As we enter the festive season, I reveal the top reasons why you may be prone to piling on the pounds at Christmas, as well as my favourite tips for avoiding weight gain – whilst still enjoying yourself.
It’s normal to want to indulge over Christmas, after all it's a wonderful time of celebration, but unfortunately the number of people joining diet clubs and gyms in January speaks volumes about how many regret their festive binges.
Is this a familiar pattern for you? Perhaps you’ve grown up associating food with pleasure and fun, so subconsciously you fear that if you don’t eat everything available, somehow you won’t have a such a ‘happy Christmas’. Or perhaps it's too easy to slip into a ‘one more won’t hurt’ mind-set, when you know that one more, is really one too many.
When working with clients on weight management programmes, I am always keen to help my clients understand what kind of things have tripped them up or blocked their success in the past. These are a few of the things that often come up:
Portion control – have you ever felt you’ve waited all year for Christmas, so you’re not about the hold back? The extra roasties or chocolates don’t seem to matter.
Social life – family commitments, work lunches and endless parties mean that you are literally overloaded with temptation, sometimes on a daily basis. And hangovers add to the urge to eat junk food and veg out on the sofa.
Sedentary lifestyle – a busy social life means exercise routines get put on the back burner as we swap dumbbells for the remote control. The average family spends 3.5 hours watching TV on Christmas Day. Swap that for some gym time and you’ll have done the hard work of actually making a start come the New Year!
Mental ‘hall pass’ – willpower goes out the window at this time of year. It’s almost as if you tell yourself that it’s fine to binge on everything in sight as you’ll lose it all when you go on a January diet / detox.
But the fact is, you really can still enjoy the festive season and not gain weight. As a qualified nutritional therapist, I work with clients to take control of their relationship with food and plan how to get through times when over-indulgence might feel hard to resist. Here are my 9 favourite simple strategies you could put in place before the festive season. Follow these and there is no reason why you can’t start the New Year looking and feeling fantastic:
1 SET A FESTIVE FOOD GOAL
It’s unrealistic to try and avoid all temptation over Christmas, but by setting a specific goal – say, limiting yourself to one treat a day, or scheduling in a quick workout once or twice a week to offset your increased calorie intake – will help you stay on track. You could even make it into a fun game and get the whole family involved.
2 EAT SMART
If you don’t have a plan (for parties, going out, visiting friends, having family over and so on) you are setting yourself up to fail. Be clear in your mind what your healthy options are, and if you know you’re going somewhere you won’t be able to eat the right foods, take some nutritious snacks or meals with you.
Fill up on some protein-rich ham or leftover turkey, or keep sugar cravings at bay with a homemade energy ball before you hit the party circuit.
3 PORTION CONTROL
Eating from a smaller dish causes you to eat less, because the food itself looks more substantial. If you transfer food from a 12-inch plate to a 9-inch plate, it looks like more food and you, therefore, feel more satisfied.
4 AVOID EXCESS
Christmas excess can lead to hangovers, and hangovers often lead to poor food choices, especially a tendency to seek out sugar and starchy carbs. Research reveals that fat from certain foods, including ice cream and roast potatoes, goes straight to the brain and tells you to eat more! It triggers messages that are sent to the body’s cells, warning them to ignore appetite-suppressing hormones that regulate our weight.
The effect can last for a few days, sabotaging efforts to get back to a healthy diet afterwards. Dr Deborah Clegg, who conducted the research, explains: “Normally our body is primed to say when we’ve had enough, but that doesn’t always happen. When you eat something high in fat, your brain gets ‘hit’ with the fatty acids and you become resistant to insulin (which regulates blood sugar levels) and leptin (the hormone that suppresses hunger). Since you are not being told by the brain to stop eating, you overeat.”
5 OUT OF SIGHT
If you want a Quality Street chocolate and all you have to do is reach to the tin and help yourself, chances are you’ll end up eating a handful. But if you have to get your shoes on, walk to the shop in the cold to buy some chocolate, you probably wouldn’t bother.
Ever heard yourself say “take this away from me, so I stop eating?” With food directly in front of you, it’s easy to overindulge. Once it’s removed, you realise you aren’t even hungry – you were just eating because it was there. So, make a decision to keep unhealthy foods out of sight in cupboards or better still, don’t buy them.
6 LOAD THE VEG
Veggies don’t need to be doused in oil and roasted to within an inch of their lives to taste good. One of my favourite festive side dishes are thinly sliced Brussels sprouts, which I flash-fry with garlic, pine nuts and a dash of white wine. It’s so tasty, I make it all year round. Slow-cooked red cabbage and apple is another fantastic way to get some much-needed nutrients.
7 SLOW DOWN
It takes around 20 minutes for your body to tell your brain that you’re full. If you eat quickly, you’re more likely to eat more. Slowing down gives you time to recognise and assess how hungry you really are.
One trick I use is counting chews (it’s tedious but it works). If you chew a bite 10 times, you’ll eat slower. I also found myself enjoying food more, as there’s more time to actually taste what I’m eating. Eventually it becomes second nature to chew more.
If you’re in a group, try to be the first person to start eating and the last to stop. Pacing your eating like this will get you to eat more slowly without getting in your head about the specific amount that you eat.
8 CIRCLE OF SUPPORT
Emotional support is crucial to some people when they are trying to focus on eating healthily. Research shows that people who felt supported by their friends and family were 50% more likely to stick to a healthy eating plan.
So ask your loved ones to help you avoid temptation by not to offering you sugary treats. Buddy up with a family member who is also trying to lose or maintain their weight. Having that moral support will boost your chances of success (and you won’t be riddled with that horrible feeling of regret the next day).
9 BE KIND TO YOURSELF
It is the season of goodwill, after all. If you slip up, don’t beat yourself up or see it as an excuse to write off the rest of the day and eat everything in sight. Just chalk it up as one bad decision and move on. You can get back on track tomorrow.
Now... relax, have fun and focus on what's REALLY important about the festive period - spending quality time with your loved ones and friends.