Ho ho ho! Christmas is just around the corner with only 4 sleeps to go. While ’tis definitely the season to be jolly, it’s also the season we tend to experience the most stress – these last few days before Christmas are absolutely mental. People run, people push and shove, they do not look where they go or drive. Everybody feels like a hamster trapped in a wheel – the wheel keeps spinning and the time is running out, but we’re still behind the schedule. It is no wonder that once Christmas comes and the feast is cooked, we just let ourselves go wild and free and enjoy every single thing to the fullest. Until the hangover sets in and we feel sick and guilty, overstuffed with food, and somewhere deep inside thankful that Christmas happens only once a year.
Besides feeling uncomfortably full and guilty for the lack of control, a ton of other side effects may arise if you have some medical issues and need to follow a particular diet, or if you are following a particular diet out of other reasons, you may be disappointed that you went off the course, and once the lapse has happened you may find it hard to go back to your routine. But you have to understand this:
It doesn’t have to be this way.
There are ways to enjoy Christmas dinner without feeling guilty or uncomfortable. There are ways to avoid the pitfalls of Christmas dinner and feel light and accomplished without compromising your sense of enjoyment.
Here are a few tips on how to stay balanced this Christmas:
- Start with healthy breakfast
What comprises a healthy breakfast? Including all the required macronutrients and food groups while also receiving a good amount of long-lasting energy and essential micronutrients to nourish your body. This means you need to make sure that you include carbohydrates, protein and healthy fats in one meal.
It may be tempting to go for a full English breakfast, but you have to keep in mind that your Christmas feast is likely to include a lot of animal protein and fat, and lots of simple carbs such as mashed potato, stuffing, etc. It is also likely to be lacking in fruit and non-starchy veg, as well as plant sources of protein. So to balance it off, you can kickstart your morning with eating one or two pieces of fruit, some nuts, a wholegrain toast with hummus and fresh veg or porridge, and maybe non-dairy milk or yoghurt. You can have dairy if you want, but I would still strongly suggest to avoid meat at breakfast as you will have plenty later on (unless you’re a vegetarian, then discard this piece altogether).
Little tip: to avoid digestion problems, eat the fruit first as it takes much less time to digest.
- Don’t set out hungry
No matter what time your dinner is make sure that you have a small meal or a snack about every 4 hours. If you think it’s better to leave space for the calorific food at dinner, guess what will happen? You will get hungry and eat twice as much of that calorific food.
- Use vegetables for sides
Christmas dinner doesn’t have to be all mash and meat and gravy. It is a perfect opportunity to make vegetable side dishes, like roasted Brussels sprouts, roasted or steamed broccoli and cauliflower, fresh colourful salads. Start with the sides first, as they are healthier and lower in calories and fill you up quicker. Then continue with the usual staples of Christmas dinner.
Tip: Use olive oil instead of butter or animal fat for your veggies and use it sparingly. Forego the oil at all whenever you can. Also use gentler cooking methods like baking (especially in tin foil) or steaming, as roasting and browning food produces inflammatory compounds.
- Use a smaller plate
When you use a big plate, it takes a lot of food to fill it up. A plate that is half-full seems unappealing and lacking to our brain and that is why we tend to overeat. It is scientifically proven that by choosing small plates we tend to eat less because it takes less food to fill the plate and that tricks the brain. We are also the generation that has been taught to not waste food and eat everything on the plate – a habit that is actually very bad for us, so choosing a smaller plate is better. If you clean your plate and still feel that you’re hungry you can always get a second helping, but check with yourself first to see if you really need it.
- Try a little bit of everything
Instead of filling up on one or two things, make your plate colourful with a little bit of each dish. Different flavour combinations will make your meal more satisfying because it hits all the taste buds.
- Alternate sweet and alcoholic drinks with water
This is a very good strategy to help prevent consuming too much alcohol and sugar. Simply fill every other glass with water and you’re good. It also ensures that you are well hydrated because both sugar and alcohol (and caffeine too) can make you dehydrated, which leads to headache and other ailments.
Tip: choose red wine or red grape juice over other beverages, as these are high in antioxidants, especially resveratrol, which is also known for its anti-ageing effect. Antioxidants will help your body fight the oxidative stress that may result from the fat-laden and roasted dinner.
- Bring your own food to a party
This is very important if you need to follow a particular diet for medical or personal reasons. To avoid disappointment of not having enough choice this is your best bet. Also make sure that it is the food you really like, even if it’s not traditional Christmas food – knowing that you enjoy these special dishes will motivate you to stick to them instead of feeling tempted to eat whatever everybody else is having.
- Join in the conversation
The most important part of Christmas dinner is getting together. Socialising during meals allows bonding, takes your mind off problems and provides relaxation as well as helps with mindful eating. Participating in a conversation prevents you from eating non-stop thus giving your body time to realise that you are satisfied before you have a chance to overeat – because the most common downside of speedy eating is not being able to recognise in time that you are actually full.
- Beware of that cheese
Cheese platters are becoming increasingly popular. Cheese is tasty and actually addictive – it makes the brain release dopamine (happiness hormone that is released during pleasant activities, including exercise, intimacy and drug use). The ‘higher’ we get from eating cheese, the more our brain craves it. And unfortunately cheese is one of very calorie-dense foods. And it is so easy to overconsume it. Double trouble.
Tip: Don’t even think of telling yourself that you cannot eat cheese. Deprivation leads to unhappiness and intense cravings. Eventually you will give in and feast on cheese twice as much. Instead, try a bit of everything and maybe mix it with other foods so that you are not left with cheese one on one.
- Don’t rush for a dessert
Wait some time after dinner before dipping your teeth into something sweet. Have some water first, relax and talk. There’s no need to overwhelm your body with so much food at once, especially when it’s high in sugar and fat. Moreover, drinking tea or coffee straight after a meal interferes with nutrient absorption, so it is best to wait 40 to 60 minutes before you have tea. Then if you have room for some dessert, you can have it. But there is no need to force it if you still feel full. It won’t go anywhere. If you’re leaving the party early, ask to take a piece home with you. If you’re staying but the demand for that dessert is high, put a piece aside so that nobody takes it. And finally, if there’s more than one choice, take a small piece of each option instead of getting a big piece only to realise that you want to try something else after you’ve finished this one.
But ultimately, however you end up spending your Christmas, learn to forgive and move on. Even if it didn’t go according to plan, it is not your fault worth penance. You are only a human. We all are. We are not perfect and we make mistakes, we give in to temptations – that’s our nature. The most important is to enjoy this special time of the year! If you truly enjoyed it, it was worth it.
I wish all of you a very happy Christmas and New Year!