Most of us can agree that although the holidays can bring us a lot of happiness, they can also be a huge source of stress in our lives. The balance certainly varies from one person to the next, but if nothing else, the holiday season is a break from many of our usual routines. As meal times change, sleep schedules are rearranged and life loses its normal flow, our bodies have to work harder to stay balanced. Sometimes, the stress can be too much for anyone, and with all the cookies and desserts at our disposal, it’s really easy to overindulge and feel like we have no choice. That’s part of the reason we gain weight during the holidays. When we’re staring at our favorite sweets all day, it takes a strong willpower to say no to "one or two" every now and then.

I can’t always convince myself to stay away from the sweets, because let’s be honest, always saying no doesn’t lead to a very happy life. However, if you’re turning those sweets into "comfort food" or as a legitimate stress relief, it’s worth it to know that those foods really aren’t your best option.

Re-evaluate your stress eating.
We’re all creatures of habit who often have a hard time adjusting to changes in our schedule and routine. The most common routine, however, is one we rarely re-evaluate—our food choices when we’re stress eating. As a kid, I have plenty of fond memories of going to Pizza Hut after baseball games or Olive Garden after swim meets. For one reason or another, that simply became my family’s habit, and since we did this for years, it sort of became ingrained in my mind that eating at those restaurants or just having pizza and pasta anytime was a way to pick myself up when I was having a bad day.

Luckily, I was active enough in those days that it didn’t matter if I turned to unhealthy food for a quick pick-me-up. As I got older and my metabolism and activity levels went down, weight gain started to become a real problem. Once I started to look at the root cause of my weight gain, I realized a simply truth: My stress eating was providing short-term relief but making my life more stressful in the long run. That’s when I realized it was time to look at other food options.

Know the power of superfoods.
Some of the most commonly recommended superfoods to eat when you're feeling stressed include eggs, kale, broccoli, leafy greens, celery, nuts, oily fish like salmon, fermented foods like pickles or yogurt, herbs and spices, and organic berries high in vitamin C. Eggs are great sources of protein and omega-3 fatty acids. Kale is low in calories. It’s also rich in calcium and potassium, and because it contains oxalates, those nutrients are better absorbed and put to use by your body. Berries are great for lowering blood pressure and are loaded with antioxidants. I could go on listing these benefits for a while, but you get the point. They’re great for you, and you can personalize your diet in a way that allows you to pick the food that’s most beneficial to your individual health needs.

 You don’t have to eat all these foods every day, nor do you have to force yourself to eat pickles if you can’t stand the taste. However, I do think it’s important to at least try some of these foods once in a while and see how your body reacts. You might even realize you like broccoli, since the last time you tried it was when you swore it off at age 12. Our taste buds change over time. My sister-in-law couldn’t stand the taste of cherry pie as a kid, but she finally ate it again after 15 years. Now, she can’t get enough of it!

There is a huge difference between snacking on sweets and superfoods.
Part of the reason it’s so hard to convince ourselves to say no to sweets is that they do make us feel better right away. There’s something about that first taste of our favorite ice cream or cake. No amount of berries or nuts is going to give us that initial burst of joy. However, as good as that feeling is, it’s not made to last for long. I know what it does to me. Within minutes of taking that last bite, I start feeling listless and stressed all over again. On top of that, I’m usually hungry for more!

Although snacking on berries or nuts has never given me that same sort of initial burst of good feeling, the more I track my eating habits and stress levels throughout the day, the more I realize that what they provide me is more mood stability and energy all day long. Whereas added sugar activates the pleasure centers in our brains and gives us that initial boost, it also leads us to come crashing down once that high wears off. However, snacking on specific superfoods can provide a sort of "slow burn," where my body is getting all the vitamins and nutrients it needs to get me through the day with as few interruptions as possible.

Eating superfoods certainly is never going to be as exciting or glamorous as eating our favorite sweets, and it will take some willpower and determination to substitute sugar cookies for a handful of blueberries. However, once you get over that initial hurdle, it really can make you get more joy out of life. By providing ourselves with the essential nutrients we need on a daily basis, we relieve the stress our bodies feel performing all their normal upkeep routines. With that out of the way, we can spend more time enjoying life, rather than stressing over it. 

Jay McKenzie loves soccer, history and feeling great. He's on a quest to eat better and exercise more, and he wants to share his experiences along the way. You can email him at jaymckenzie86@gmail.com with comments or questions. The opinions expressed in this column belong solely to the author, not Nooga.com or its employees.