The Christmas season can be a stressful time of year for many, not to mention expensive on our wallets — and on our dietary health. I’m sure we’re all familiar with that feeling of being uncomfortably full by the evening of Christmas Day.
For many, the holiday will always be a day of excess to some degree, but it doesn’t have to be a time of absolute gluttony.
Accepting that, around Christmas, your diet will probably have larger portion sizes and be a little unhealthier than usual is quite important, says Lisa Renn, accredited practising dietitian and spokesperson for the Dietitians Association of Australia.
“Christmas is not the time of year to be perfect. Healthy eating is not perfect — it never has to be — and if you know that you’re allowed to have some extra treats, you’re probably less likely to overindulge,” says Renn.
However, with the festive season now bulging at the seams as retailers try to extend it beyond just the big day itself, many people have several Christmas parties throughout December. This constant stream of events can lead many of us to let our guard down health-wise, as we get into the spirit of Christmas before it has even begun.
With such events, portion control is very important, says Catherine Saxelby, accredited nutritionist from Foodwatch.
“Don’t eat two restaurant sized meals a day — a lot of people have a big Christmas lunch at work, and then go home and eat a full cooked dinner there as well. Try just having a salad or a sandwich for dinner instead and you’ll probably feel just as full,” advises Saxelby.
Nonetheless, for most of us it’s the 25th of December that is the hardest time of year to resist indulgence. Even one day of enormous excess can undo dieting work if you’re trying to lose weight.
“If someone wasn’t exercising, and was increasing food and alcohol consumption over the week of Christmas, they could probably expect an increase of three to five kilograms over that period,” according to Lisa Renn.
One way to minimise this potential weight gain is to provide healthy options if you’re hosting an event, or to bring your own to share with others.
While it’s important to have vegetables and salads to balance out the fatty foods, another healthy alternative is to swap out sausages, and bulky beef and pork for leaner protein choices such as seafood.
Dessert is often where we go all out on Christmas, so it’s always a good idea to have smaller portions of heavy dishes like Christmas pudding. A fruit platter is also a popular choice, especially if it’s a hot day.
Another easy way to eat healthier around Christmas is to avoid giving — or receiving — unhealthy food gifts like shortbread or chocolate. Instead, opt for a gourmet mustard, chutney, or fancy salad dressing to encourage healthier eating.
A gorgeous fruit platter is a tasty and healthier alternative to some of the more indulgent desserts
It’s also important to note that the excess of food available isn’t the only reason people overeat in the holiday season. While it is a time of joy and sharing, Christmas events can also be a difficult time for many — family tensions might be simmering below the surface at lunch, or it may be the first Christmas since a loved one has passed away.
“It’s well recognised that there are other emotional triggers that can cause overeating, so if you’re aware of them, you can pull back and realise that food isn’t necessarily going to help,” says Saxelby.
Maintaining healthy eating goals beyond Christmas
A common trend around this time of year is for mass overindulgence at Christmas, followed by jumping straight into a difficult, almost ascetic diet as a New Year’s resolution.
According to Lisa Renn, the key to maintaining healthy eating goals is to practise moderation rather than completely denying yourself. If you set yourself difficult rules to follow, you’re more likely to break them, which will make maintaining your health even more difficult.
“This need for perfection in our diets drives rebellion, it drives overeating, and it drives an unhealthy relationship. Nobody’s perfect!” explains Renn.
Instead, a good way to allow yourself some leeway when trying to eat healthy is to follow on the 80:20 rule. That means that 80 per cent of your diet is focussed on healthy choices, and the other 20 per cent allows treats and unhealthier foods.
“Healthy eating resolutions need to be SMART: small, measurable, achievable, realistic, and time-based. Remember that losing weight is difficult and takes time,” says Saxelby.
How do you control your eating habits around Christmas?