It’s that time of year again where lunches, dinners and other festive gatherings involving food seem to be coming at you from every angle. From the office Christmas party, to the family get togethers, past the school’s Carol service (if you are a parent, dedicated aunt or just a plain teacher), or even the bootcamp group. They all seem to be ganging up on you to do their best to sabotage your otherwise healthy routine. How can you say no to “Just one mince pie/slice of panettone/slice of pandoro/bit of turron/a tiny bit of Stollen (delete as appropriate), don’t be a Scrooge!”. The problem is, it doesn’t seem to stop and every year it starts earlier. So, how can you survive the Christmas and New Year period without doing irreversible damage to your health, and/or set back your dietary goals and risk looking like Santa’s twin?
I could of course tell you to have a glass of water before every meal to make you feel fuller, but we both know that isn’t going to solve much. Or rather, you might indeed have a glass of water, but that will not stop you from eating that mince pie or two, or three….. Besides that, if your stomach is already a little sluggish (which might well be the case for everyone round this time of year), adding water -which will douse the stomach fires which help along digestion- is going to be counterproductive at best. Both Traditional Chinese Medicine and Ayurvedic practitioners will tell you that drinking during meals is best contained to a glass of water only, and room temperature at that, or a cup of tea, two at the very most. Other than that, any drinking (and by that I mean strictly room temperature drinks of water, with the occasional cup of unsweetened tea or the odd cup of black coffee), is best done away from mealtimes, and that also means no drinks for 1 to 2 hours after a meal!
The other advice usually doled out by bloggers and magazines is to exercise more. Let’s get real here, if you haven’t made friends with the treadmill the other 334 days of the year, you are not about to start going to the gym in December! Besides, take it from someone who is quite active all year round, wild horses are not going to get me to go outdoors for a brisk walk on Christmas Day, much less so in the cold! Christmas is also lazying around the fireplace after a meal which will definitely not count as indulgence-free, under a blanket, practising my best imitation of Garfield (the cat, that is) and enjoying the experience with no guilt feelings attached!
So, relatives aside, how can you survive the festive season and come out the other end (relatively) unscathed? As someone who has done this several years running, I’d like to share the “secret” formula. Before you read on, let me make something quite clear, I am the last person who would advocate you stay away from sweets and other unhealthy stuff altogether. If you can’t indulge at Christmas, when can you? But there is indulging and over-indulging!
Here are my ten steps to survive Christmas:
1. Portion Control: You can have a little bit of everything, just not all at once, and the emphasis being on A LITTLE bit.
2. Balance it out! Can’t stay away from the bread? Then balance it out. Make a deal with yourself and for every slice of bread (the equivalent of 10g of sugar, on average), have 3 brussels sprouts or 1 large serving of spinach at the same meal. Or, if you have a large Christmas lunch, have some detox vegetable soup that evening to help compensate. If you do nothing else, do this last thing. It is the single best thing you can do.
3. Swap out foods high on the G.I. scale for low G.I. ones, and healthy fats for unhealthy ones. Get creative, upscale your Christmas dinner, create new traditions and serve kohlrabi chips instead of baked potatoes, avocado mayonnaise instead of regular mayonnaise (both recipes are included in my book Anna’s Kitchen), sprinkle roasted nuts on your pumpkin soup instead of croutons. Every little bit helps!
4. Chew slowly and sit down to eat! I can see more than one smirk here but trust me, I am serious. It takes 20 minutes from the time you start eating for your brain to get the message from the stomach. This means that if you are more stuffed than a turkey after only 5 minutes, your brain will not get the signal for another 15 minutes. Asides from the discomfort which will no doubt follow and hound you for hours afterwards, it’s better for your metabolism to keep it working at full speed if you have smaller, regular meals/snacks. Sitting down also means you are more likely to notice how much you are eating. Standing by the buffet, at arm’s length from temptation, is just asking for trouble.
5. At buffets stick to the one plate rule. Yes, one plate, with small portions of everything, and no, I would not recommend trying to replicate the Himalayas on your one plate! Try also to balance the vegetables with the protein and some nuts/grains if available. Your treat will be to take a second plate, a small one, and choose one dessert you really want.
6. No second servings. Unless we are talking about green leafy vegetables, and perhaps an extra slice of turkey, you get to taste everything once. Repeat at the next meal or the following day.
7. Stay as far away as possible from fizzy drinks (I could give you a list long enough to fill several blog posts for this alone!), and juices, and limit your alcohol consumption to ONE glass per meal, preferably red wine, and no liqueurs. Juices are a concentration of sugar, minus the fibre. Have an orange instead of 100ml of orange juice! With regards to the red wine, you get the same health benefits (anti ageing and anti oxidative) from some fresh whole red or black grapes with seeds and skin on, without the liver damage and other side effects of the alcohol. The “It’s healthy!” excuse is not entirely true, it’s simply an excuse.
8. Incorporate exercise into your everyday life by walking up the stairs, carrying the shopping, and helping to lay out and clear the dinner table (a couple of plates or glasses at a time), or stay behind to help clean after a party. Your host(ess) and your body will both thank you! Plus you can tick off the good-deed-of-the-day box. It won’t kill you and it is one step up from being a total couch potato.
9. Eat foods that help reduce blood sugar Want some examples?:
· Apples and pears (the quercetin also found in tomatoes, berries and leafy greens, helps reduce blood sugar),
· Small amounts of nuts & seeds (add chia, ground flaxseeds, pumpkin seeds or almonds)- either at mealtimes or as snacks. A handful is more than enough to get the Omega 3 oils. Too many nuts add up to lots of calories very quickly!
· Cinnamon – used instead of sugar helps to prevent insulin spikes. Take ½ teaspoon a day for 40 days (eg. Sprinkled on breakfast oats)
· Citrus fruits – start the day off with a glass of warm water and a dash of freshly squeezed lemon juice. It is a great detoxifier and as well as reducing blood sugar levels it will give you Vitamin C which can help fight colds and other seasonal ailments.
· Legumes such as chickpeas, kidney beans, lentils etc help to slow down the release of glucose into the blood stream. A couple of tablespoons per meal are enough to make a difference.
·Green tea - The flavonoids help fight inflammation, (which in turn is caused by eating too many sweets, among other things).
· Spinach, kale, collard greens and broccoli sprouts – they all help the body expel excess blood sugar.
· Berries (strawberries, raspberries, blackberries, cranberries …) are naturally low in sugar and all help keep blood sugar levels down.
· Eat fibre-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, beans (see above), brown rice and other wholegrain cereals. Apart from the benefits outlined above, this will help you stay regular and thus avoid toxins being re-absorbed into the body.
10. Eat foods that speed up your metabolism!
· Cacao (not to be confused with cocoa, or chocolate)- sugarfree, and preferably raw organic. Beware that too much of this might send you running to the bathroom!
· Avocado and other Omega 3-rich foods such as fresh salmon.
· Wholegrains such as oats
· Warm soups ( at the beginning of a meal)
· Green tea
· Apples and pears
· A varied diet!!! (just like going to the gym and doing the same exercise routine is not good, you need to vary your diet as much as possible to keep your body guessing and your metabolism revved up!)
· Eat regular meals with small snacks every 2.5 hours and don’t go more than 5 hours without food (except whilst sleeping).
If you follow the guidelines above, you can survive Christmas and the holidays, or at least maintain a certain balance in your body without undoing the hard work you put in for the other months of the year. As far as your mental health goes (i.e. dealing with your relatives), just keep in mind the old saying: Everything comes to an end, and so will this year’s festivities!. Happy (healthy) holidays!