Dec. 05 2014

While December means opportunities to celebrate with family, friends, and co-workers, holiday meals can mean greater tolerance for harmful behavior. A population-based approach means understanding holiday health hazards with scientific evidence at the ready. For example, you can slow holiday eating by using smaller plates and bowls, according to Andrew Rundle, associate professor of Epidemiology. “Most of us consume whatever portion size we’re are given, so don’t super size your holiday meal portions.”


Transmission approached several of the School’s leading scientists with holiday meals in mind. The result? Just in time for the festivities, the Mailman School’s first top-ten list:

1. Travel wisely.
Unless you use reindeer to get around, expect a perfect storm for holiday travel: traffic, winter weather, and motorists not using their best judgment. Guohua Li, professor of Epidemiology, is an expert on automobile safety all year ‘round. “On busy holiday roadways, double the time you need to reach your destination safely,” he says. “And make sure to not put yourself behind the wheel under the influence of alcohol or drugs. Whenever possible, avoid driving at night and under adverse weather conditions. It’s the perfect season to take your time.”

2. Take care with calories.
While we often show affection with food over the holidays, all that love can smother the smart eating habits we’ve developed all year. Claire Wang, associate professor of Health Policy and Management is a keen observer of holiday weight-gain, the result of meals heavy in sugars and refined grains. “Find a way at every holiday meal to load up on fresh greens,” says Wang. “Air travel and home heating increase the importance of staying hydrated—with water rather than sugary beverages, of course."

3. Set the table for mixed company.
A focus on family can increase anyone’s stress level. Few populations face greater emotional duress than older people, who aren’t part of the festivities. Dean Linda P. Fried argues that integrating older generations—even those who are not blood relatives—creates warmth around any dinner table and strengthens wellbeing. “The experience of older people, their narratives and their sheer delight at being included, exposes younger people to their wisdom, and builds bonds across generations and good will for everyone.”

4. Stop playing it cool.
Cold weather makes Diana Hernandez, assistant professor of Sociomedical Sciences, even more aware of energy use. In addition to keeping a watchful eye over holiday lights, candles, and space heaters, Hernandez reminds us that when temperatures drop below 55 degrees, we should make sure our homes are heated to at least 68 degrees. At night, heat to at least 55 degrees when the temperature drops below 40.

5. Strike a chord.
Sally Findley, professor of Population and Family Health, says successful holiday dinners pause frequently for other group activities. “Taking a break between courses slows down eating, eases digestion, and keeps the kids interested,” she says. “If you find yourself up against the younger generation’s use of technology, adding games, storytelling, and singing—especially singing—to the meal mixes up the fun and keeps the party together, longer.”

6. Don’t invite any plastic.
Holiday hosts can improve the safety of the big feast when cooking and when cleaning up by reducing the use of plastics. Many plastics contain bisphenol A (BPA) and other endocrine disrupters that can lead to a host of developmental, reproductive, and behavioral impairments. The solution? “Avoid microwaving food wrapped in plastic,” says Robin Whyatt, professor of Environmental Health Sciences. “After dinner, try to store leftovers in glass, not plastic.”

7. Drink by the numbers.
No matter how fine the food or how festive the celebration, there’s no free pass from safe alcohol use at the holidays. Katherine Keyes, assistant professor of Epidemiology, reminds revelers that women should consume no more than three beverages at a single occasion and seven over a full week. Men should limit themselves to four per occasion and fourteen in a week. And this year, how about a special gift for the designated driver who gets everyone home safely? 

8. Don't be a bump on the yule log.
You’ll be hard pressed to burn off all of the calories that come with a large meal. But nothing feels as good as a brisk after-dinner walk. As Andrew Rundle advises, “Spending time outdoors between courses interrupts the sedentary patterns that characterize a holiday feast.”

9. Only connect.
Not even the Grinch spent the whole holiday season alone. If your busy life makes staying home to binge-watch last season’s “Game of Thrones” (or to read a book) sound appealing, consider that Sandro Galea, chair of Epidemiology, calls the holidays a time to connect with family and friends, not to isolate. “Resist the impulse to hibernate over the holiday, Galea says. “Social integration is key to mental health.”

10. Nestle snug in your bed. Really.
The holidays often feel like a marathon. “With all the travel, festivities and family gatherings it’s easy to cut back on sleep hours,” says Shakira Suglia, assistant professor of Epidemiology. But don’t do it. “While no one wants to miss out on the festivities, finding a balance between adequate rest and celebration will keep you from greeting the New Year in a sleep-deficit.”

And to all at the Mailman School, our students, faculty, and staff, our alumni and our friends, a very happy, very healthy new year.