By Brierley Wright, M.S., R.D. , December 15, 2010 - 12:49pm
Unlike many people, I prefer the weeks leading up to Christmas and New Year’s over the actual holiday days. I love finding the perfect presents, wrapping them by the fire and baking holiday goodies. (Ahem, healthier-for-you ones like these 100-calorie cookies. )
Despite my cheer, I eventually end up stressed and cranky because I spread myself too thin trying to celebrate Christmas with both sides of my husband’s and my family (who live 400+ miles apart!) So for those of you who are likewise overwhelmed with all the holiday preparations and are cranky NOW (or will be soon, like me) here are some tips for what you can eat and what you can do to beat holiday stress. Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to promote unhealthy, emotional eating. There are some healthy foods and solutions backed by science that can help.
Stressor: You’re missing the “happy” in Happy Holidays.
How to beat it: Aside from the tried-and-true tricks of decorating your house and playing holiday music to help you get in the joyous seasonal spirit, think about what you’re eating. In a recent study of close to 3,500 men and women published in the British Journal of Psychiatry, those who reported eating a diet rich in whole foods in the previous year were less likely to report feeling depressed than those who ate lots of desserts, fried foods, processed meats, refined grains and high-fat dairy products. Previous studies have shown that antioxidants in fruits and vegetables and omega-3 fatty acids in fish are associated with lower risk of depression. Folate, a B vitamin found in beans, citrus and dark green vegetables like spinach, affects neurotransmitters that impact mood. It’s possible that the protectiveness of the whole-food diet comes from a cumulative effect of these nutrients.
Related: More foods to boost your mood naturally 
Stressor: You don’t have time to exercise.
How to beat it: Your calendar is chock-full of holiday parties, plus you have to decorate, shop, wrap and cook—how could you have time? It’s worth your while to make (at least a little) time: research shows that regular physical activity can help reduce stress and depression, likely because exercise promotes the release of feel-good endorphins in the brain. Don’t worry though if a full 30-minute chunk of time isn’t feasible—even short bouts of exercise can give you a boost. Break it into smaller 10- or 15-minute intervals if that’s more convenient. If that’s still asking too much, try these easy ways to sneak in more physical activity: skip the elevator and take the stairs, park your car at the far end of the parking lot or wander around the mall instead of doing your holiday shopping online.
Related: A 10-minute holiday exercise plan 
Stressor: Gaining weight—between the food- and drink-focused holiday parties and then the holidays themselves, it seems too easy to pack on extra pounds.
How to beat it: The good news is that most Americans only gain about a pound between Thanksgiving and New Year’s. The bad news is that’s half of our annual weight gain—and research shows we don’t tend to lose it when the partying ends.
One easy way to help you keep your weight in check this holiday season is simply controlling portions. Leave the food scale and measuring cups at home and try these instead: A salad plate or kid-size plate is perfect for your main meal. Use a small bowl for soup and a white-wine glass instead of a big red-wine glass.
Another secret to warding off weight gain—without dieting—is to eat more fiber. Researchers found that women who increased their fiber intake over a 2-year period generally lost weight. Those who decreased the fiber in their diets gained. Try it for yourself: if you’re consuming 2,000 calories per day, aim to increase your fiber by 16 grams.
Stressor: You have tons to do and don’t have enough energy.
How to beat it: Whatever you do, don’t skip meals. And when you do eat, be sure your meals include some lean high-protein foods (think: flank steak, a skinless chicken breast, fish or beans), particularly at lunch, with plenty of whole grains, fruits and vegetables. They’ll keep you satisfied longer and are more likely to keep you feeling energized and productive. The protein at lunch will help you avoid that afternoon slump. Choose wisely when it comes to carbohydrates, too, especially if you’re running on overdrive: stress often leads to a craving for carbs because they boost serotonin, which has a calming effect. And when you’re in that stressed state it’s easy to succumb to chips, cookies, pretzels or other refined-carbohydrate snacks.
Related: 20+ quick, light lunch ideas for busy days 
Stressor: You’re not getting enough sleep.
How to beat it: If it’s quality, not quantity, that you crave, there may be a food combination to help. Specialists recommend a pre-slumber snack that’s rich in carbohydrates and contains a bit of protein; this combination is said to increase the tryptophan levels in the brain, causing you to sleep more soundly. Try low-fat yogurt with a sprinkle of granola, a small bowl of oatmeal or a sliced apple with a bit of peanut butter.
What are your holiday stressors & how do you beat them? Tell us what you think below.