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Posted: December 06, 2007

Spousal Caregiving

Defensive Holiday Eating and Drinking

Bill Andrew

As a spousal caregiver, you want to do what is best for your loved one. But have you thought about doing what is best for you during the Christmas holidays?

In many households, Thanksgiving is traditionally the beginning of a long holiday season with many secular and religious celebrations that include dinners and parties that can create significant health problems for you as a family caregiver.

As for me, my concerns are not so much for my care-recipient spouse but for myself as her caregiver. With the stress and strain of caregiving, it is easy to slip into a habit of having an extra piece of pie, chocolates and other candies, egg nog, butter cookies, alcohol, and other extra caloric intake that can take a toll on your arteries and expand your waistline -- and perhaps compromise your ability to provide quality care for your spouse.

In fact, by eating an extra 200 calories a day, you could easily add on two or three pounds during the next several weeks. While that doesn't sound like a lot, the real problem is shedding those extra pounds because few people shed that extra weight in the following months and years.

As a caregiver, it is imperative to stay in shape so you can better take care of your loved one. You don't have to deprive yourself of the many holiday treats that will be coming your way this holiday season by only eating boring foods. Instead, you could practice "defensive eating" and go through the holidays without having to start a rigorous diet at the beginning of the New Year.

A recent edition of the Harvard Medical School HealthBEAT publication listed 12 tips for "defensive" holiday eating which I want to share with you. While all of these tips may not apply to you, and because of our varied family caregiving responsibilities, at least consider those that do apply. We may not be able to go to dinners and parties like we used to, but we may substitute by over-indulging in the security of our own homes.

The key is to be "defensive" in our eating and drinking habits despite being inhibited by our spousal caregiving responsibilities. In fact, it would be very easy to indulge in foods and beverages that satisfy the impact of the stresses and strains of caregiving. Let's check out these 12 tips:

Budget wisely. If you have the opportunity to attend dinners and parties, don't eat everything even though you are tempted to do so. Be choosy -- very choosy -- and spend your calories wisely on only foods you love.

Take 10 before taking seconds. After eating, it takes a few minutes for your stomach to send the "getting full" signal to your brain. After finishing your first helping, take a 10-minute break -- make conversation, drink water, just don't eat. When you recheck your appetite, you might realize that you are full or only want a small portion of that favorite food.

Distance helps the heart stay healthy. When partying, don't stand next to the food table. Sit at a location farthest away so that you are not tempted to mindlessly reach for food as you talk. Perhaps a mint or stick of gum will take your mind off reaching for those fattening chips.

Don't go out on an empty tank. Before you go out to a dinner or party, eat something so you don't arrive famished. Complex carbohydrates with protein and unsaturated fat, like apple slices with peanut butter or a slice of turkey and cheese on whole-wheat pita bread, will help keep your appetite in check while at the dinner or party.

Drink to your health. Consider that an 8-ounce glass of egg nog can set you back 400-500 calories. Wine, beer, and mixed drinks range from 150-225 calories. If you have to drink alcohol, have a glass of water or seltzer between each alcoholic drink.

Avoid alcohol on an empty stomach. Alcohol will only serve to increase your appetite. It also diminishes your ability to control what you eat. Eat something before you have that alcoholic drink.

Put on your walking or dancing shoes. If you are at a family gathering, take a walk before eating -- or even between the main course and dessert. If you are at a party, consider dancing with your loved one if they are able; if not, then perhaps with a friend. Dancing is a great way to work off some of those holiday calories.

Make room for veggies. Don't ignore the fruits and vegetables on the holiday table. They make great snacks and even better side or main dishes -- that is, unless they are slathered with creamy sauces or butter.

Be buffet savvy. At a buffet, don't start at one end and graze your way to the other. Wander around the food table before putting anything on your plate. By checking out all your options, you might be less inclined to pile all those goodies on your plate, one after another, and face the temptation to eat them all.

Don't shop hungry. When you go holiday shopping, make sure you eat something before you go. That way, you won't be as tempted by the scent of food in the stores or malls and be inclined to gobble tempting treats that you really don't need.

Cook from (and for) the heart. When cooking for your family and friends during the holiday season, be creative with recipes that use less butter, cream, lard, vegetable shortening, and other ingredients rich in saturated fats and cholesterol. Consider turkey or fish instead of red meat.

Pay attention to what really matters. Although food is an integral part of the holidays, why not put the focus on your family and friends, on laughter and cheer. This is especially important, depending upon the health status of your loved one. If you are someone who usually has balance and moderation in their daily life, then perhaps it's okay to indulge or overeat once in a while -- just don't make it a habit.

While these tips are directed to you and I as caregivers, we must not forget our loved ones. As a spousal caregiver, I must be concerned about my wife and her needs. As a result, I seriously doubt we would be going to any big dinners or parties during this holiday season -- most likely, our "partying" will take place in the sanctity of our own home. But even there, many of the above 12 tips are applicable -- especially if family and friends come to visit.

Carol and I would like to wish each and everyone one of you a blessed, happy, and merry Christmas! God bless you and yours.

Please e-mail me at with your comments and/or reactions. I will include them in a future column with your permission. Provide your full name and address. In the column, I will only use your first name and the initial of your last name as well as your city and state. Thank you.


"Thou shouldst eat to live; not live to eat."

Socrates (469-399 BC)


Bill Andrew identifies himself as a former “nutritionally-empowered Alzheimer’s caregiver” who attributes the slow-down in progression of Alzheimer’s disease in his wife, Carol – and the growth of his own personal emotional, mental, physical, and spiritual capability and strength to provide quality 24/7 care for her in their own home – to the targeted nutritional supplements they both took on a daily basis. Carol went to her Heavenly reward on June 9, 2008 – Bill continues on to advocate for family caregivers. Contact Bill with your caregiving questions and comments via email at

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