UVA Health System Blog

Stories about the patients, staff and services of UVA


Diet Dangers for Cancer & Heart Patients, Q&A Part 3, Fad Diets

On January 23, 2014 | At 8:45 am

It’s one thing to experiment with fad diets when you’re relatively healthy. But people dealing with health issues, especially cancer and heart problems, need to be extra careful.

In this third installment of our Fad Diet Q&A series, UVA nutritionists Carole Havrila and Katherine Basbaum tell us what diet elements could be dangerous and which could help.

Q. If someone has a heart condition or is in cancer treatment, are there certain diets to avoid?

Havrila: For cancer, any diet that would be restrictive in total calories or protein or both would likely worsen the nutritional status of a patient receiving cancer treatment and would not be recommended. This includes:

  • Fasts (juice or otherwise) that are prolonged
  • Severe macrobiotic diets that eliminate many foods and are very low in total calories
  • Any diet that would include the use of high amounts of dietary supplements, as they may interfere with medicines patients use or even interfere with cancer treatments

Basbaum: For heart disease, I’d say stay away from the Atkins-type diets, the ones that encourage large amounts of high-fat animal protein like steak and bacon. These foods are high in sodium and saturated fats, two of the things we recommend eating in moderation when eating for heart health.

Q. What kind of diets aid prevention of heart issues and cancer?

Havrila: In terms of cancer prevention, plant-based diets rich in legumes and beans, fruits and vegetables and whole grains. Meat is a “condiment” and not the centerpiece of the meal. Diets for cancer prevention are controlled in calories to help patients maintain or achieve a healthy weight. Processed meats are eaten sparingly, if at all, and red meat is limited to 18 ounces a week.

Basbaum: For heart health, your diet should focus on high-quality lean protein (both plant and animal-based), low-fat dairy, whole grains, low sodium (less than 2000 mg/day), and having the majority of dietary fat coming from either polyunsaturated or monounsaturated fat sources, i.e. olive oil, canola, nuts, seeds, avocado.

Next up: Detox, Gluten-Free, Vegan, Fad Diets Q&A Part 4


Weight-Loss Wonder Ingredients: Q&A Part 2, Fad Diets

On January 22, 2014 | At 8:54 am

I know, I know: You can’t always trust an infomercial. But we live in a fast-food world, and those of us interested in losing weight would love to find a single magic ingredient to do the work for us.

Coconut oil, turmeric, & other supplements supposedly encourage healthy weight-loss.

Coconut oil, turmeric and other supplements supposedly encourage healthy weight loss.

In this second installment of our Fad Diet Q&A series, UVA nutritionists Carole Havrila and Katherine Basbaum offer a reality check.

Q. What about weight-loss claims for wonder ingredients? Recently, I’ve been curious to see magazines touting turmeric, coconut oil or garcinia cambogia. Can adding just one of these or other ingredients really make you lose weight all by themselves?


  • Be skeptical if the product or diet promises a quick fix, if it recommends approaches based on limited, hard-to-find studies or a single study, if it lists good and bad foods or if it sounds too good to be true.
  • Do some research on credible websites.
  • Ask your dietitian, doctor or pharmacist to help.
  • Understand that diet pills and dietary supplements are not regulated as drugs are. Therefore there is a risk of contamination or a risk that products marketed and sold with these ingredients may not even have these ingredients in them.
  • Remember, some weight loss or diet pills have been associated with liver failure and even death.

Basbaum: When it comes to specific foods or herbs that are touted in the press as miracle weight-loss foods, remember a couple things:

  1. If it sounds too good to be true, it probably is.
  2. Even if there is some solid evidence that supports its weight-loss claims, you still have to do all the other things that are traditionally needed for weight loss if you want to see significant results, i.e., healthy diet and exercise.

