How To Have A Balanced Christmas
Only 5 sleeps to go until it’s Christmas day – one of the most exciting days of the year, awaited by so many. And it also happens to be the day of the Grand Feast of the year – happily embraced by some and absolutely dreaded by others. Which group do you belong to?
Personally, I don’t worry about Christmas. It’s just one day (well, maybe two, considering the leftovers) and then it’s back to normal (more or less), but it can be difficult for those who are on a diet for whatever reason. We are all different. Some of us don’t have to be strict, others can’t do it any other way. Some find it hard to get back to routine after the littlest slip up, and Christmas feast is not exactly little…
No matter who you are and what your lifestyle looks like, we can all do with a little more balance, even at Christmas. It doesn’t mean being strict and avoiding all the guilty pleasures. It just means being a little more mindful about the things we do (or eat, for that matter).
So this year I am bringing back my guide How To Have a Balanced Christmas as my Christmas Special!
HOW TO HAVE A BALANCED CHRISTMAS
1. Start with a healthy breakfast
Don’t save yourself for dinner. If you fast for the day you are much more likely to devour whatever is on the table and feel uncomfortably full, perhaps, bloated, and guilty. Make sure to include some complex carbohydrates, protein and a little fat to give you a sustainable release of energy and keep you full for longer. Good options include porridge with nuts, seeds or nut butters, nutty granola or muesli with yogurt (look for less sugary ones), baked beans and avocado on a wholegrain toast. Add vegetables and hummus to your breakfast if you love savoury foods. Fermented things like sauerkraut will boost your digestion. Fruit is always a good idea, too, but make sure to eat it first to avoid digestive issues.
2. Avoid getting hungry
If you’re having dinner later at night, I’ll say it again: don’t save yourself till dinner. Have something to eat about every 4 hours, small portions if you like. If you feel hungry but know that you’ll be sitting down for the main meal within the next 2-3 hours, have a small (healthy!) snack.
3. Use vegetables for sides
Vegetables are good for you in practically any form, except deep fried and fried in general. Fresh, sautéed, steamed or baked are the best. Use them as side dishes to make your dinner healthier and not rely too much on mashed potato. By the way, have you tried mashing it with a steamed/boiled cauliflower? It’s delicious!
4. Make substitutes
It’s not really necessary as you want to enjoy a more or less traditional Christmas dinner, but it’s a good thing to make some substitutes, like using olive oil instead of butter, single cream or coconut cream instead of double cream, natural yogurt instead of crème fraiche, etc. Baking things covered with tin foil or gently sautéing is better than roasting, browning or charring as burning food produces inflammatory compounds. I’m not saying you have to be all paranoid about it on Christmas, but if you can make some changes – go for it!
5. Use smaller plates
It is a well-known psychological fact that using a smaller plate tricks your brain into thinking that you have more food on it, while in fact you have less than if you loaded a big plate up. The problem with the big plates is they look unappealing when they are only half-full (again, brain tricks) but fill it up and it’s too much food for almost anyone. So use smaller plates for dinner and go according to how full or hungry you feel, not to how much food you have on your plate.
6. Taste different things
We may be not as sensitive to tastes and smells as other species in the world, but it still plays a huge role in how satisfied we feel with our food (it’s not all about the portion size). If you combine many different dishes and sides in small amounts on your plate, you are more likely to feel satisfied without overindulging. But if you put a regular portion of one or two dishes, you will feel full but won’t be completely satisfied because you haven’t tried everything. So better turn your plate into a taster platter.
7. Alternate between sweet/alcoholic drinks and water
Should be self-explanatory, really, but I will elaborate. It is easy to drink a lot during your meal, be it a fizzy drink, a juice or a glass of wine. Most of us have a habit of sipping on a drink after chewing a piece of food. If you keep refilling your glass with a sugary or alcoholic drinks throughout the meal, you are going to: 1) consume a lot of extra calories; 2) consume a lot of sugar; 3) get dehydrated quickly and possibly get drunk. Why? Because sugar and alcohol both need water to get metabolised and alcohol is very dehydrating. To avoid getting drunk, dehydrated or loaded with excess sugar, simply refill your glass with water every other time. A lot of problems can be avoided if we keep a glass of water near the plate.
8. Join in the conversation
The more you talk, the less you eat, right? As children, we’ve been taught to keep quiet during meal times so that we actually eat. But it turns out that talking during the meal is the best thing that you can do. There have been a lot of research in the past decade about sharing meals and socialising at mealtimes. Researchers agree that sharing family meals fosters better eating habits and overall better behaviour in children as well as lowers the risk of obesity. For adults, it allows bonding and increases life satisfaction. Communicating during meals takes your mind away from problems, helps you relax and, strangely enough, leads to a more mindful eating. Since we eat slower when we talk, we are less likely to miss that point when we are not hungry anymore, which usually happens when we eat quickly. The body needs time to recognise that food has been consumed. Eating slower helps you maintain a healthy weight.
9. Beware of cheese
Who doesn’t love a cheese platter paired with fruit and wine? And maybe some crackers? There’s just one problem with that meal option. Cheeses are often served at the end of the meal, when we have already eaten plenty. It’s hard to resist cheese because it tastes good and it is actually addictive! Cheese contains tyrosine – an amino acid that triggers the dopamine release in our brains, the “happiness hormone”. While dopamine is good for human health, the brain quickly learns the association of the precursor (cheese, in our case) with the effect (dopamine = happiness) and makes you crave more. That’s why it is so hard to stop eating cheese, especially with wine (alcohol and sugar trigger dopamine release, too).
While I’m not saying that it’s bad to eat foods that make you feel good, the real problem with cheese lies in its nutritional value. It is very dense in calories and high in fat! So if you want to avoid additional calories, better keep your cheese addiction at bay. You can serve it as part of the main meal and add small pieces to your taster plate.
10. Wait for the dessert
Desserts… Quite possibly the best ending to a lovely family meal. But not so fast! Desserts are a very bad idea right after a meal. One, you’ve already consumed a lot of calories. Adding dessert on top of it will ensure that those calories go to fat storage instead of being burned for energy because, honestly, how much energy do you expend sitting at the table, talking and eating? Two, if there is chocolate or caffeine in your dessert, or if you serve it with tea or coffee (which is almost always the case), it will inhibit some nutrient absorption from the meal you’ve just consumed. Certain vitamins and minerals (b-complex, iron) cannot be absorbed if the caffeine is present in the system at the same time. That is why having caffeinated drinks with or straight after your meals increases your risks of getting nutrient deficiencies. Wait at least 40 minutes before having the dessert, but better leave it until you’re a wee bit peckish.
11. Be kind to yourself
Christmas time is about kindness, and you should not be an exception. Be kind to yourself and learn to forgive and let go. You can take all of these tips into consideration, you can set out determined to have a balanced Christmas but for whatever reason it may not work out for you. Even if things don’t go according to plan, it is not worth your penance. We are only humans. We are not perfect, we make mistakes. The most important part of Christmas is enjoying this festive time with family and friends. So what if you ate too much when you were supposed to be on a diet? If you truly enjoyed it – that’s all that matters!