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Holiday giving: Heartburn, obligation, or nostalgia?

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How is holiday giving related to nutrition choices? Anything that tastes really good is likely to give you heartburn, especially if it contains fats or oils, say some physicians. But what about giving money to charities or panhandlers who approach you as you walk to the shopping mall each day? Is holiday giving an obligation, and if you give in one way, do you make it up in order to get back or receive in another way, such as overeating or eating too many sweets or other rich foods?

Can the frenzy of holiday giving disrupt your digestion, raise your blood pressure, or change your physical exam test results, or weight? Or are you swept along by the holiday giving and receiving frenzy from compulsive baking to building wooden toys, gingerbread houses, and other crafts to feel more like a personal Santa Claus or workshop elf figurine--giving or crafting toys or foods, money, technology gadgets, or shoes for the needy? What best effects your health each season that you do each holiday cycle that focuses on giving, sharing, or realizing you can't take it with you? But you can pay it forward.

And what if you can't let the possession go yet? Is your response to eat comfort foods to fill up the space? Or how do you feel about sharing wealth or sharing food if that's all you can spare? On the other hand, were you raised with the frequent phrase, "You're eating me out of house and home"? Do you give until you feel healthy?

There have been studies showing giving during holiday times improves your health. See, "Scientific Proof That Charitable Giving Improves Your Health - Oprah." But what happens when someone feels worse after holiday giving, as if they've been robbed, exploited, and used, and figures the money given to charity could have been used to pay for a week's groceries or a monthly bus pass?

Is it true the older you get, the less you want to give if you're poor, living only on social security without much savings or money to fix your teeth? What happens to you physiologically when all hands are out for a tip or a gift to charity and you want so much to buy yourself a pair of shoes without holes in the soles, but you don't want to end up with a soul that's not whole? Or what if you celebrate giving on another date?

Some say the heartburn season, during the holiday months is about receiving indigestion from overeating or indulging in too many desserts or spicy foods or giving heartburn to others in anything from home-made traditional fruit cake often used as door stops to the seasonal dipped chocolates or hot, spiced toddies and roasts or eating too many starchy foods. Others say the obligation of holiday giving feels like all hands extended to the broken middle class or tiny birds with open mouths begging for food and then shouting angrily in your ear, "Merry Xmas!"

For others, family gatherings focused on giving means spending. And for extreme 'cheapskates' a TV series merits showing the world what frugality in the extreme is like for many families from salvaging roadkill for food or leather and fur crafts to millionaire dumpster diving. But is the holiday season about giving food as a symbol of love, nourishment, or dense nutrition? Or is the obligation hardwired in human brains hoping for fair trade of trinkets, foods, or utensils established as customary in prehistoric eras to keep the peace?

Happy, feel-good holiday seasons start with healthy choices at Thanksgiving through New Year's Day, nutrition experts say. But holiday giving and the season could also ring in the heartburn seasoning along with the heartbreak season. For some, the shopping mall has become a sanctuary during the holiday seasons, according to a December 21, 2011 news release, "The mall as a sanctuary: Study finds holiday shopping outlets aren't just shrines to spending."

Making merry is often synonymous with overindulging – whether from holiday feasts or rich desserts or alcoholic beverages – ringing in the holiday season as "heartburn season."

An international study of holiday shopping and religion finds that dominant religious groups are more likely to experience "consumption mass hysteria" while shoppers in minority religions may view malls and stores much differently: as central meeting places that "can play an active role in the creation of a sacred event."

The study, co-authored by Temple University Fox School of Business marketing professor Ayalla Ruvio, found that holiday consumption in dominant religious settings – such as Christians in the U.S. or Jews in Israel – can lead to greater frenzy and a "social tidal wave" that pushes people to excess during the holidays.

The researchers also found that consumers in minority or immigrant religions tend to seek the company of those who share their beliefs during holidays. For some, shopping outlets aren't shrines to spending. Instead, they can offer a gathering place for a "critical mass" in a religion to interact and temporarily overcome their minority religious status – creating a type of "marketplace sacralization."

"In effect, the marketplace, though normally viewed as profane and commercial, can, through the collective actions of religious devotees, be transformed into … a place of worship and fellowship," the authors wrote.

The researchers conducted 41 in-depth, in-home interviews with Muslims, Jews and Christians in the United States, Israel and Tunisia to examine consumers' behavior when their given religion represents either a majority, minority or immigrant faith. For example, Christians are a religious majority in the U.S., a minority in Israel, and an immigrant religion in Tunisia.

Some minority-religion consumers said they found comfort in marketplaces, or products, shared by those with similar beliefs. In one interview, a member of the Tunisian Jewish community used the animated Prince of Egypt movie to assist in his family's Passover observance. "Rather than the sacred being invaded by the secular, the sacred comes to inhabit the secular," the authors found.

