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You can get garden variety health advice from the daily newspaper, the "health" section of most book stores, and of course thousands of web sites. I'm hoping to present thought provoking and maybe change provoking thoughts about individual and community health. This blog is not just what to do about health, but how to think about it. I'm looking forward to an exchange of ideas with readers. July, 2010

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Thursday, December 9, 2010

Holiday Traditions and Social Change

As a preface to comments to follow, I want to make a full disclosure:  I really like eggnog, fruit cake (Yes, I do), many types of Christmas cookies, and look forward to sumptuous holiday meals.  Sometimes health promoters sound shrill and joyless.  THEY TAKE THE FUN OUT OF LIFE.  I don't believe that, but because we are often challenging people to stop doing things they enjoy, or start doing things they don't enjoy, it is easy to be the Grinch meets Scrooge.

Having set this stage, I also wonder why so many of our holiday traditions are not healthy?  By the way, I'm mostly thinking about the holiday cycle that starts in the U.S. at Thanksgiving and goes through New Year's Day, encompassing Hanukkah, Christmas, and Kwanzaa.  Other cultures and religions also have holidays, but I am less familiar with the health ramifications of, for example, Diwali or Ramadan.

In the U.S. and Western cultures, the "holidays" are marked with many social traditions, including special events, both religious and secular.  Our social definition of celebration usually includes eating too much, too rich, too often.  I challenge readers to visualize celebrating and merry making in ways that are truly health promoting.  Can you imagine sharing carrots to commemorate New Year's Eve?  How about the kids setting out a fresh pear for Santa?  Does a celebration have to be unhealthy?

The answer is that our culture, and maybe most cultures, have developed over hundreds and thousands of years, during which a variety of forces have come together to shape our traditions and our sense of what is fitting in a given situation.  So for example, culinary arts have developed to feature salt, fat, sugar, and alcohol - none of which are completely bad, but with typical culinary arts, the only thing important about food is to taste and look good.  Of course in the present day we have technology that enables more refined foods.  Up until the 20th century, it wasn't really possible to have a lot of high sugar foods, at holidays or any other time.

My point here is to illustrate that holiday food and drink customs and traditions are socially enmeshed.  They are driven by many factors, some not even conscious.  We can chip away at unhealthy practices by typical health promotion interventions, but to change the entire frame will require basic social change.  We can promote better understanding about how our holiday activities are related to over-all health, and illustrate some better options.  This is a common effort in many communities, but it doesn't have a huge impact because of the social background.

I won't say it is hopeless to think that the holidays could celebrate with health rather than unhealth, but it will be difficult.  On the other hand, there are examples of positive social change that led to health benefit.  I remember the time when it was customary for fathers to give cigars to their male family and friends at the birth of their children.  That custom has gone away, even though I have never heard of any direct efforts to discourage the practice.  Society has undergone basic underlying change with respect to our attitudes of what is appropriate regarding tobacco.  This profound change is possible with food, but it won't be simple or quick.

In the meantime, let's lift a glass to good health.

4 comments:

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Jennifer Forristal said...

I would like to think that the holidays are a time for some indulgence. If we practiced moderation throughout the year, there would be no issue with an annual plate of cookies for Santa or a cup of eggnog.

The problem is we do not practice moderation and health on a daily basis and so the holidays just contribute to the routine gluttony. I don't know if the focus should be on two healthy holidays as much as being healthy the other 363 days of the year.

Health Promotion Exchange said...

Jennifer, thanks for the comment. I think I agree with you. The other 363 days are more critical. You hear people say they gained weight over the holidays, but I don't know if it is really that common.

Robin said...

I know in the celebration of Chanukah and Diwali, it's all about the oil both in tradition and the food. We tried baked sweet potato latkes this year and it was okay. We'll tweak the recipe and try again later.

In teaching about traditions for the holidays at a local elementary school it was heartening to hear a few students list things like: YMCA Turkey Day Trot as a tradition, as well as a few other active traditions.

An old study, but interesting one, showed that adults gained less than previously thought during the holidays (slightly less than 1 lb on avg), BUT failed to lose it during the year. (A Prospective Study of Holiday Weight Gain. Yanovski, JA, et al. NEJM March 23, 2000 Vol. 342 No. 12.)

One thing we do in our home, is a goal of zero leftovers. We aim to make just enough to feed people.