Next up: Diet Dangers for Cancer & Heart Patients, Fad Diets Q&A Part 3

Filed under : Healthy Living,Nutrition,Women's Health | By
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Juice Cleanse? Think Before You Drink: Q&A Part 1, Fad Diets Series

On January 21, 2014 | At 8:10 am

I’ve known people who have gone on juice-only diets for months and lost tons of weight, as well as people who have lasted only a day. I’ve been tempted to try one myself. After all, who doesn’t like juice? Who doesn’t want to be clean?

Juice cleanses have high sugar.In this first installment of our Fad Diets Q&A Series, UVA nutritionists Carole Havrila and Katherine Basbaum give their take on juice cleanses and other plans that remove entire food groups from your diet.

Q.  Juice cleanses: They’re very popular right now. Do they really work?

Havrila: Any plan that eliminates entire food groups (except for vegan diets) and has people eating only select foods for a length of time is very hard to follow. A juice cleanse is hard for many to do as it is a fast of sorts. People need to be prepared for hunger and possible GI side effects of an all-juice diet. Anyone with diabetes or significant health issues runs the risk of dangerous side effects from a juice diet.

Basbaum: “Cleanses” that last 2-3 days may help someone jumpstart a weight-loss effort, but unless you plan to transition immediately from the cleanse to a healthy eating and exercise plan, as soon as you return to solid food, the weight will return.  And as far as the “cleansing” abilities of these diets, it is unnecessary; your body naturally detoxifies itself every single day.

Also, since so many of my heart patients also struggle with type 2 diabetes or pre-diabetes, I would hesitate to recommend a diet that included so much liquid sugar.

Q. The Mediterranean diet hit the news this year, and I constantly run into people who rave about the Blood Type Diet. Thoughts on those two?

Havrila: Studies have shown that people eating vegan diets or a Mediterranean diet have less incidence of some diseases. These two diets often are followed by people who have healthier lifestyle practices in general.

The Blood Type diet, however, is one of those diets that does not have the science behind it, yet has people avoiding certain foods entirely, so they may be risking missing out on some important nutrients. (What is the Blood Type Diet? There’s new research about it out today.)

What do you think? Have you tried these diets? Did they work?

Tell us in the comment section below.

And come back tomorrow for Weight-Loss Wonder Ingredients: Fad Diets Q&A Part 2


Fad Diets Q&A: The Truth Behind the Hype

On January 20, 2014 | At 10:00 am

I’m a sucker for fad diet advertisements. And it’s hard to escape them. They’re everywhere, from the grocery aisle to TV to Facebook. Fat-melting miracle pills, body-shaping supplements, diet plans that are easy and fast and require no exercise at all.

Such amazing claims! If you’re like me, you can’t help but fixate on them. Crammed between pictures of anorexic celebrities and mountains of shiny candy, these diets seem like they could be real. If one of them works, I could eat the candy and look like a celebrity, no problem.

There are actually quite a lot of problems with most fad diets. Like many at this time of year, I’m embarking on a challenge to get fit and lose weight.

The fit part is key. As a woman in my late 30s, I know that heart disease is the number one killer of women. It’s time to get in good shape.

Could Any of These Fad Diets Help?

The short answer? No, according to nutritionists Carole Havrila and Katherine Basbaum. Havrila works for the UVA Cancer Center, while Basbaum is a clinical dietitian for UVA’s Heart & Vascular Center.

Fad diet books tout quick weigh-loss plans.

Fad diet books tout quick weight-loss plans. How many do YOU own?

Their advice? When it comes to weight-loss, “if it sounds too good to be true, it probably is,” Basbaum said.

So, which diets deliver and which offer empty promises and calories?

Stay tuned for our nutritionists’ answers to all your fad diet questions, including:

  • Are juice cleanses safe?
  • Which fad diets work?
  • What are the most effective of the popular diet plans?
  • What diets prove healthy for people with cancer or heart concerns?
  • Do wonder ingredients really make a difference?
  • What does sleep and belly fat have to do with weight loss?

First up: Juice Cleanse? Think Before You Drink, Fad Diets Q&A Part 1

Look for Part 1 tomorrow!


