The holidays are a time to spend time with friends and family, look back over the past year (although maybe looking back over this particular year wouldn’t be the best idea for some), to look forward to the coming year and …. FOOD! Whether it’s Thanksgiving in America, Hanukah, Christmas or New Year, food plays a big role in celebrating. Unfortunately, most people tend to overindulge, a lot. Yes, it’s fine to enjoy food. In fact, I believe it’s very important to enjoy food and not just see it as fuel for your body (although essentially that’s what it is). But it is possible to enjoy something without going overboard. Millions of people all over the world find themselves spending a fortune of ‘quick fix’ diets and bootcamps that leave them physically exhausted but promise to give them that ‘beach body’ for the summer. Well what if you didn’t have to do that? What if you didn’t gain a significant amount of weight and inches around the waist over the holidays, so in the New year you could just breeze in already feeling healthy and happy? Impossible right? Wrong! I’m a big believer that if you lead a healthy lifestyle you can let yourself indulge a little now and again.
Studies have found that the holiday period of late November to mid-January is when most adults gain significant amounts of weight (Díaz-Zavala et al., 2017). One of the main recommendations given to people who need to loose weight, prevent a significant amount of unwanted weight gain or even to just stay healthy is to surround yourself with healthy foods, stay physically active to the best of your ability and avoid easy access to indulgent high calorie, high saturated fat, high sugar foods. This can be very difficult over the holidays where social gatherings, special meals with calorie dense food are a thing. There is also no evidence that physical activity increases over this period, in fact, more likely it decreases. No wonder this period is well known for gaining weight, especially in adults.
Studies carried out on adults showed a significant increase in weight that was consistently observed over the holiday period (Díaz-Zavala et al., 2017). One study carried out in 1985 on a group of 22 healthy adults, and a group of 13 type 2 diabetics (the diabetics looked after their diabetes with diet and medication). The study showed an average weight gain of 0.9kg in the healthy adults and 0.7kg in the type 2 diabetics. One women in the healthy group had the highest weight gain of 4.3kg which she gained between the 22nd and the 29th of December and kept on until the last measurement on the 22nd of January (Rees et al., 1985). Another study showed similar results with an average weight gain of 0.9kg in a period of 15 days (18th December – 4th January) (Reid and Hackett, 1999).
Studies carried out on college students (18-25 years) mainly showed no significant weight gain, but a significant increase in body fat (Díaz-Zavala et al., 2017). Fat is lighter than muscle, and you tend to lose muscle if you are inactive for a period. It has been well documented that fat mass increases and muscle mass decreases with age (St-Onge and Gallagher, 2010). Over the holiday period if the young person is inactive, they will lose muscle mass but in place of that they will gain fat mass. The amount of fat mass they gain will equal the weight of muscle mass lost which is why on the scales they haven’t lost or gained a significant amount of weight.
Studies have also shown that people attempting to lose weight tend to go backwards (i.e. they gain the weight they previously lost and more back) over the holidays (Díaz-Zavala et al., 2017). It probably has a lot to do with how they were going about losing the weight. If it was through crazy diets that are cutting out major nutrients and providing not nearly enough daily calories than no wonder! Even without all the temptations of the holiday season no one would be able to sustain that forever. If you were losing weight slowly through healthy diet and lifestyle changes than gaining a little bit of weight over the holidays isn’t something to get upset over. Just try your best to stay in control, allow yourself a little indulgence and try to get back to your normal healthy diet as soon as possible. Fluctuations in body weight whether it’s gaining and loosing or loosing and gaining, has been associated with a higher rate of cardiovascular events and death in people with Coronary Heart Disease as it puts a lot of stress on your body (Bangalore et al., 2017). It’s important to note that ‘fluctuations in weight’ means losing significant amounts of weight and gaining it again, or gaining a significant amount of weight and then losing it again, over a very short period of time through yo-yo dieting, fad diets, excessive exercise or illness. Losing weight slowly through healthy diet and exercise has beneficial effects on health.
Now for some tips for you to stay healthy of the holidays!
Christmas parties and gathering might not be a thing this year, but here are some things you should be mindful of. Canapés are lethal. Canapés may be small but eat enough of them and you can easily pack enough calories away that would match your entire Christmas dinner! They are also usually tasty, and you feel you can’t stop eating them, especially if you arrive hungry to begin with. Eat a small healthy snack before you go so you aren’t overly hungry. It might be a good idea to just get a plate and put a few on it then avoid the trays for the rest of the evening. You can also swap out popular bites for healthier but no less tasty ones. For example;
A 15g mini sausage roll has 53Kcals and 1.6g of saturated fat. Swap that for a 20g piece of smoked salmon sushi which is only 30Kcals and 0.1g of saturated fat.
