Prep yourself this Christmas with our extensive game plan that will see you enjoying the festivities without the guilt. Stephanie Osfield writes.
Christmas dinner is one of the biggest culinary deals of the year. If you only had to navigate that one day, things would be sweet – but it’s the drinks and parties and picnics and BBQs throughout the festive season that can bite. This means you’re out of your usual routine and not always cooking. You don’t want to look like you’re being all bah-humbug and not getting into the Christmas spirit, so you’ll be eating festive food. But you also don’t want to spend each event battling recriminations because you had too many chocolates.
Overthinking it? Absolutely not. Recent research published in The New England Journal of Medicine showed that in Germany, Japan and the US, holiday celebrations such as Thanksgiving and Golden Week do lead to weight gain. But the biggest kilos spike across the board occurred in the 10 days after Christmas. During this time, Germans gained an average 0.8 kilograms, Americans 0.6 kg and Japanese participants an average of 0.5 kg. And although most of those study participants shed roughly half of that weight, some of it remained. Consider the cumulative impact over time (the term ‘kilo creep’ persists for a reason).
If you’re torn between sanctioned excess and an ascetic festive season with BYO almonds, follow our experts’ plan to have your Christmas cake and eat it.
1. All Or Nothing Thinking
You Think: ‘I just broke my eating rules – I might as well eat whatever I want for the rest of the night.’
“All or nothing thinking is a worrying cognitive distortion that contributes to overeating,” says Sarah McMahon, psychologist and body image expert at Sydney’s BodyMatters Australasia. “It can lead you to eat far more than you would have done if you had just given yourself permission to have a little of what you like.”
Your Christmas Comeback:
» Be compassionate towards yourself: “The fact is that most of us will eat more ‘sometimes’ and ‘occasional’ food at Christmas time,” says McMahon. “The best thing to do is to allow yourself this pleasure, enjoy the food and trust that you and your body can handle it.”
» Eat mindfully: “When you slow down to savour each mouthful of food, you not only enjoy it more, your body and mind connect, so you start to notice when you are full,” says McMahon.
» View treats as a temporary detour: Yes, last night you had garlic bread and canapés. And today? You’re back on your usual track, eating three healthy meals and healthy snacks.
» Plate up your snacks: Even at parties where you can bring a food contribution like sushi and paper plates to serve it on. “This helps you to see how much you are eating so it is easier to realise when you’ve had enough,” says dietitian and nutritionist Rebecca Gawthorne.
» Serve your leftovers to go: If you’ve had friends over for dinner and know you won’t be able to resist the rest of the cheesecake or lasagna, serve it into take-away containers and send your guests home with the leftovers.
You Think: ‘I love fruit pudding, mince pies, White Christmas and the turkey stuffing – they all remind me of when I was a child and how easy and uncomplicated life was.’
“Christmas foods typically have many layers of emotion attached to them,” says McMahon. “Firstly, some of the foods on offer, such as crackling or Christmas pudding, are things you only eat once a year. This in itself can make the food more desirable.
“Often we feel comfort and nostalgia in relation to Christmas food. Unfortunately this can lead us to keep eating more and more to fill an emotional void with food, when in reality, eating that is driven by emotions and not hunger is rarely satiating.”
Your Christmas Comeback:
» Reality check: “Ask yourself ‘Am I hungry?’ and, in particular, ‘What am I hungry for?’” suggests McMahon. “If you know that what you really crave is closeness or connection, honour those feelings and respond to them. Talk to your partner or a trusted sibling about your feelings or write them down. Satisfy those emotions but don’t feed them. Ask someone for a hug or do something nostalgic – look through old photos, or maybe write a journal about your feelings.”
» Give old favourite foods a health spin: For example, if you associate Christmas with fizzy drinks, buy some mineral water and add a dash of a colourful juice like grape juice. Or if Christmas chocolate was your favourite thing, still have a little, but make it a handmade dark chocolate so that it looks amazing (and has health benefits for your heart), and only eat two.
» Channel your inner child: Engage in some games you used to play as a child rather than hoeing into the food. Try board games such as Scrabble and Monopoly, or charades, or picnic games like tag and stuck in the mud.
3. Using Food To Self-Pamper
You Think: ‘I’ve had a really difficult year and I deserve to give myself this reward of lashings of yummy food and wine.’
“Using food as the ultimate holiday treat puts food on a pedestal, as though it can magically fix everything that’s not working in your life and make you feel better,” says McMahon. Fast-forward a few hours after the chocolates and chips or second serving of dessert and you will still be carrying the same emotional baggage. But now you’ll have some food guilt to add to it.
Your Christmas Comeback:
» Take just a few bites: Serve yourself a little of the foods you wouldn’t normally indulge in but just take a few bites to satisfy you and don’t eat the rest. Or enjoy just a small sliver of dessert. Research from Cornell University shows that people who eat small serves of treat foods feel just as satisfied 15 minutes later as those who ate far bigger portions. Another study at Stanford University has found that people who ate only three salty crackers were more satisfied than those who ate 15 crackers.
» Seek non-food rewards: Treat yourself to a few great books for Christmas and daily indulgences over the holidays such as enjoying breakfast al fresco or going for a sunset walk with all the family. “Remind yourself that the major perks of Christmas are not the meals but spending time with family and friends and enjoying a break from work,” says McMahon.