No Time for Exercise? Watch Our 6-Second Vine Tutorials [VIDEO]

On January 8, 2014 | At 9:18 am

January is often a time for healthy resolutions; Eating right, exercising, sleeping more and breaking bad habits. Yet, even with the best intentions, accomplishing all the lofty goals we set can be daunting.

Shannon Slovensky, M.Ed., an exercise physiologist with the UVA Exercise Physiology Core Laboratory, explains that adopting a strength training routine should be manageable.

“Exercise doesn’t have to be a formal class at the gym, and you don’t need to hire a personal trainer to get in shape,” Slovensky says.

According to lab director Art Weltman, PhD, “There are numerous benefits to strength training, including reducing the signs and symptoms of a number of diseases and improving quality of life.”

With strength and ease in mind, Slovensky designed the following workout that can be done at home or in the office.

It requires a desk chair and a set of moderate hand weights (5-10 pounds). If you are not currently strength training, this can help get you started. If you are already strength training, this is a great way to add strength exercises if you miss your normal routine.

Before beginning these exercises:

  • Make sure the chair is stable by turning it around and securing against your desk or a wall.
  • Warm up by marching in place a few times, rolling the shoulders up, back and around and reaching the arms overhead.
  • Watch the Vine video below for a quick demonstration of the intended exercises.

Perform 10-12 repetitions of each exercise and gradually progress to 3 sets. Maintain slow-controlled movements, and don’t forget to breathe!

Chair Abdominal Curl
Scoot your body to the front edge of your desk chair.
Curve your body back until you feel your shoulders graze the back of the desk chair; then curve forward again.
This exercise should be felt in the front of the torso (rectus abdominus and obliques), not the lower back!
Note: If you feel it in your lower back, try curving towards your tailbone more as you curve back and relax your hips.

Desk Push-Up
Place your hands shoulder-width apart.
Lower your chest towards the chair, and press back up to the starting position.
Maintain a slight engagement of your abdominal, glute and leg muscles to prevent hips from sagging to the floor; in other words, imagine your body as a long, stable line from the crown of your head to your heels.
Note: Beginners can perform the same exercise by placing hands on the desk or wall for a more stable surface.

Chair Abdominal with Oblique Twist
Scoot your body to the front edge of your desk chair.
Curve back, as you did in the chair abdominal curl. Then rotate your torso to the right as you lift your right knee up.
Then repeat, rotating to the left and lifting your left knee.

Wall Sit
Stand with your back to the wall and your inner legs touching.
Slide your body down the wall until your knees are bent to almost 90 degrees.
Hold this position for 40-60 seconds.
Note: This exercise should be felt in the muscles of the thigh and the glutes, not in the knee joint. If this causes knee pain, modify or skip.

Rear Flys
Stand with your legs shoulder-distance apart and knees slightly bent.
Hold hand weights in front of you with palms facing inward.
Raise the weights out to the side, initiating the movement with the muscles between your shoulder blades.
Keep elbows slightly bent.
Return to start and repeat.

Squat and Overhead Press
Begin by standing with your feet hip-distance apart and holding hand weights by your side.
Squat down, shifting your hips back (as though you are going to sit in a chair).
Keep your back as straight as possible, so that the work comes from bending your legs, not from rounding your spine.
Use strong legs, to press back to standing, then curl the hand weights towards your shoulders (as in a bicep curl), then press the weights overhead (like an overhead press).
Slowly lower the weights to the starting position and repeat.

Rear Lunge
Begin in a low-lunge position; with your right leg forward and your left leg back with your back toes curled under.
Press firmly into both feet to bring yourself to standing position.
Then slowly lower your body down until your knee almost touches the floor. Then press back to standing.
Note: Hand weights are optional and this can be modified for beginners or those with knee pain by lowering halfway down.

One-legged Dead Lift
Begin by standing on one leg holding one hand weight in your right hand.
Reach the hand weight toward to ground keeping your back straight.
As you tip your body forward, the non-standing leg will reach back behind you for counter balance.
To return to standing, press your standing leg into the ground and use your leg and glute strength to return to standing. Repeat.
Note: Hand weight is optional.

