7 ways to stay healthier this festive season

Dietitian Linia Patel shares her tips on managing your nutrition during the Christmas festivities.

Mince pies! Mulled wine! Honey glazed ham! Festive food can inspire ecstasy, anxiety or both…. depending on your mindset. The bad news is that it is estimated that over the two days of Christmas the average person eats over 11,000 calories – almost three times the norm, so its no wonder that many people are concerned that come January their jeans will be that bit, er, tighter. 

The good news is that Christmas doesn’t automatically have to mean weight gain. There are sensible ways to eat, drink and be merry. Here are seven practical ways to help navigate you through the festive territory without over doing it or feeling like you are missing out on the fun.
 
1. Eat! If you think you’re saving on calories by skipping meals or not eating before you drink you’re wrong.   Low blood sugar increases cortisol levels which leads you to crave foods high in sugar, fat and salt.  So if you start out skimping you’re more likely to overeat later as you’re starving. The right thing to do is to eat keep your blood sugars levels balanced. Start the day with a breakfast that has some lean protein, good fat and slowly releases carbs into your blood stream such as scrambled eggs and avocado or salmon on wholegrain toast.  A recent study in the Journal of the American College of Nutrition found that eggs contain glutathione an amino acid that helps detoxify alcohol. Double bonus!

2. Stay well watered. Your body can misinterpret thirst as hunger. A new study in the Journal of Physiology and Behaviour showed that thirst can prompt us to consume more calories than we need. So keep that bottle of water nearby and sip at it throughout the day. Hangover headaches are also a sign of dehydration, so you if you are planning on having a couple of drinks (or more) you need to keep on top of your water intake. Have water everywhere. Keep a glass in front of you and sip water regularly throughout your day. Carry a bottle of water with you. Pile the ice in your party drinks. Alternate the bubbles with a glass of sparkling water. Find your own way of keeping hydrated – but make sure you drink at least 1.5 - 2 L of water a day.

3. Not so fast.  Eating too quickly is likely to result in you overeating, as you are not giving your body’s satiety signals time to kick in. It takes at least 20 minutes for your stomach to signal to your brain that you are satisfied (not necessarily full) – so make your meals last this long or longer! To help with this you can use the fork trick. Once you take a bite of food, place your fork down on the plate, and let go of the fork. Chew your food, swallow, and then pick up your fork again. The key to this trick is actually letting go of the fork. By eating more slowly, you'll be more in touch with your body's satiety signals.
 
4. Sip smartly. Liquid calories are dangerous calories.  And I’m not just talking about alcohol here (although booze is a notorious calorie bomb). The reason for this is that consuming calories in the form of liquid doesn’t seem to set off the same chemical reaction that contributes to satiety that chewing does. Quench your thirst with water and then when you choose a drink – choose whatever drink you like best but quality is key: spend more and buy less to become a connoisseur rather than a guzzler. 

5. Be selective. When it comes to snacks and treats, temptation is all around us at Christmas – however instead of piling your plate high with foods that don’t really tantalize your taste buds you need to be selective. Do you really even like eggnog or fruitcake? Or would you much rather have your chocolate log with icecream instead? Eat what you love and leave what you like.  If something doesn’t make you salivate – it’s not worth wasting the calories on it. 

6. Bring out the skinny jeans.  Elastic waistbands, baggy jumpers and stretchy dresses are practically an open invitation to overeat. Leave the roomy pants at the back of the closet and bring out those skinny jeans, fitted dresses, shirts and blazers. Not only will you look good, but your outfit will offer a subtle reminder of when you are full which will hopefully keep you from getting seconds or thirds.

7. Be mindful. Mindless eating  (and drinking) is consuming food just because it’s there. Mindful eating on the other hand is being present when you eat – which means slowing down, fully engaging all your senses and savoring the moment. The sight of platter after platter of heavenly Christmas food can lead to an over excited dash to fit as much in our mouths as possible – and we actually don’t even taste the food when we eat this way.  One way of eating mindfully is to stick to the three-bite rule particularly when eating desserts. The first bite is the best, the last the grand finale, and every bite in between is the same. In three bites, you get the full dessert experience and you’re less likely to over indulge.

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References: 
1. Vander Wal JS et al. 2005. Short-term effect of eggs on satiety in overweight and obese subjects. Journal of the American College of Nutrition 24:510-515.
2. Natural Hydration Council. Hydration and dehydrated. Accessed on 10 December 2016 on http://www.naturalhydrationcou...
3. Albers S. Eat, drink, and be mindful.2008.New Harbinger Publications
4. Sorensen LB, Moller P, Flint A, Martens M, Raben A.2013. Effect of sensory perception of foods on appetite and food intake: a review of studies on humans. Int J Obes Relat Metab Disord. 27(10):1152-66