Holiday survival guide for those on a special diet

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It can be tough for anyone to maintain a healthy diet throughout the holiday season with all the food-related temptations that abound this time of year. But as someone on an anti-candida diet, or ACD (a vegan diet without sugar, gluten, alcohol, condiments, mushrooms or many other foods) I know it can be excruciatingly difficult to navigate the festive season.

Like it or not, when you’re on a restricted diet, this time of year makes you keenly aware of your food limitations as well as the sometimes shaky line between friendship and maintaining your health; between wondering, “What would make a good hostess gift?” and “will there be anything I can eat?” Sometimes, you might even wonder if it’s worth attending the event at all, when you are (mostly) relegated to outside observer while everyone else indulges in supersized portions of flaky hors d’oeuvres, cheesy bites, holiday meats, chocolate truffles with Grand Marnier ganache, or big, sloppy slices of trifle and bread puddings with their champagne. Waaaah!

So how do you survive the barrage of sugar-laden, cream-laden, chocolate-laden, booze-laden, lard-laden buffets, holiday tables, restaurant menus and dinner parties that will be crossing your path until, oh, mid-February?

Well, folks, I won’t stevia-coat it: adhering to a special diet can be a huge challenge, and at times is very, very tough. As a sweets addict, I know I can relapse with the least provocation. As a result, I thought it might be useful to outline some of the strategies I’ve used in the past and plan to use this season to keep the holidays a happy time, even on a special diet. These tips will apply to anyone who can’t partake of the regular Standard American Diet (SAD) fare.

Invitations to Parties and Others’ Homes

Over the years, I’ve finally set aside any initial fear of offending my host(ess), and always bring at least one dish I can eat (raw kale salad is usually a huge hit with everyone, and it can be whipped up in minutes before you leave). I bring enough for everyone, so that it doesn’t appear I’m simply feeding myself. Yes, this creates a bit of an inconvenience and extra expense, but it’s worth it to be able to eat something. Most parties will serve veggies and dip, so you can munch on the veggies, at least.

I also always eat something before I go, even if it’s just some wheat-free crackers and almond butter. That way, if my own salad is truly the only ACD-friendly food in the place, I won’t starve.

It can be difficult to stand around chatting with people as they imbibe champagne, wine, or whatever and eat all manner of yummy, rich and savory foods–but try to keep your mind on the real reason behind the party: to socialize, to meet people, to get together with friends and family. They really are better than a piece of pumpkin pie, aren’t they?

Holiday Meals

If you’re cooking up your own holiday meal at home, the best thing to do is find a “safe” recipe that the rest of your family can enjoy, too. I’ve found that most vegetable dishes, salads, appetizers, and even main courses are perfectly acceptable to just about anyone as long as they’re tasty.

Desserts for me are a little more complicated, as stevia is not for everyone. If you can, cook up a dessert that can be divided in two, with one half for you (stevia-sweetened) and the other sweetened with “regular” sweeteners. I’ve accomplished such schizophrenic sweets on occasion in recipes such as Matcha Truffles, and Chocolate Pumpkin Mousse would be a hit with anyone.

Get creative with the ingredients you are permitted to eat, or find yourself some good recipes to use. Some of my favorites are featured in my two recipe ebooks.

Food Cravings

Despite what the experts have promised, my sugar cravings didn’t go away in a week, or two weeks after being on the diet, or–well, ever. Even after 19 months without cheating and even after losing 45 pounds, I still have them, and have them almost daily. For those of us with sugar addictions–much like any addiction–they may never go away.

So when I’m hit with a massive craving for chocolate, or cake with frosting (okay, sometimes even minus the cake), or chocolate chip cookie dough, I still go prowling through the kitchen, opening and closing the refrigerator repeatedly in the hopes that I might suddenly, miraculously spy something sweet that I am “allowed” to eat. (Sadly, no, healthy Twinkies do not magically appear). Then what?

Well, friends, in those times when I’m desperate for something sweet, I simply succumb to the urge. No, I don’t eat something sugar, but I do eat as much as I like of any ACD-friendly sweets. This may mean consuming six squares of my faux chocolate in quick succession, or an entire recipe of homemade carob-coconut truffles, or even some homemade chocolate mousse. True, I may be eating more than I should in one sitting, but if it prevents me from hooking up with my old sweetheart, Sugar, then I’m okay with it. The moment usually passes by the time I reach the fourth square of “chocolate,” and I return to my regularly scheduled menus, crisis averted.

Feeling Blue without Favorite Foods

  • Despite your best efforts, despite being motivated, and despite really, really wanting to get healthy, there will still be times when these food restrictions and the havoc they play with your “normal” life will feel like a huge burden, and you may wonder why you are sticking with the diet when results are often slow to manifest. At times like those, I try to resuscitate my drive by getting in touch with positive energy, either from people that are close to me, or other reliable sources of optimism. Call a friend, your sister, your cousin, your sponsor–whoever will be able to support you in a moment of weakness.

This holiday season, I plan to focus as much as possible on the intentions behind the gatherings rather than the foods on serving dishes. Being “fully nourished” means feeding not only our bellies, but also our emotions, our psychological needs, our friendships and our relationships with loved ones. According to holistic nutritionist Meghan Telpner,

“Feeling well involves being in good humor, genuinely cheerful, optimistic and positive. Health is the ability to make decisions and take responsibility for our own actions. When our health is good we carry less fear inside and therefore can lead our lives more honestly and with more integrity. We can see the good in our lives and know that the bad will pass. We feel gratitude for what we are blessed with. Perhaps most importantly, when we feel well, we can feel, live and spread love. Wellness breeds happiness and true happiness can ensure sustained wellness.”

Remember that your special diet is designed to help you feel better and regain vibrant health; it doesn’t have to rule your life.

Here’s to a happy, healthy and naturally sweet holiday season!

Ricki Heller, PhD, RHN | @RickiHeller
Formerly the owner of a vegan bakery, Ricki adapted those recipes for her cookbook, Sweet Freedom: Desserts You'll Love without Wheat, Eggs, Dairy or Refined Sugar. She also writes articles about food for various publications and online sites. Find Ricki posting delicious, healthy recipes on her blog, Diet, Dessert and Dogs.

Photo credit: cc:flickr.com/photos/sifu_renka

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