Side Plank with Rotation
Place your right hand on desk and walk your body out to a side plank position. Reach your left hand into the air.
Rotate your torso towards the floor and reach the left and under your lower side ribs.
Rotate back to starting position.
Note: This targets the shoulder stabilizers and obliques. Working these muscles requires rotating the torso (not just moving the raised arm). This can also be done on the floor for more challenge.

Tricep Dips
Place your hands on the sides of the chair and scoot your body forward until your hips drop off the chair.
Bend your arms, moving the elbows back behind you and lower your hips closer to the floor.
Press back up to start and repeat.
Note: The video shows straight legs, but another option is to bend your knees and place your heels on the floor. This provides more stability.

Keep Your Resolutions

Learn the secrets to a lasting resolution that will keep you on track, well beyond January. Find ways to make exercise fun and shed pounds without hitting the gym.

Ready to Make a Change?

Talk to your doctor before starting an exercise plan. Find a Doctor now or Make an Appointment with your UVA doctor.

Consider establishing a baseline to track your progress – from simple at-home measurements to advanced fitness level and body composition assessments. Knowing where you started can help you measure accomplishments.

If you’re a woman concerned about heart health, Club Red offers a support community of like-minded women, monthly food, fitness, and general health articles, to keep you active and inspired. Join Club Red today!

Get Even More Exercise Advice

For more exercise advice, training tips and fitness tutorials, follow the Exercise Physiology Core Lab on Facebook.


Recipe Review Thursday: Chicken Pot Pie

On January 2, 2014 | At 8:56 am

We’re trying new heart-healthy recipes every month and will share the results with you. All recipes are from Club Red, UVA’s heart health club for women.

Chicken Pot Pie

Mushrooms image

This chicken pot pie recipe is perfect for mushroom lovers.

I recommend actually reading this recipe before trying to make it.

That might seem obvious, but I normally just buy the listed ingredients and start with step one. So that’s why I pulled out a pie dish to make this — only to start working and realize this probably really should be called “chicken casserole.” You make it in a casserole, not a pie dish, and the crust only goes on top.

Once I began attempting to make the crust, I realized I might be in over my head. The crust kept breaking into smaller pieces, no matter how much I re-formed and re-rolled. When I slowly, carefully attempted to peel it off the plastic wrap and put it on top of the casserole mixture, it crumbled, leaving one large solid piece and a bunch of dough islands floating in a sea of chicken stock mixture.

I was glad I hadn’t invited anyone to dinner.

The final product isn’t going to win any county fair competitions. But when I took my first bite, I was in heaven. It was one of the most flavorful, savory things I’d ever put in my mouth. I didn’t miss the cream or milk at all, and I had to admit it was every bit as good, if different, from the chicken pot pie my mom made when I was a kid.

The crust didn’t look great — that’s an overly generous statement — but it browned well, didn’t get soggy and was tasty.

Oh, and I couldn’t find any Pernod, so I instead used Sambuca, which is also anise-flavored. Since the pot pie tasted perfect, I would use it again.

If I were going to make this again, I might try making the crust into dumplings and actually putting them into the casserole. Rolling it into strips and creating a lattice pattern might also help it hold together better.

I ate this casserole by itself, which kept dinner simple. I didn’t feel like I was lacking anything, but the recommended olive oil mashed potatoes would probably be even more delicious.

Stars: 4 out of 5 (If you don’t care about appearance, then it’s definitely worthy of 5 stars.)

Filed under : Healthy Living,Heart,Recipes | By
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Recipes, Gift Ideas and Holiday Heart Syndrome: A Holiday Health Guide

On December 19, 2013 | At 8:22 am

With Christmas less than a week away, your thoughts are probably wandering away from work and more toward your plans for time off. Maybe you’re searching for recipes to serve the in-laws who just announced they’re stopping by. Maybe you’re still trying to find the perfect gift or worrying about how to pay for it. And you’re probably feeling just a tad stressed.