An average 67g mince pie has a whopping 253Kcals (that’s over 1/6th of most people daily calorie requirement in one mince pie!) and 4g of saturated fat. Swap that for a mini mince pie that’s 23g and you get 87Kcals and 1.9g of saturated fat
Alcohol, people tend to drink a lot of alcohol over the holidays. Not only does this have detrimental effects on your waistline (alcohol contains 7Kcals per gram which is more calories per gram than protein and carbohydrate), it also has detrimental effects on your overall health. Alcohol is absorbed through the lining of the intestine straight into the bloodstream causing damage to organs in the body. It causes dehydration and weakens our cells, especially our liver cells as it’s the livers job to clean the blood. You can get extra liver support from garlic, onions, cruciferous veg (Brussel sprouts, cabbage, kale and broccoli) and artichokes, so if you are drinking over the holidays it might be a good idea to eat more of these foods. The recommended weekly limit in Ireland is 11 standard drinks for women and 14 standard drinks for men (Weekly low-risk alcohol guidelines, 2019). A standard drink is a pub measure of spirit (35.5ml), a small glass of 12.5% VOL wine, ½ a pint of normal beer or an alcopop (275ml bottle). A full bottle of 12.5% alcohol wine is about 7 standard drinks. You’ve probably been told never to drink alcohol on an empty stomach. This is very important as it increases appetite and diminishes control. Meaning as well as doing very stupid embarrassing things that you’ll really regret doing once you sober up; you will eat anything and everything in sight. You should also make sure you drink plenty of water to stay hydrated because as I mentioned above, alcohol causes dehydration. That is what makes you feel horrible when you’re hungover, you’re dehydrated. Dyoralyte is an electrolyte powder that you dissolve in water and drink. It helps re-hydrate the body by replacing lost salts. It’s great if you have a vomiting or diarrhea bug or have a nasty hangover. Maybe a good idea would be not to get drunk in the first place and save yourself all the bother? Don’t ask for a top up until you’re finished what you have in your glass. Drink slowly, make it last if possible. Don’t mix drinks and finally, don’t feel pressured to have another, drink sparkling water or even a soft drink instead.
Now for Christmas day. Don’t skip breakfast, eat something healthy and substantial that will fill you up. That way you won’t be tempted to scoff an entire selection box before dinner! Porridge with fruit, wholegrain toast an egg, fruit and yoghurt with granola. Go for a high fiber low sugar breakfast. Christmas dinner is the main event in most houses. It’s very easy to make a few tweaks to reduce saturated fat, salt, sugar and overall calories, but the main thing to focus on is portion control. Portion control seems to go out the window for most people. Try not to get up for second helpings straight away, take ten minutes to drink some water, talk, pull Christmas crackers, this gives your brain time to establish that you are full. If you are barely able to move from the dinner table to the sofa you know you’ve overdone it, and there’s no need to! A few easy tips to make Christmas dinner healthier is;
Prick the skin of the turkey before cooking it as this will allow the fat to drain, cook the turkey on a wire wrack so it’s not cooking in the fat. Most of the fat in a turkey is in the skin so remove it before eating to give a low fat, low calorie meat.
For the stuffing use chestnut, nuts or dried fruit instead of sausage meat to reduce saturated fat content. Use wholegrain breadcrumbs to increase fibre content which will also make the stuffing more filling, so you’ll not be able to eat as much.
For the potatoes check out my recipe for Smoked paprika potato cubes . Cook in a pre-heated oven at 200/180 fan for 1hr 15mins turning halfway to make them extra crispy. That’s better than using goose fat and you get the same results with a crispy outside and soft fluffy inside. Leaving the skin on the potatoes will also increase fibre intake.
Vegetables, make sure you use a wide variety, and try to follow the same rule of filling half your plate with vegetables (or nearly half) It’s best to steam them as they retain more nutrients, but if you do boil them be sure to save the water and use it in the gravy, that way the nutrients lost in the water you’ll get from the gravy.
When making gravy try making your own stock using juices from the turkey instead of using stock cubes, which are usually high in sodium. Here’s an easy recipe for gravy using turkey juices.
If you’re having multiple course try to space them out, give yourself time to digest the food. Maybe save dessert until later in the evening? Maybe just have a light dessert like a fruit cocktail.
Some non-food related tips on staying healthy over the holidays is to try not to turn into a complete couch potato. Yes, there’s no harm in sitting by a warm fire and watching a film or reading a book during these cold evenings, but during the day try to do at least 30 minutes of physical activity. It can be going for a walk or run, yoga or Pilates, even cleaning counts if you put enough elbow grease in! If you have young children use your free time to play with them (playing with young children, especially toddlers who seem to have an endless supply of energy will definitely help burn off some excess calories). Another important point to remember is DON’T STRESS! So many people get so stressed over the holidays trying to make everything perfect and there’s no need for it. There is no such thing as perfect. Stress may be a psychological thing but very often it manifests physically, making you feel unwell and incidentally ruining your holiday. Use the holidays to re-charge your batteries and get ready for a new year.
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Díaz-Zavala, R.G., Castro-Cantú, M.F., Valencia, M.E., Álvarez-Hernández, G., Haby, M.M. and Esparza-Romero, J. (2017) Effect of the Holiday Season on Weight Gain: A Narrative Review. Journal of Obesity, 2017. Available from https://www.ncbi.nlm.nih.gov/pmc/articles/PMC5514330/ [accessed 21 December 2020].
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