The traveling, eating and gathering season is here!

The holidays are filled with a multitude of wonderful memories, many of them centered around family, friends and food. Before you deck the halls and gather around the kitchen table, consider the following tips on keeping your body, mind and spirit healthy.

Travel Tips

Millions of Americans will travel this holiday season, most by car or airplane. Loading the family, luggage and presents in the car? The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC) reminds travelers to protect themselves and their little ones.

  • Buckle children in age- and size-appropriate car seats, booster seats and seat belts, which reduce the risk for serious injuries or death in a car crash by up to 80%.

  • Children are safest when car seats and booster seats are used correctly. Buckle children the right way in the right seat and learn how to avoid the most common mistakes.

  • Bulky/puffy coats should not be used underneath a car seat harness. Bulky clothing makes it difficult to tighten a car seat harness properly. A loose harness is dangerous and can lead to serious injuries or even ejection from the car seat in a crash.

  • Instead, properly buckle the harness first, then place a coat or blanket over the buckled child. This will not interfere with the harness and will still keep the child warm. For more information, you can visit the Winter Car Seat Safety Tips webpage on the American Academy of Pediatrics’ (AAP) website for parents.

  • Remember that children 12 and younger should be properly buckled in the back seat of the vehicle.

  • Set a good example by always using a seat belt yourself.

  • Safety Stop at St. Louis Children's Hospital offers free virtual and in-person consultations on car seat safety and other topics. Additionally, a limited selection of car seats and other safety gear is available for discounted prices as part of a Safety Stop appointment. Learn more.

If your holiday plans include traveling by air, the Transportation Security Administration has some helpful hints for a stress-free airport experience.

  • Get there early! Give yourself plenty of time to park, check in and go through security. The TSA recommends arriving two hours before your flight.

  • Consider checking your bag. If Thanksgiving air travel numbers are any indication, December airline travel will be at pre-pandemic levels. More people flying mean more carry-on bags, and that means more time needed to get through the screening checkpoint.

  • If you must bring a carry-on, make sure it is well organized. It takes time for TSA officers to make sure a jam-packed, cluttered, overstuffed bag is safe. And the more time it takes to screen your bag, the longer you — and everyone behind you — are stuck in line.

  • Remember the 3-1-1 for carry-on bags. The TSA liquids rule states passengers limit liquids, gels and pastes to no more than 3.4 ounces, or 100 milliliters, in 1 bag that’s no bigger than 1 quart.

  • Keep the line moving. Have appropriate ID and your boarding pass out and ready to go. Standard screening requires that you take your laptop out of your bag. Wearing shoes you can get off and on easily also helps keep everyone behind you in line happy.

For more airline travel tips, visit the TSA site.

When it comes to eating and drinking on the road or in the air, the CDC recommends the following:

  • Quench your thirst with water and no- or low-calorie drinks instead of sugary drinks. If you want flavor in your water, add slices of lemon, lime, cucumber, watermelon or any fruit you like. Sparkling water is another no-calorie option. Bring along a reusable water bottle for refills.

  • Pack healthy snacks such as fruits, vegetables and nuts to eat instead of cookies, chips or candy. These healthy snacks can help keep you satisfied. When you have healthy foods handy, you may be less likely to eat something unhealthy.

  • Plan stops along your route to take brief physical activity breaks.

  • With the rise in respiratory viruses this time of year, travel with hand sanitizer and anti-bacterial wipes to properly clean your hands and eating surface before and after eating.   

Special eating considerations

Eat, drink and stay healthy! The holidays are filled with so many occasions to gather, and most of the gatherings involve an overabundance of food. Hosting a party? Make sure you have plenty of protein and healthy options for guests who have special dietary considerations.

The American Diabetes Association notes that 37.3 million Americans, or 11.3% of the population, have diabetes. In addition, 96 million Americans 18 and older have prediabetes. Diabetes increases your risk for many serious health problems. It puts you at risk for nerve damage, foot and limb injuries, vision problems, and other complications that arise from having uncontrolled blood sugar. Additionally, there’s a link between diabetes, heart disease and stroke. In fact, two out of three people with diabetes die from heart disease or stroke, also called cardiovascular disease.

Good diabetes control can reduce the risks for diabetes complications, including heart and blood vessel disease. With the correct treatment and recommended lifestyle changes, many people with diabetes are able to prevent or delay the onset of diabetes complications, including cardiovascular disease.

Diane Zych, a registered dietitian and certified diabetes educator on the BJC Community Health Improvement team, offers the following tips for managing diabetes over the holiday season.

  • First of all, eat the foods you like, but always in moderation. Be mindful of portion size. It’s among the most important factors in keeping blood-sugar levels balanced throughout the holidays.

  • Choose healthier foods and drinks. Pick foods that are high in fiber and low in fat and sugar. Build a plate that includes a balance of vegetables, protein and carbohydrates. Drink water instead of sweetened drinks.

  • Foods that are low-carb and high-protein are the best options. Your body digests protein more slowly, thereby creating less of an impact on your blood sugar levels.

