Navigating the Holidays on a Gut Healing Diet

When we are children, the holidays are a magical time filled with anticipation, wonder, and joy. I remember being so excited to be on school vacation, to play in the snow, to see my extended family, and to devour the delicious holiday dinners and sweet treats. As we age, our stress levels increase proportionately with the number of holiday obligations and seemingly endless temptations to indulge in rich food and drink. However, if you’re like me and have food intolerances, or are on a gut healing/elimination diet, the holidays create a different set of stressful challenges:

  • Feeling restricted and unable to enjoy the holiday dinner table spread
  •  Feeling unwelcome and judged at holiday events
  • Missing out on work or family functions because there’s nothing you can eat
  • Frustration at having to explain your food choices to family and friends
  • Feeling hopeless and sad rather than festive and joyful
    (you just want to be “normal” like everyone else!)

Sound familiar? I can relate.

When I found out I was gluten-intolerant in December 2010, I was crushed. I was confused about what I could and couldn’t eat, and constantly “glutened” myself by accident. I felt so restricted, and that my identity as a recreational baker was lost because every single gluten-free recipe I made ended up in the trashcan. I hated having to explain to my family and friends why I couldn’t eat most of the holiday meals they made. I felt frustrated and angry because they didn’t seem to understand, and even hinted that I was making my problems up. It became even harder over the next few years when I learned that I was intolerant to many different foods, and had to be on strict elimination protocols, including the Autoimmune Protocol (AIP). At the beginning, the meal planning, sourcing of high-quality ingredients, and having to make everything from scratch was more than overwhelming. Safe to say, I began to dread the approaching holidays and wanted to hide in a cave.

It doesn’t have to be this way, though! Over time, I learned several tricks and tips that helped me navigate the holidays, making them festive and joyful once again.

1.     Plan ahead, and Be Prepared!
Over the last 7 years, the number of resources and food bloggers focused on gut-healing protocols and allergen-free recipes has grown exponentially. Truly, you can eat like a King or Queen during the holidays, and have your (allergen-free) cake and eat it too! Whether you’re Vegan, Paleo, or on a more strict elimination diet (Autoimmune Protocol/AIP, Gut and Psychology Syndrome/GAPS, or the Specific Carbohydrate Diet/SCD), spend a little bit of time pre-holidays researching recipes that fit your dietary needs (even desserts!). Some of my favorite resources include:

Vegan: Holiday Recipes (from Oh She Glows)
Paleo: Last Minute Holiday Recipe Roundup (from PaleOMG)
AIP: Holidays on the Autoimmune Protocol and 80+ Recipes from Phoenix Helix

The days of starving at the holiday dinner table are over. If you bring some of your favorite dishes, you will be sure to enjoy a holiday event much more than if you elect to eat the “safe” side salad in the corner of the party, or elect not to go at all.

2.     Communicate your needs
If you are invited to a holiday dinner, let the host know that you’d love to come, and that you have specific dietary needs. The host may be more than willing to work with you; if not (or you are concerned about allergen cross-contamination), you may inquire if you can bring some dishes of your own. It never hurts to ask for what you want! If you feel like the event will be more stressful than fun, you always reserve the right to politely decline.

3.     Empower yourself to say “No, thank you”
Perhaps there are one or two (or more) “food pushers” in your family – the ones who try to convince you that you NEED to have that piece of cake (“it’ll make you feel better”). Remember, you are an adult and have full control of what you choose to eat. You do not need to launch into a diatribe about the lack of nutritional value of the food, how gluten causes intestinal permeability, or all of the in-depth symptoms that occur after you eat the food. A simple “no, thank you” is enough. If you suspect that the individual will push back, you may always deflect the conversation to a different subject: “No, thank you. (Smile) Hey, tell me about your new job!” Alternatively, you could keep it simple, and follow up your “no” with “unfortunately, that food makes me feel unwell”. Leave it at that, and save yourself the frustration of a conversation that will likely spiral downwards.

4.     Give yourself the gift of self-care
The holidays are about so much more than food (though we tend to forget this!) – they’re also about connecting with loved ones, giving back, and perhaps most importantly, hitting the reset button. Self-care is often the first thing that falls away in times of stress and busy schedules. This holiday season, put taking care of YOU at the top of your priority list. My favorite self-care practices are sleep, exercise, and unplugging from social media. Committing to your nightly zzzz’s will help regulate your metabolism, decrease your cravings, and help you be attuned to your body’s hunger signals (so you say “no” to that second helping of gluten-free banana bread). Exercise – whether it is gentle yoga, group fitness classes, or a walk in nature – will help you diffuse stress, and improves both mood and sleep. Finally, a short social media detox does wonders to reduce FOMO (fear of missing out), feelings of envy, and helps you reconnect to YOU.

5.     Have an Attitude of Gratitude
My favorite tool to obliterate holiday stress is to amp up my gratitude practice. Being thankful instantly improves your mood and outlook on life. If you have a moment where you are feeling sorry for yourself during the holidays, ask yourself, “What can I be grateful for right now?” I found that when I expressed gratitude for what was going right in my life, the frustrations with being on an elimination diet dramatically decreased. Additionally, I rewired my mindset to be thankful for my health challenges, because they were helping me tune into my body’s signals so that I could make choices that heal and nourish it, rather than further deplete it. It can be as simple as starting a gratitude journal, a gratitude jar, or expressing your thankfulness to your family and friends – make it your own, and watch your joy increase exponentially!

6.     Be gentle with yourself
Let’s face it, mistakes happen. We all have cravings, and the siren songs of holiday treats may get the best of you. You may inadvertently (or in a moment of weakness) consume a food you react to. Rather than beating yourself up and letting one mistake turn into a cascade of bad food choices, take a deep breath, drink lots of water, and re-commit to your nutrient-dense diet. The less you stress, the faster your body will rebound from eating an inflammatory food.

The holidays don’t have to mean falling off the wagon, or have to result in emotional turmoil. While it’s unrealistic to expect that the holiday season will go off without a hitch, you can set yourself up for success with these strategies in your back pocket. Wishing you a joyful, festive, and fun holiday season!