» Avoid second serves: Instead, have a tall glass of water or a nice hot cup of tea. If that doesn’t work and you still feel hungry, go back to have a second serve of salad and vegetables.
4. Suffering Clean Eating Fatigue
You Think: ‘I’m tired of being good. I’m going to feast all through the holidays and work it off at the gym later.’
“Gorging yourself during the holidays and thrashing yourself at the gym later is a dangerous trap that perpetuates an unhealthy and disconnected relationship between food and your body,” says McMahon. “A feast and famine kind of approach is not helpful to maintaining a healthy weight.” Losing weight is also a trickier prospect than many people realise so you may find that your holiday weight does not all come off, even if you’re working out hard and eating clean.
» Stick to your usual eating pattern: “If you’re eating out, choose the grilled fish and vegies instead of the creamy pasta,” says Gawthorne. Meanwhile, skip foods you would never normally have, such as soft drinks, bread rolls at dinner, gravy and sour cream on your potatoes.”
Eating at a friend’s house? Offer to bring a huge salad so that you can serve a big plate of that and eat less of the more kilojoule-laden healthy fare.
» Work out as usual: Abandoning your exercise routine at the very time of year that you normally eat more doesn’t make any sense. “Exercise makes every cell more sensitive to insulin, so glucose enters your cells more easily,” says Christine Armarego, exercise physiologist from Sydney’s Glucose Club. “This means your pancreas doesn’t need to send out as much insulin to manage your blood glucose levels.” In turn this helps to reduce weight gain over the festive season.
» Remember – this effect is dose-dependent. “Twenty-four hours after you work out, your insulin sensitivity peaks,” Armarego explains. “Within 48 hours it has returned to what it was. That’s why daily exercise is best to keep insulin sensitivity at its highest. If you can’t manage that, try not to let more than 48 hours pass between exercise sessions.”
By contrast, if you’re a couch potato all holidays, “Higher glucose levels and insulin can lead to increased fatigue and make it harder for your body to access fats stores to burn for energy,” Armarego says.
So keep up some kind of exercise all through Christmas. And if at all possible, exercise on Christmas day – either by engaging in a workout after the present opening, or by enjoying a long family walk over lunch.
5. Starving to Save Up Kilojoules
You Think: ‘I purposely haven’t eaten a thing all day so that I can let my hair down at Christmas lunch.’
“This is a classic Christmas mistake,” says Gawthorne. “You are likely to be so ravenous that you serve a huge portion and then go back for seconds, which could cause a huge kilojoule blowout.”
» Eat three meals: Have a simple breakfast of eggs and rye toast and eat a salad for lunch. This will ensure you’re not starving with hunger and supersize your helpings at Christmas functions and then regret it the next day.
» Go for vegies first: “Serve a stack of salad and vegetables (at least half your plate) first then serve the other foods,” Gawthorne suggests. “The more vegies you eat, the more nutrients and fibre you enjoy and the less likely you will be to overindulge in other foods. It will also help portion control the other high-kilojoule foods because you will only have a little room for them on your plate.”
» Choose a smaller plate: Put a larger plate underneath it so it has the illusion of looking even bigger. When you serve your meal, you will feel that you are eating a huge feast even though you are not overdoing your intake of kilojoules.
» Pick three favourites: Rather than go for everything from the roast potatoes and gravy to the crackling, pick three favourite high-kilojoule foods to really savour in small portions. Then fill the rest of your plate with super-healthy salads and vegetables.
6. Using Alcohol to Unwind
You Think: ‘That champagne is really giving me a nice buzz after weeks of stress. I’m going to help myself relax by having a few more.’
Because it’s a drink, we often completely ignore that alcohol can pack a powerful kilojoule punch. “Beer, wine, spirits and cocktails are all high in calories and devoid of any good nutrition, so there is no nutritional benefit gained from consuming them,” says Gawthorne.
“While I don’t think there is too much of an issue with consuming small, safe amounts of one to two standard drinks of alcohol on social occasions, it’s important not to look at Christmas and New Year’s as an excuse to drink to excess. This will lead to weight gain and could cause potential health issues (such as hangovers and stomach irritation).”
Remember, alcohol often comes alongside foods like salty nuts and chips that may be harder to resist once we’ve had a few. “And if you’re feeling worse for wear the next day, you may also indulge in a big fatty breakfast,” Gawthorne adds.
» Make a trade-off: Decide how you are going to spend your kilojoules before each function. “If you want to indulge, for example, in a slice of your favourite Christmas cake after dinner, then you won’t want to be drinking lots of alcohol,” Gawthorne says. “Or if you want to enjoy a few alcoholic drinks, then you might need to forgo the dessert or avoid the high-kilojoule cheeses after dinner.”
» De-stress without alcohol: Not only is the lead-up to Christmas rushed and stressed for many people, but being with family is often super stressful too. So take time to stop and recharge your batteries. That may mean you engage in daily meditation, a morning swim or time out to read a book from cover to cover. The less stressed you are and the more enjoyable your Christmas holiday, the less likely you are to use food as a Christmas feelgood crutch.
NEXT: Beat the Christmas snacking blowout with these top tips.