  • Choose carbs that come from high-quality, plant-based sources, such as quinoa, sweet potatoes, squash and berries. These types of carbs come with fiber, which helps your body to digest food more slowly.

  • Avoid desserts and beverages that contain real sugar.

  • Be aware of the amount of alcohol you consume and try to minimize it. Alcoholic beverages may be full of carbohydrates. An 8-ounce glass of wine, for example, contains about 4 carbs, a 12-ounce beer about 13 carbs. Light beers are typically low in carbs.

  • Plan healthy meals for the week. People who do food prep are more likely to be successful at staying on track. It’s not a guarantee of success, but it reduces the risk of being caught off guard and having to run out at the last minute for fast food.

  • Get moving! Limit time spent sitting and try to fit into your schedule at least 30 minutes of physical activity, five days a week.

“It’s not just avoiding foods that aren’t nutritious,” says Zych. “Good nutrition includes eating a wide variety of plant foods of different colors. Plant foods are very filling due to their fiber and water content. Along with providing glucose control, they play a role in cancer prevention.”

In addition to watching what you eat and taking medications like insulin, if needed, physical activity is one of the three big factors in keeping your blood sugar levels on track, adds Zych. “The majority of people with diabetes need these three components to reduce the risk of diabetes complications.”

Supporting teens with eating disorders during the holidays

The holidays bring up many emotions and images for people. Food and family gatherings are at the center of plans and memories for most of us. For teens struggling with eating disorders, the holidays can be the toughest time of the year.

Difficulties for teens with anorexia nervosa — When people have restrictive eating disorders such as anorexia nervosa, the pressure of being in environments with so much food is overwhelming. People with anorexia nervosa have an intense fear of gaining weight. Often even smelling food or seeing people eat can give them tremendous internal distress. Eating in front of other people is also often stressful because they may fear that others are judging them for what they eat.

Difficulties for teens with bulimia nervosa — For people with bulimia nervosa or binge eating disorder, the holidays represent another sort of challenge with triggering foods. Additionally, with so much access to food they may have increased binges and purges. People with bulimia will also have to grapple with the presence of family members in their homes when they purge and the deeply conflicting emotions that can follow binge and purge cycles.

How to support your teen — It can be difficult as a family member of someone with an eating disorder to know what to do to be helpful and supportive. Overall, it is helpful to move the focus of your holiday celebrations away from food and eating when you can. Plan activities that you can enjoy together like playing games, seeing holiday lights or watching movies.

Avoid making comments about what people are eating or not eating, and do not talk about your loved one’s appearance (even positive comments). Steer clear of saying things about your own eating or overeating. Also, avoid discussing how you need to “go to the gym” after that meal. This can also cause a lot of anxiety for people with eating disorders. If you see someone with an eating disorder struggling, it is kind and supportive to ask them how you can help and how they are feeling if you have that kind of relationship with them.

Tips directly from teens with eating disorders — At the Center for Change: Eating Disorder Treatment Center, patients with eating disorders were surveyed and gave suggestions for ways families could support them during the holidays. Some of their suggestions were:

  • Ask how they are doing and see if they need any help.

  • Do not become angry about how they feel but offer a lot of support.

  • Be aware of what may be creating anxiety and try and understand what they feel. Be understanding, kind and supportive.

  • Spend quality time with your loved one.

  • Make sure that the primary focus of the holiday is not on the food but rather on the family and the valued time you will share together.

  • Allow for other activities that do not involve food, such as games, singing carols together, opening gifts, decorating and spending time just talking together.

  • Help them take their mind off of food by generating a conversation with them about general or important topics.

  • Don’t allow them to excessively isolate.

And most important, during the holiday season for teens with eating disorders and for ALL teens, let them know they are loved.

Seasonal Affective Disorder

Finally, it’s important to remember that the holidays may be a difficult time for people who suffer from Seasonal Affective Disorder, or SAD. The American Academy of Family Physicians (AAFP) calls SAD a kind of depression that follows the seasons. The most common type of SAD is called winter depression. It usually begins in late fall or early winter and goes away by summer.

About 4% to 6% of people may have winter depression. Another 10% to 20% may have mild SAD. SAD is four times more common in women than in men. SAD is also more common the farther north you go. For example, it's seven times more common in Washington state than in Florida.

Cynthia Hovis, MSW, LCSW, is a licensed clinical social worker with BJC HealthCare. She says symptoms of SAD include increased appetite including carbohydrate cravings, increased sleep, weight gain, irritability, heavy-feeling arms or legs, and interpersonal difficulties.

“The treatment for SAD can include light therapy, medication and counseling/psychotherapy,” Hovis adds. “Cognitive behavior therapy has been effective in helping some clients determine ways to change their thought and behavior patterns to enhance their mood and energy levels.”

Hovis says now is the time to focus on a healthy balance. Here are a few ways to do that:

  • Stay connected to friends and family.

  • Participate in fun activities.

  • Eliminate commitments that are more stressful than rewarding.

  • Eat healthy foods and drink plenty of water.

  • Get regular exercise, or at least add in daily movement if not a full workout.

  • Take in a much natural light as possible.

If you have concerns about your health, your first step is always to check in with your primary care physician.

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