Holiday Health Tips from Recent Research

Ryan Bradley, ND, MPH     December, 2012


The holidays are a time for giving and sharing, laughing and crying, and, of course, eating and drinking. However, the “holidays” are also a vulnerable time for gaining weight because of the many temptations, often combined with a little extra stress. In addition to holiday tips offered in the past, some very recent clinical research in nutrition, physical activity, and stress-management offer us a few extra ideas to help stave off unnecessary and unhealthy holiday weight gain. Applying these tips can help you get the greatest benefits from your current healthy lifestyle efforts!


Get Up and Move - Even a Little Counts!

It sounds obvious, but guess one critical requirement to burning calories and improving insulin sensitivity? Moving your body! Although it’s no shocking discovery that movement helps burn sugar, it is a little shocking just how little movement is required to be beneficial. 1 Researchers at an Australian heart and diabetes institute recently compared three groups:

  • Uninterrupted sitting for 2 hours,
  • Moving for 2 minutes every 20 minutes at a light intensity walking, and
  • Moving for 2 minutes every 20 minutes at a moderate intensity walking

Compared to uninterrupted sitting, moving for 2 minutes every 20 minutes was found to improve glucose tolerance from a test meal and reduce the amount of insulin required to lower glucose, both suggesting an improvement in insulin resistance with even small amounts of physical activity!

So, instead of sitting on the couch and visiting over the holidays, get up and talk while going for a walk, or at least, get up every 20 minutes to get a new fresh cup of tea, go to the bathroom, stretch your legs, get the mail, scratch the dog, play with the kids, twiddle your thumbs, go get something out of the car, rake the leaves, shovel some snow, fold some clothes, etc. Just move!


Maximize Exercise Timing

Researchers at the University of Glasgow in Scotland asked if when we exercise might help optimize health benefits.2 They found that exercising before breakfast improved the metabolism of both carbohydrates and fat, and was especially helpful in increasing the amount of fat being burned relative to the amount of carbohydrates.

Why does this effect happen and what does it mean? Believe it or not, our bodies are designed to handle long periods without food very well. We have reserves of both carbohydrates and fat (some more than others!) that we can rely on in times of scarcity. However, when we exercise, we first use the carbs and fat that are readily available in our blood streams, and only when all of this energy is used up does our body begin using stored fat and carbohydrates. So, it is somewhat logical that if you exercise before you eat, more of your stored energy will be used to power your morning run. Practiced regularly, pre-breakfast exercise is likely to lead to greater weight loss.

However, exercising after meals helps lower blood sugar and blood fat more quickly than not exercising at all. So the most important tip is to get in some movement every day!


Learn How to Walk Again - Interval Walking Increases Fitness and Aids Sugar Metabolism

Just when you think you know how to do something right, new research suggests even how we walk can be optimized for its health benefits.3 Researchers from the University of Copenhagen recently compared three groups:

  • No walking,
  • Walking for 60 minutes at a moderate intensity (i.e., ~60% maximum heart rate), or
  • Interval walking, or combining light intensity (i.e., ~20% maximum heart rate) walking with high intensity “interval” (i.e., ~80% maximum heart rate) walking, alternating every 3 minutes.

The two walking groups walked 5 days per week for 4 months. At the end of the study, those assigned to the interval walking had improved measures of respiratory fitness, reduced fat mass, and improved glucose metabolism compared to the other groups. In fact, only the interval walking group demonstrated significant improvements in these areas.


Stay Mindful about Food Choices to Improve Blood Glucose

As exemplified in our own research supported by Diabetes Action, including eating behavior as an element of dietary counseling has long been a part of naturopathic approaches to diet and nutrition.4However, a recent study performed by Miller et al., further reinforces the importance of “mindfulness” in diet-related self-care for diabetes.5Miller et al. performed a 1-year randomized trial comparing a typical diabetes education self-care and diet program to a program that including food mindfulness. At the end of the study, the mindful eating group had greater improvements in dietary intake of trans fats, sugar and fiber, and greater improvement in HbA1c values (-0.83% vs. -0.67%).

Mindful Eating ( was developed by Dr. Jean Kristeller, a psychologist specializing in eating disorders. Core principles to mindful eating include:

  • Be non-judgmental, yet aware, of impulses and habits around food,
  • pay attention to bodily signals around hunger, and
  • work to develop consciousness about the personal and systemic (social, environmental, etc) effects of food choices.

How might these concepts be applied during the holiday season, when there is so much emphasis on eating (and so much pressure by various hosts to eat)? A mindful eater may find himself acknowledging the generosity of a host, but politely commenting that they are, in fact, not hungry at the moment. A mindful eater may appreciate the different offerings at a holiday buffet, but consciously choose the low-calorie option. A mindful eater (a mindful person, really) may simply choose to focus on holidays as being about time with loved ones, rather than what’s just on the menu.


Mindful Meditation Improves Stress Response

Speaking more on the importance of mindfulness, researchers at Boston University recently completed a study of the effects of meditation on the brains of people new to meditation.6 Using functional magnetic resonance imaging (fMRI) to study brain activity, individuals were scanned before and after meditation training. The part of the brain involved in emotional responses to stress (i.e., the amygdala), was shown to have reduced activity after eight weeks of meditation training.

What are the implications of this research for the holidays? Well, the findings suggest somebody who meditates regularly may have an easier time dealing with all of the extra stresses of the season. For anyone struggling with emotional eating, learning some simple meditation techniques may help quiet the emotions and keep the pounds off. If you’ve never studied meditation, there are a variety of CDs and DVDs available online or through many public libraries.


Minimize Empty Calories from Alcohol

Just in time to dampen (or rather dry out) our holiday festivities, the National Center for Health Statistics (NCHS) at the Centers for Disease Control released a report this November detailing how alcohol contributes to the caloric intake of Americans.7 Using survey data collected between 2007 2010, NCHS estimates 20% of men and 6% of women consume at least 300 calories from alcoholic beverages every day, which is about two 12-ounce beers or 2 glasses of wine (as another means of comparison, a 12-ounce soft drink has about 150 calories). Mind you that’s 300 calories on a typical day, and doesn’t take into account holiday overindulgence.

Alcohol intake can wreck havoc in diabetes. It can increase insulin sensitivity and glycemic control (especially in type 2 diabetes), so moderate amounts are usually OK (the best data supports one drink for women and two drinks for men, per day). For individuals using sulfonylurea drugs (e.g., glipizide, glyburide) to manage their diabetes, alcohol increases risk of hypoglycemic episodes, so they need to be especially cautious.8 Given the effects of alcohol on decision-making, too many drinks may also affect mealtime portion control. Our advice around the holidays - and throughout the year - is to stay mindful of how your drinking affects your caloric intake.

We hope you can find some instant ways to apply these recent research findings to improve your health, the health of your families, and the health of your communities this holiday season!

In Health, 
Ryan Bradley, ND, MPH and Bill Walter, ND



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