there are people who believe they can function on 4-5 hours of sleep- this is a myth. After years or even months of sleep deprivation, your body and brain suffer damage because they do not have the opportunity to repair themselves. It is important to prioritize achieving 7-8 hours of quality sleep.
To support your sleep goals, try one or two of these to start:
- Turn off the TV, smart phone, iPad or other electronics at least thirty minutes before bed. There is no Facebook post or TV show that is worth losing sleep over, and your mind needs to time to wind down before your head hits the pillow.
- Create a night-time ritual: read a book, practice deep breathing, meditation, or listen to calming music to help you slow down.
- Limit your caffeine intake after 12pm. Consuming caffeine later in the day can make sleep restless.
- Stop eating at least two hours before bed. If your body is digesting while you sleep, you cannot achieve the deep sleep necessary for your body to recover from the day.
- Go to bed and wake up around the same time every day- even on weekends. Try to not to sleep in more than an hour on the weekends than you normally would during the week. Routine sleeping and waking hours make it easier to fall asleep and stay asleep until you need to wake up in the morning. Your body begins to know when it needs to shut down.
Make sleep a priority in your schedule- you deserve it. To be your best you must get good sleep every night. Relaxing and sleeping are as important as healthy eating and exercise are to a healthy lifestyle.
Photo: San Blas Islands, Panama
Cinnamon & Turmeric
These anti-inflammatory spices are a great way to add color and flavor to many dishes without the extra salt or sweeteners. I love adding cinnamon to oatmeal, coffee, or to sprinkle it over sliced fruit like apples and bananas for an indulgent treat. Turmeric can be added to your stir-fry, roasted vegetables or soup.
In the winter, one of my favorite warming drinks is almond milk with cinnamon, turmeric, and cardamom. These spices are a great way to fight free radicals from environmental toxins, stress, and processed foods.
Coconut oil is great for everything- from cooking and baking to personal care. One of the only saturated fats that is truly good for you, coconut oil can be a substitute for butter in many baked goods. Because of its high smoke point, coconut oil is great for sautéing, frying, and roasting. Many oils can turn to trans fats when they are heated to too high, but coconut oil is a safe alternative.
Flax is an important source of fiber and Omega-3 fatty acids. I love to add some to smoothies and oatmeal. It’s a great source of fiber, and can also be used in place of eggs for vegan baked goods. Just substitute one egg for one tablespoon of ground flax mixed with three tablespoons of water (ideally allow the mixture to chill in the refrigerator for 15 minutes before adding to your recipe).
This whole grain, that is actually a seed, is easy to cook up for a quick meal. It’s high in protein and fiber and can be used to make a hearty breakfast porridge- cooked with almond milk, cinnamon, and fruit. It’s a great side for savory dishes when cooked with broth instead of water. Quinoa requires half the cooking time of brown rice and can be made in large batches at the beginning of the week to add to several days of meals.
For a twist on the usual favorite, try making some quinoa granola.
My favorites to have on hand are walnuts and almonds. Walnuts are high in Omega-3 fatty acids one of the few vegan sources of Omega-3s which are crucial for effective brain functioning. Almonds can easily be ground into flour or used to make almond milk or simple nut butter.
To make nut butter: just soak your raw nuts overnight or use roasted nuts and process in a food processer for 15 minutes scraping down the sides as needed. Add a pinch of sea salt if desired.
Nuts can add important fiber and protein to breakfast dishes and salads. Raw nuts are also a great snack to help prevent sugar cravings because of their great balance of fiber, healthy fats, and protein.
While food cravings, and sugar cravings in particular can often be linked to a deeper source- like stress or depression, eating and lifestyle habits can also frequently trigger sugar cravings. Consider how the following might be causing some of your cravings:
Coffee and tea give you a nice jolt in the morning, but can leave you dragging later in the day. This can cause you to reach for a white flour or sugary pick-me-up to boost your energy. Slowly try to eliminate or limit your caffeine intake to decrease cravings for sugar- especially in the afternoon and evening.