Christmas cookies image

Too many Christmas cookies? Try some healthier holiday recipes.

Enter our holiday guide. Keep reading for tips on staying healthy, inside and out, while having fun.

Healthy Holiday Recipes and Cooking Tips

As I write this, I’m trying to avoid going back to the office kitchen for another Christmas cookie (with frosting!). Here are a few recipes that are just as satisfying but somewhat healthier than those cookies.

Take Care of Yourself, Too: Stress-Busters and Holiday Heart Syndrome

Cramming more events into your already-packed schedule, family drama and financial worries can make the holidays extremely stressful. Taking time to take care of yourself by exercising will improve your physical and emotional health.

17 Ways to Beat Holiday Stress Video

Whiteboard Video: 17 Ways to Beat Holiday Stress

Give Back

“It’s better to give than receive.” Maybe when you were a kid, you were skeptical about this, but as adults we know it’s really true. Here are a few ideas.

Filed under : Healthy Living,Heart,Nutrition,Recipes | By
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Recipe Review: Caramelized Onions

On December 9, 2013 | At 4:10 pm

We’re trying new heart-healthy recipes every month and will share the results with you. All recipes are from Club Red, UVA’s heart health club for women.

Caramelized Cipollini Onions

Not much of a recipe, right? Onions slow cooked in some (good!) fat. What’s the big deal?

Here’s the deal: Onions become magically sweet and delicious when allowed to slow cook to the point of caramelization.

So, if you have the patience to let the onions cook slowly without burning, you’ll be rewarded.

But what to do with these onions?

You might:

  • Stir them into mashed potatoes or other vegetable
  • Top a sandwich
  • Top a piece of protein (beef, pork, chicken and even certain kinds of fish)

Or do what I did. Adding it to some whole wheat pasta with some spinach and a small amount of blue cheese. Tasted great!

Stars: 5 out of 5


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Ditching Store-Bought Seasonal Staples: Healthy Holiday Menu Swaps

On November 20, 2013 | At 8:13 am

Guest blogger Katherine Basbaum, MS, RD, is a clinical dietitian at UVA Health System who works primarily with cardiac patients.

Turkey chef

Cook, don’t buy, your favorite Thanksgiving dishes.

It’s November, which means the leaves are falling, mittens and scarves are coming out of hibernation, and it’s just about time to start planning holiday menus. I’ll be the first to admit that there are some holiday dishes that just shouldn’t be messed with. For me, it’s the warm buttery rolls that I patiently wait for as the basket makes its way around the table; or the rum cake that makes my mouth water every time I see it center stage on our Thanksgiving dessert table.

Store-Bought vs. Homemade

The truth is, we all have holiday food favorites that we count on to be there when the celebration begins, and for those extra special items, a healthy recipe makeover would be just plain wrong. But if you’ve been trying to clean up your diet lately (or have thought about it) and want to avoid tighter zippers and popping buttons come January 1, there’s a smart (and painless) way to achieve this: Take a little extra time to make from scratch some of the holiday staples that you’d normally serve out of the box or can, which are often loaded with excessive amounts of fat, sugar, salt and preservatives.

To illustrate my point, let’s put some store-bought holiday staples in the ring and see how they fare against their homemade counterparts.

Mini Quiche

First up…a timeless crowd-pleaser: The heat & serve mini quiche, conveniently located in your grocer’s freezer. These savory two-bite appetizers are a no-brainer when you have a ton of people to serve and prefer to focus your energy on the main event. But when eaten in abundance (and for most of us it’s impossible to eat just one), the mini quiche can pack a major punch in the calorie and fat department.  So try a lightened-up homemade version of the mini quiche; the cheesy flavor and fluffy texture remains, but calories and fat are knocked out.

SKIP IT: Quiche Frozen Appetizers

One popular brand packs 230 calories and six grams of saturated fat per serving, plus a lengthy ingredients list.