In countries where a religious group was in the majority, the researchers found that the dominant religion experienced "consumption mass hysteria," which led to consequences of debt, drunkenness and overeating. Dominant religions also tend to view religious holidays as a time of national or ethnic glory and "perfection," while minority and immigrant religions report a stronger desire to preserve their traditions and customs, meaning these groups may be more orthodox in their observances.

Despite the many differences, the study found that, in every context and across the religious groups, participants emphasized charity and expressed the spiritual importance of helping others during the central holy days of Christmas, Ramadan and Passover.

The study, "Breaking bread with Abraham's children: Christians, Jews and Muslims' holiday consumption in dominant, minority and diasporic communities," was published this year in the Journal of the Academy of Marketing Science.

The holiday months also are known as the heartburn season

Heartburn – generally caused by naturally occurring acids splashing back up from the stomach – is often marked by a characteristic burning sensation that sufferers describe as rolling up into their chest. Fatty foods play a starring role in this process, You may wish to check out the November 22, 2011 news release, "Holiday season could ring in 'heartburn season'."

"Most of the time heartburn is a nuisance, not a tremendous threat to your health," said Dr. Stuart Spechler, professor of internal medicine in digestive and liver diseases at UT Southwestern Medical Center, according to the news release. "I tell most of my patients that it's going to be a tradeoff – is the food going to taste good enough to suffer through the heartburn?

"If you know you're going to eat something that ordinarily gives you heartburn, there are medications that you can take before eating that food that might help."

Prevention now emphasized

For decades, the plop-plop-fizz-fizz approach of antacids taken after people already were experiencing heartburn was the only therapy available. Emphasis has since shifted to prevention.

Those who are planning to indulge in foods likely to cause them heartburn can now take a histamine receptor blocker (H2 blockers), which slow the production of stomach acid and are generally available over the counter.

"Most people suffering from heartburn get it every now and then. Those are the people who really benefit from this on-demand therapy," says Dr. Spechler, according to the news release. "If you're going to eat something you know is going to give you heartburn, you can take one of those pills a half hour before your meal, and you may be able to prevent the heartburn."

The most powerful type of medicines, and the ones more suited for people who have ongoing heartburn, are called proton-pump inhibitors. There is only one brand of proton pump inhibitor, Prilosec, available over-the-counter.

"They're very powerful at stopping the stomach from making acid, but it takes a number of hours or even days for them to reach their full effect. So if you want to eat a pizza in the next half hour, it's not going to stop the acid that you're going to make in that time," Dr. Spechler explains in the news release.

Antacids can help if foods consumed generate heartburn. Antacids act like a sponge to soak up the excess stomach acid, but they do nothing to prevent the stomach from creating more acid. So it may help to take some antacid tablets to soak up acid currently being produced and take an H2 receptor blocker to slow the stomach from producing further acid.

What is heartburn?

Heartburn is caused most often by the reflux or backwash of acid from the stomach up into the esophagus, which is the long tube that carries food from the throat to the stomach. A valve at the end of the esophagus is supposed to function as a one-way release, relaxing to allow food into the stomach and closing back up so food and acid in the stomach stay there while the food is digested. If there is a leaky valve, gastroesophageal reflux disease, or GERD, may result. The primary symptom is heartburn.

"As a general rule of thumb anything that tastes really good is likely to give you heartburn," Dr. Spechler says in the news release. "And the reason is the fat content. Fat does a lot of things that promote heartburn. It stops the stomach from emptying well, so now you have more material in the stomach that's ready to reflux. It also further weakens that leaky valve."

Food myths

Eating or drinking certain types of foods, such as milk, in an attempt to reduce stomach acid generally doesn't work, says Dr. Spechler, in the news release. Dr. Spechler is a member of the American Gastroenterological Association's Committee on GI Research.

"We used to use milk as an antacid, but it's really a very poor antacid," he said in the news release. "Most of the foods that we eat buffer acid, but they also stimulate the stomach to produce acid later. That's why we don't recommend them as a specific treatment."

Avoiding foods that historically cause heartburn is the better strategy

"As a group, anything fatty and anything chocolate is likely to be causing a problem," he states in the news release.

When to see a doctor

Unfortunately, there's no simple answer to when heartburn sensations should prompt a visit to the doctor.

Occasional heartburn usually doesn't signal a more complex problem, such as Barrett's esophagus or esophageal cancer. "But if you're taking medications daily, I think you should be concerned about it," Dr. Spechler says in the news release.

