When I close my eyes and think about the holidays, one particular image comes to mind: a large blue-enameled pot filled with delectable beignets, prepared lovingly by my grandparents for our New Year’s Day family get together. In Russia, we call them “ponchiki.” They are a cousin of American donuts, filled with all sorts of yummy things, sweet and savory. Growing up, the apple ponchiki were my favorite. The taste, texture, and aroma of those fried, round New Year’s treats, sprinkled with powdered sugar were intoxicating and are forever recorded in my memory.
As an adult, I never developed a taste for fried foods. Yet, several years ago my sister and I resurrected the family tradition of making ponchiki for the holidays. The allure of that distant food memory was strong and grounding. Making them and sharing them with friends was a happy experience that brought a sense of comfort. As with all childhood family favorites, I added my own adult twist to them, filling them with ricotta cream, and apple, pear, and ginger conserve. It became for me a holiday indulgence at its best.
When I talk to my health-coaching clients about the holidays, many express concerns about holiday foods and their generally unhealthy nature. My clients worry about overindulging, gaining weight, feeling stuffed and bloated, and undoing all they’ve accomplished by eating healthy. Many feel stressed as they try to figure out how to restrict, even deprive themselves, of their holiday favorites in an effort to stay healthy. Is this type of deprivation approach necessary? Is there a way to remain healthy through the holidays and still enjoy our favorite foods without guilt, letting them nourish us emotionally and connect us with our roots?
Many holiday foods are difficult for our bodies to digest. This frequently causes stress on our systems, gastrointestinal discomfort, and weight gain. To stay healthy through the holidays, we need to help our bodies better digest these festive foods and absorb their nutrients. To do so, we must keep our digestive fire strong.
The concept of digestive fire or agni comes from Ayurveda, the healing tradition of India, which dates back 5,000 years and translates into English as the science of life. According to Dr. Vasant Lad, a prominent Ayurvedic physician and founder of the Ayurvedic Institute in New Mexico, “The primary function of agni is the digestion, absorption, assimilation, and transformation of food and sensations into energy.” Dr. Lad teaches that, “If agni is in optimal condition, a person’s immune system is healthy. When the metabolic fire is robust, a person can live a long, healthy life. When agni becomes slow, the person’s health deteriorates.”
The following five self-care strategies will help keep your digestive fire strong and allow you to enjoy holiday foods and favorite traditions with friends and family in a healthy way.
- Drink a glass of warm lemon water in the morning This is a quick, easy way to kindle your digestive fire upon waking. Add raw honey to this drink to help boost immunity.
- Eat your largest meal of the day at lunch According to Ayurveda, our digestive fire is the strongest between Noon and 1 p.m. This is the ideal time for a hearty, satisfying lunch that will fuel you for the afternoon. This is also the reason why in many cultures, lunch is the largest meal of the day. Make sure not to skip lunch during the holidays, especially if you plan to attend evening holiday festivities. Our digestive fire is the weakest during dinner time and at night. If you arrive at a party starving, you are more likely to eat a large heavy meal, which your body will struggle to digest. This will leave you feeling stuffed and bloated, and impede your ability to get a good night’s sleep.
- Avoid drinking iced or cold water with meals Many folks are used to drinking several glasses of cold or iced water with meals. However, when we do that, we dilute our gastric juices responsible for digesting food. The effect is similar to pouring water on fire: it cools our digestive fire and inhibits our digestion. This is especially problematic during dinner, when our digestive fire is weak. Sip a glass of warm lemon water instead; your body will thank you for it and your holiday meals will be more enjoyable.
- Avoid snacking between meals Eating before we finish digesting our previous meal, overloads our digestive fire and slows it down. Dr. Lad compares this to adding raw rice to a pot of cooking rice every few minutes instead of giving rice already in the pot a chance to cook. If we keep doing this, the rice will never cook properly. Similarly, if you keep munching without giving your body a chance to “cook” the previous meal, your body won’t digest the food properly, leaving you with a bloated feeling.
- Avoid stressful conversations during meals Arrange meals so people can have a pleasant experience during and after the meal. Be sure to share meals with enjoyable people. Stress triggers a fight-or-flight response which slows down digestion. This is especially important around the holidays, which are often accompanied by added stress. To the extent possible, avoid eating at a desk or in the car; solving problems; having stressful conversations; and thinking about stressful subjects during meals. Holiday celebrations bring joy and the warmth of gatherings with friends and family. Holiday foods frequently invoke happy childhood memories that nourish and energize us. It’s that special time of the year, which gives us an opportunity to immerse ourselves in holiday traditions and reconnect to our past. These self-care strategies, when applied together, will help us keep our digestive fire strong and allow us to enjoy our favorite holiday treats in a healthier way.
Here’s to a joyous holiday season, and a happy, healthy, and prosperous New Year!
 Vasant D. Lad, M.A.Sc., Textbook of Ayurveda Fundamental Principles, Volume 1, The Ayurvedic Press, Albuquerque, NM, First Edition 2002, p. 81.
 Nadya Andreeva, Q&A with Ayurveda Expert Dr. Vasant Lad, mindbodygreen, July 15, 2011