MAKE IT: Spinach and Mushroom Crustless Mini Quiches

Yield: 24 mini quiches


  • 6 eggs
  • 1/2 cup white or baby bella mushrooms, chopped
  • 1/2 cup leaf spinach, chopped
  • 2 tablespoons grated Parmesan or Swiss cheese
  • Olive oil or cooking spray
  • Black pepper and sea salt to taste

Preheat oven to 400 degrees.

In a skillet over medium-high heat, toss mushrooms with about 1 tsp. olive oil for about 5 minutes or until cooked. Turn off the heat and add the spinach, stirring constantly to mix for 1 minute. Pour into a bowl.

Crack 6 eggs into the bowl with the spinach, mushrooms and grated cheese and whisk ingredients together. Add some fresh ground black pepper to suit your personal tastes and whisk again.

Use 2 mini muffin trays and coat with cooking spray or olive oil. Fill each cup 3/4 full of egg mixture.

Place in the oven for 15 minutes.

Remove pans from the oven and allow to cool for a minute before removing the mini quiche. Sprinkle with sea salt and serve hot, or chill in the fridge until cold and serve.

Serving Size: 4 pieces

  • Calories: 80
  • Total Fat: 4g
  • Saturated Fat: 1.5g
  • Sodium: 100mg
  • Carbohydrate: 4g
  • Dietary Fiber: <1g
  • Sugars: <1g
  • Protein: 8g

Recipe adapted from The Pescetarian and the Pig.

Cranberry Sauce

Granted, the base for both the canned and the homemade varieties are the same (cranberries, sugar, water), but if you don’t like the idea of high- fructose corn syrup making a cameo appearance at your next holiday meal, you may want to skip the canned and make it fresh.

SKIP IT: Canned Whole Berry Cranberry Sauce

This staple features both high-fructose corn syrup and corn syrup, 21 grams of sugar and 110 calories per serving.

MAKE IT: Homemade Cranberry Sauce

Yield: about 2.5 cups (20 servings)


  • 1 cup water
  • 1 cup sugar
  • 12-oz bag fresh or frozen cranberries (3 cups)
  • 1/2 teaspoon freshly grated orange zest

This healthier homemade version has just 47 calories per serving. Get the full recipe from Epicurious.

Pumpkin Pie

And finally … pumpkin pie. This quintessential holiday pie is enjoyed by many, but homemade by few. Sure, it’s tempting to grab a boxed pumpkin pie from the corner display in your grocery’s bakery section. But with just a few ingredients and a little time, you can impress your friends and family with a homemade pumpkin pie that boasts sweet flavor and even sweeter nutritional stats compared to the average store-bought variety.

SKIP IT: Frozen Pumpkin Pie

One popular brand packs 330 calories and 14 grams of fat, plus a number of unpronounceable ingredients you won’t find in the homemade version.

MAKE IT: Homemade Classic Pumpkin Pie

Yield: 12 servings (serving size: 1 wedge and about 1 tablespoon topping)



  • 3/4 cup packed brown sugar
  • 1 3/4 teaspoons pumpkin pie spice
  • 1/4 teaspoon salt
  • 1 (12-ounce) can evaporated low-fat milk
  • 2 large egg whites
  • 1 large egg
  • 1 (15-ounce) can unsweetened pumpkin


  • 1/2 (15-ounce) package refrigerated pie dough (such as Pillsbury)
  • Cooking spray


  • 1/4 cup whipping cream
  • 1 tablespoon amaretto (almond-flavored liqueur)
  • 2 teaspoons powdered sugar

This homemade version cuts about 100 calories and has more fiber per serving. Get the full recipe from Cooking Light Magazine.

There’s no escaping it. The holidays — in addition to being about celebration and spending time with loved ones — are also about eating a LOT of delicious food. I say dive in and embrace the season, but do your body a favor with a little pre-season strategizing: Indulge in those few special dishes that truly make your heart and taste-buds sing, but try to balance those rich foods with some lighter, more nutritious (and absolutely delicious!) healthy holiday recipe swaps.