Alcohol can trigger cravings in a couple of ways. First, it lowers your inhibitions to make healthy choices, but it can also impact and disrupt your sleep leading you to seek an easy energy fix.
3) Lack of Sleep
Limited sleep can trigger sugar cravings when your energy is low. You might find yourself choosing muffins or donuts after a poor night’s sleep. That’s because your will power declines when you’re tired, and you seek foods that will give you quick energy. But these sweets quickly spike your blood sugar leading to crashes later and a cycle of energy highs and lows.
4) Artificial Sweeteners
If you think you’re making healthy choices by choosing aspartame, sucralose, or any other sugar substitute- you might actually be doing more damage than if you just had white table sugar. Sugar substitutes confuse your body. So when you have real sugar, your body is not sure how to process it and may not use the real sugar for energy because the fake sugar didn’t work. And because your body didn’t have the real sugar it wanted, it leaves you craving more.
5) Refined Carbs
White flour, white rice, and many of the starches found in “gluten-free” foods, are processed just like simple sugars. Consuming a lot of highly-processed flour-based foods- including crackers, pretzels, and bread make your body want more because you quickly metabolize these refined foods. They leave you hungry because of their low fiber content and cause you to seek quick energy options to increase your blood sugar levels. Choose whole grains like quinoa, brown rice, or rolled oats to offer you blood sugar-stabilizing fiber.
6) Low-Fat Foods
Beware of “low-fat,” “reduced-fat,” or “fat-free” foods. Food manufacturers often use sugar to replace the fat in these items to maintain their flavor and texture. Read food labels carefully- it’s not calories and fat that matter, it’s sugar content. 4 grams of sugar equals one teaspoon. A 6-ounce flavored fat-free yogurt can easily contain the equivalent of five teaspoons of sugar. The more sugar you consume, the more you want.
This past weekend, I took a road trip up the coast from Los Angeles to San Francisco for a wedding near the ocean. The sea always calms me. It feels like an escape- from all the things that normally surround me. You don’t need much while you’re there- maybe a towel and some sunscreen. With the end of summer approaching, stress and hustle starts to take over. Reduce tension and anxiety by organizing and de-cluttering your physical space. External chaos can lead to below-the-surface stress that can build and collect in your mind and muscles causing inflammation and lowered immunity over time.
Cleaning and organizing the space around you can create freedom and boost creativity.
1) Just toss. If you haven’t worn it in the past year, you don’t need it. If it’s been in a box for longer than that- get rid of it. We are often tied to possessions because of the nostalgia they bring, but keeping these extra mementos around because they remind us of the past can keep us stuck there. What brings you joy today? Those are the things to keep around you. If it’s not functional or beautiful, you probably don’t need it.
2) Give it a home. Everything should have a place, including the sponges for your sink and your mail. This prevents clutter, and keeps you from collecting extra things you don’t need that create a crowded, stifling space. Keep a small basket for mail or dish for keys. For toys, magazines, or other extras- hide them in a covered box so they are not left around to create clutter.
3) 1 for 1. Rather than buying more or adding more- and becoming trapped by possessions- focusing on replacing. If you want a new clothing item, get rid of one or two things. If you’re buying groceries, be sure you have already used up everything you could from your pantry.
4) “A stitch in time saves nine.” This is my favorite Ben Franklin quote. After your initial de-cluttering and cleaning session, maintaining an organized environment takes very little time and will save you from a major clean sweep later. At the end of each day, ensure there are no dirty dishes in the sink, clothes on the floor, or books and papers out of place. This will create a stress-free sleep environment and prevent you from worrying about adding cleaning and organizing to your already long list of to-dos for tomorrow.
By removing clutter and organizing your space, you will sleep better, be more productive, and reduce unnecessary tension.
Photo: San Francisco, 2014