There are some warning symptoms that, if associated with chronic heartburn, may be signs of more serious problems. Questions to ask yourself:

  • Are you having difficulty swallowing?
  • Are you losing weight?
  • Does it hurt when you swallow?
  • Do you have fevers?
  • Do you have signs of bleeding? (Passing black stools is a sign there might be bleeding from the esophagus into the stomach.)

"If you have heartburn associated with those warning symptoms you really should get in to see your doctor as soon as you can," he says, according to the news release.

Holiday giving, receiving of food and weight gain that extends from Thanksgiving to New Year's Day, and for many, also includes Halloween and the entire harvest and food preservation and hoarding season between September and February

While most people only gain about a pound of weight during the holiday season, that pound may never come off, increasing the likelihood of becoming overweight or obese and the risk of related health problems, according to a National Institutes of Health study. University of Missouri-Columbia dietitians recommend families maintain healthy diet and exercise habits during the holiday season beginning with Thanksgiving, according to the November 22, 2011 news release, "Happy, feel-good holiday seasons start with healthy choices at Thanksgiving, nutrition experts say."

Donna Mehrle, registered dietitian and extension associate in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, reminds people to consider how they feel when they eat healthy foods and are physically active, so they're more likely to continue those behaviors when holiday stress and cold weather offer convenient excuses. Feeling better is a great motivator, she explains, according to the news release.

"People can continue their healthy habits by being aware of their food choices at the Thanksgiving table and identifying time commitments that may interrupt their regular exercise schedules," Mehrle says, according to the news release. "Choosing different ways to socialize can be a great strategy. Playing a game of flag football or participating in a 5K race as a family, rather than having another big dinner or TV marathon, are enjoyable ways to incorporate physical activity on Thanksgiving Day."

Cindy Deblauw, registered dietitian and extension associate in the Department of Nutrition and Exercise Physiology, offers tips for healthy Thanksgiving-themed celebrations in schools. Parents and teachers can help children develop healthy habits by providing them with opportunities to make good choices, she says.

"At classroom parties, try moving the focus away from food by planning fun activities such as pumpkin painting or a Thanksgiving play," Deblauw says in the news release. "It is usually activities, not food, that make parties memorable for children. When food is served, be sure healthy choices such as fruits and vegetables are provided and limit the amount of high-sugar and high-fat foods."

University of Missouri-Columbia (MU) nutrition experts offer additional tips for a healthier Thanksgiving:

  • Eat healthily throughout the day and have a small, high-protein snack such as an apple with peanut butter, a hardboiled egg or yogurt, so you're not overly hungry when you arrive for dinner.
  • Make simple swaps such as whole-wheat bread rather than white, brown or wild rice rather than white, or a yogurt parfait instead of another piece of pie.
  • Enjoy some of your favorite seasonal treats, but use a small plate to control portion sizes.

If you do overindulge, try to maintain perspective. One day of overeating won't make you gain weight, so plan to get back on track with healthy eating and regular exercise the next day. For more tips on healthy and inexpensive holiday celebrations, visit the website for families to see nutrition articles for the holidays.

Is holiday giving an obligation?

A University of Montreal professor explains social necessity of giving and receiving in the December 6, 2008 news release, "Is holiday giving an obligation?" And is there a social necessity of giving and receiving if you feel each time somebody's hand comes out asking for money that you're being exploited, used, or drained of what little you've worked for decades earlier before you retired or retired from trying to find a long-term source of income?

Why do we suddenly become generous during the holidays? Why do gifts often bear greater symbolic than economic value? Why do we anonymously give to strangers? "Because giving back is a societal norm," says Marcel Fournier, a sociology professor at the Université de Montréal, according to the news release, Is holiday giving an obligation? "Human beings are social beings and no society can survive without mechanisms of solidarity and reciprocity. Giving becomes an obligation."

What if your religion celebrates its giving period in a different season?

Fournier is a specialist in the works of anthropologist Marcel Mauss who studied tribal exchange rituals in the early 20th century. Mauss identified three obligations that structure any society: giving, receiving and reciprocating.

"In modern societies, this is manifested in a State's wealth redistribution policies," says Fournier, according to the news release. "But these obligations also exist on an individual level, for instance, when we give to charities. It is a way to give back what we have received and contribute to the sharing of wealth."

In this exchange mechanism, a receiver obviously benefits while a giver gains from social prestige. "In certain traditional societies, rituals lead to an escalation in giving until one of the parties can not give any more. The one who gave most benefits from higher social prestige," says Fournier, according to the news release.

Modern Christmas gift-giving has its share of reciprocity mechanisms. "We always feel obliged to someone who gives us a present," says Fournier in the news release. "Although there is no reciprocity of gifts given by parents to young children, young ones learn very early to exchange and give back, whether it be cards or school drawings. And children give back what they received from their parents throughout life by eventually taking care of their parents when they get older."

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