More Healthy Holiday Recipes

Want to make more? Check out our heart-healthy Thanksgiving menu. Or try:


17 Ways to Fight Holiday Stress [VIDEO]

On November 19, 2013 | At 8:17 am

I love the holidays. I buy gifts for those less fortunate and enjoy celebrating with friends and family, and if I’m really lucky, there’s some snow. No stress. But now, I have twin infants, so I’m willing to bet the holidays are about to get a lot more hectic at my house — if not now, then in years to come.

For many people, though, the holidays are more than hectic. Family obligations, work parties, extra food and alcohol — all of it can lead to added stress that hurts us mentally and physically.

What can you do about holiday stress? I asked Kim Penberthy, PhD, associate professor in the Department of Psychiatry and Neurobehavioral Sciences.

Christmas in July: Prepare for the Holidays Year Around

For many people, doing something to prevent stress ahead of time works, says Penberthy. If you keep yourself healthy all year, you’ll be prepared and better able to manage the inevitable holiday stress. Penberthy suggests that you try to:

  • Eat healthy
  • Get enough sleep
  • Not overdo alcohol
  • Get plenty of exercise

“These are common sense things, but we forget about it,” says Penberthy.

Last-Minute Tips to Combat Holiday Stress

But let’s say you don’t prepare all year. You don’t exercise. You stay up late watching your favorite shows. You drink and eat pizza. Then what do you do? It’s not too late, says Penberthy.

Set realistic goals.

The biggest issue Penberthy sees is patients with unrealistic expectations. “The holidays aren’t going to be this magical time when everyone gets along,” she says. “Your sister-in-law who’s always mean to you isn’t suddenly going to be nice. We set ourselves up for failure when we hope Uncle Joe won’t drink too much or we’ll find extra money for gifts.”

Focus on an attitude of gratitude.

“We lose sight of gratitude,” she says. “We live in a country where we can celebrate whatever holiday we want. That alone is something to celebrate.” Helping others by volunteering at a shelter or donating gifts is a good idea, Penberthy says. “It really will reduce your stress,” she says. “Because suddenly, if the day isn’t perfect, it doesn’t stress you out as much because it’s not that big of a deal. If you’ve been at a shelter handing out canned cranberry sauce, it doesn’t really matter if your mother-in-law doesn’t like your homemade sauce.”

Be responsible for yourself.

“You can’t control others. You do have control over you” and your reactions to others.

Don’t overindulge.

One drink or one piece of pie is enough. You don’t have to go back for more. “It’s tempting because we’re celebrating, but really, celebration doesn’t equal excess.” On the other hand, don’t start a diet the day after Thanksgiving. “This is not the time to stress yourself out,” Penberthy says.

Need More Tips? Check out this cool video for a few more ways to make your holidays brighter.

Setting Holiday Expectations With Kids
If you have kids, you need to prepare them for the holidays. That year-round preparation works for them as well as you.
• Don’t overindulge your kids all year long. If you do that, it’s harder to set limits at the holidays, Penberthy says.
• Have a conversation about what the holidays mean to you. It doesn’t have to be lengthy.
• If you have financial issues, be honest with your children. You can still celebrate even if money is tight.
• Maintain a routine around the holidays. Your kids can spend Christmas Day in their pajamas, but don’t use the holidays as an excuse to break all the rules. Getting back into a routine will be much harder after the holidays.

Still Need Help?

If you try all of this and you’re still stressed out, you may need more help. Signs you need help:

  • The stress interferes with your ability to function
  • You worry all the time
  • You’re physically and mentally exhausted

If you’re experiencing any of these signs, talk to your primary care doctor, who can help you and see if you need additional help from a specialist.

The good news, says Penberthy, is that there’s help. Cognitive behavioral therapy and medications can help people who get clinically depressed or anxious. Don’t have a primary care doctor? Find one here.

More Stress Reduction

We know stress takes its toll on the mind and body. Learn about: