Christmas is a wonderful time of year. There is cheer in the air, sparkling lights in the trees and gifts galore for December 25th. It is a period of joy and goodwill, with a host of parties and festivities in the pipeline for the New Year.
Traditionally, the Christmas period lasts two weeks, but with the combination of Thanksgiving and the rise of commercialism, it appears to be starting earlier and earlier every year. This not only hits our purses, but can also wreak havoc on our healthy eating plans and weight management programmes.
Endless meals filled with rich meats, gravies and sweet desserts tempt us throughout the season. We are often helpless to say no to a slice of delicious fruitcake or another glass of warm mulled wine. And even if we believe we are doing well over the festive season, we have to stay aware of the dangers of overeating.
It can cause a pile of unpleasant side effects including bloating, indigestion and upset stomachs. Perhaps most alarmingly, however, it puts a spanner in the works of our dietary plans so that we ditch our healthy eating routines for sumptuous snacks, over-sized dinners and handfuls of chocolate.
Before examining ways to avoid overeating at Christmas, it is a good idea to look at the facts and reasons we typically feel more than happy to overindulge at this time of year.
How Much Do We Consume at Christmas?
As the British Dietetic Association reveals, the average person puts on between one and five pounds over Christmas. It is worth remembering that calculation is based on a two-week period and nothing longer. Sitting down to the usual turkey dinner and surrounding delicacies will rack up an average calorie count of a staggering 6,000 on the big day. That is certainly not good news for our bellies.
Nobody will argue against the odd day of feasting, however, the reason it is so potentially damaging at Christmas is the length of the season. The recommended daily calorie intake for men is around 2,500 and no more than 2,000 for women. So on December 25th, most of us don’t just eat double our allowance, but three times the amount! And while our bodies can just about cope with that for one day, it is clearly not sustainable for the festive 12 if we want to stay trim.
While we are obviously accustomed to overindulging on Christmas day, research from Aviva Ireland has also shed light on our dietary patterns throughout the season. The study showed that almost half of people eat one-and-a-half times their normal food intake throughout the holidays, with a quarter of respondents admitting they eat twice as much.
Interestingly, the research found that eating larger dinner portions was the main trigger for overeating among 62 per cent of people questioned. However, the second biggest cause of overindulgence was chocolate, with our appetites apparently insatiable at this time of year.
It seems we are prepared to put on pounds at Christmas too, with the Aviva study revealing that 83 per cent of respondents expected to put on weight over Christmas. No wonder we can’t get a handle on our calorie count if we don’t even try! Although just over half (51 per cent) of people said they exercised over the festive period, one of the top reasons for being sedentary was using the season for a rest. But really, how hard would it be to take an after-dinner stroll or early morning run to offset a little of those Christmas excesses?
We Shouldn’t Underestimate the Role of Alcohol…
Let’s not forget that it is not just food our guts are bulging with over the festive season, as alcohol consumption tends to soar too. The Aviva study showed that 27 per cent of respondents downed ten more units of alcohol over Christmas week compared to a typical seven-day period. There is no disputing the detrimental effects of beer, wine and spirits at this time of year as everyone looks to the festive season as an excuse for uncorking the best from their cellars.
Guidelines from the NHS suggest men should not drink more than between three and four units of alcohol per day. Women are advised to limit themselves to three, with the service also warning against drinking for 48 hours after a heavy session. Between Christmas Eve, Christmas Day, Boxing Day and New Year’s Eve, for some it seems impossible to steer clear of excess drinking at this time of year.
So Why the Excess?
Research published in Biological Psychiatry has identified the hormone ‘ghrelin’ as a possible cause of overeating at Christmas. In previous studies, it was found that the so-called ‘hunger hormone’ was produced when hunger kicks in. However, scientists from the University of Texas took this theory one step further to uncover its role in overindulging.
Dr Jeff Zigman, co-senior author of the study, said:
What we show is that there may be situations where we are driven to seek out and eat very rewarding foods, even if we’re full, for no other reason than our brain tells us to.
The researchers divided a group of mice in two to determine how ghrelin impacted on their food-related behaviour. They wanted to see how the animals would fare after being enclosed in a room with high fat food and another room with normal, bland food. Fully-fed, the mice were given a choice between the two rooms. However, one set of mice was given a dose of ghrelin, while the other was not. Unsurprisingly, the mice given the hormone had a much greater interest in the high-fat food room than the untreated animals.
Dr Mario Parello explained:
We think the ghrelin prompted the mice to pursue the high-fat chow because they remembered how much they enjoyed it. It didn’t matter that the room was now empty, they still associated it with something pleasurable.
It is this association with pleasure that perhaps drives us to overeat at Christmas. Once we get going, we apparently find it very difficult to stop. Ghrelin may prompt us to reach for that extra slice of cake when in fact sense, and perhaps our stomachs, would tell us not to. It appears to be an internal battle of wills.
What Else Makes Us Feel Like It’s OK to Overeat?
It is not just our bodies that cause us to overeat at Christmas. There is a social acceptance of overindulging during the festive season, so we don’t feel the same pressure to keep in shape. While Christmas is supposed to be about fun and time spent with families or loved ones, it also places great pressure on individuals. Stress, as well-documented, is another trigger for overeating. When it comes to the festive season, we are faced with plenty of obstacles to managing weight.
Although it is 25 days from the beginning of December until the main day, commercial advent calendars are prompting fingers to reach for chocolates from day one. It is not just one office party our bellies have to contend with as family, friends and local bars all throw festive dos to get us drinking and eating for a merry season. And as if that wasn’t enough, we are also expected to carry out this charade until New Year’s Day. That is a full 31 days of celebrations! It doesn’t really sound like we stand a chance.
What Can We Do to Keep the Christmas Bulge at Bay?
It may sound too painful to behave sensibly throughout the entire festive season, so a starting point for faring well may be to map out exactly where and when we will give way to temptation. If three parties are lined up for the course of a week, we can decide to cut down on what we eat at lunch times to avoid going over our weekly calorie counts.
Common advice would suggest drinking plenty of water when feeling peckish but how realistic is this? Instead, swap every second beverage for a glass of water and not only will that cut down on sugar intake from alcohol, it will also help to stave off a morning hangover. Filling up on water can also help settle hunger-pangs, although we don’t want to look entirely out of place at the festive party carrying around a bottle of H2O!
Some of us have what are known as ‘trigger foods’ – that is, foods that make us more inclined to overindulge. So if we know that one chocolate is likely to send us into an eating frenzy, then it would be better to avoid that treat in favour of something less influential, like Christmas cake or a mince pie. That way, we can still enjoy delicious foods but without the temptation to overeat.
If we do find that we have spent three successive days consuming every food in sight then there’s no time like the present to cut back. Rather than saying, “the diet starts on Monday”, make a conscious decision there and then to get back on track with your usual eating routine. It doesn’t matter if that occurs on December 13th or 31st, just ensure you get a grip the minute you take a breather from overeating.
There are lots of practical steps you can take too, such as switching Christmas cake for fruit or butter for oil in cooking, but the best tip is to keep moderation in mind at all times. A little self-control will go a long way to losing any excess pounds at the beginning of the New Year so we can start as we mean to go on.