As someone with ulcerative colitis, I used to dread holiday gatherings, with their heavy, hard-to-digest meals and abundance of alcoholic beverages. The fact that I couldn’t control what foods were served — coupled with uncertainty about bathroom access and feeling chronically fatigued — sounded like a recipe for disaster.
During holiday seasons when I was in the midst of a flare-up, I’d be torn between eating foods and drinking beverages I knew I’d regret later, or avoiding most of the food and alcohol but risk offending the host.
Over the years, I’ve found that a little planning and preparation goes a long way. Here are the top five tips and tricks that have helped me enjoy the holiday season.
1. If Traveling, Offer to Bring a Dish That You Know Is Well Tolerated
We can’t always control what foods are served at holiday parties, but asking the host if you can bring a dish of your own that you know you tolerate well ensures that you will have something safe to eat regardless of what is served.
I generally bring a dish with a protein and vegetable component that I can eat as my main course, just in case the available options are foods I know won’t make me feel good. During times of active inflammation, I’ll bring something that’s cooked, has a soft texture, and is low in fat, to avoid irritating an inflamed gut. A simple baked chicken paired with my homemade cauliflower mash or cinnamon-roasted butternut squash are some of my favorite festive and flare-friendly dishes to bring.
Be sure to bring enough of your dish so others can try it. You never know — you may not be the only guest with a sensitive digestive system!
2. Avoid Going Into Holiday Meals Starving
While it may feel silly to have a snack before a big holiday dinner, I’ve been to gatherings where the food options were laden with heavy cream sauces and fatty meats, both of which I tend to avoid even when I’m in remission, to promote a healthy gut microbiome. For times like these, having a nutritious snack like a banana and spoonful of peanut butter or a Greek yogurt beforehand goes a long way, and can allow you to focus on enjoying yourself rather than stressing over food options.
Regardless of whether or not you have IBD, it’s never a good idea to go into a meal ravenously hungry. When our blood sugar dips, we’re more likely to make food decisions on impulse and eat things we normally wouldn’t. We may also eat a larger amount more quickly than we otherwise would. If you have active IBD, this not only causes unpleasant fullness but may aggravate more disruptive GI symptoms.
3. Stay Well-Hydrated
Flare-ups can affect our ability to absorb fluids properly, leaving us more prone to dehydration. I have found that I’ll often get distracted socializing and forget to keep up with my fluid intake at holiday gatherings. Later, I’ll develop a headache, feeling dizzy and weak.
It doesn’t help that most festive drink options consist of alcohol, eggnog, or carbonated beverages. I’ve never been a big drinker, mostly because of the negative effects alcohol can have on the gut and how it impacts the way I feel. Sometimes I’ll politely decline an alcoholic drink, and other times I’ll just hold the glass as a prop or take a few small sips to avoid feeling like a total buzzkill.
To keep up with my hydration, I seek out broth-based soups to replenish sodium and add a splash of juice or squeeze of lemon to my water, which also helps remind me to drink.
4. Limit Portions of Fat Eaten Within One Sitting
Between the mashed potatoes and gravy at Thanksgiving, to Christmas ham and Hanukkah latkes, there is certainly no shortage of greasy, fatty foods at holiday meals. As delicious as they may be, eating large portions of fatty foods within one sitting can cause major digestive distress. This is because fatty foods are often not broken down or absorbed as well during flares.
To keep my fat portions in check, I go for leaner cuts of meat or choose the seafood or vegetarian protein option, as these tend to be lowest in fat. If you’re eating poultry, it’s helpful to remove the skin, which is hard to break down and contains additional fat.
I’m also cognizant of the amount of fatty sauces, gravies, and cheesy dishes that I spoon onto my plate. A good rule of thumb is to stick to one or two fat servings per sitting. One fat serving looks like a tablespoon of oil or butter, a lipstick-sized portion of cheese, or a portion of fatty meat or fatty fish the size of a deck of cards.
5. Don’t Feel Pressured to Clean Your Plate
Holiday meals often involve eating a large amount in one sitting, but small, frequent meals are best tolerated during flares. Eating a large volume of food all at once triggers something called the gastrocolic reflex. Essentially, when our stomach stretches to accommodate a large meal, our brain is alerted and signals our colon to empty out in order to make room for the food we just ate. While this mechanism is beneficial, it can also provide fuel to the fire of an already overactive gut.
When serving myself, I envision an hors d’oeuvres plate and stick to small portion sizes.
Eating slowly, chewing thoroughly, and taking breaks between bites to check in with your body’s fullness cues all help you avoid feeling uncomfortable and overstimulating the gastrocolic reflex.
Although the holidays can be stressful if you have active IBD, it’s important to stay positive and remember that flares are only temporary. With over 3 million American adults estimated to have IBD, we are certainly not alone. A little extra thought and preparation can help us spend more time enjoying the company of friends and family, rather than stressing over food and GI symptoms.