When you’re trying to stick to healthy eating at Christmas, does that mean you can’t enjoy the food that everyone else is eating? What if like many of my clients, you’re trying to lose weight, or you have a gut issue which means that you can’t eat certain foods, does that mean that Christmas has to be a miserable time for you?
I’m a nutritional therapist, which means that everyone expects me to eat healthily all the time! No biscuits, chocolates or cake… and certainly no wine or spirits! But the thing is, I’m a big believer in balance, and there’s no greater time to find the right balance at Christmas.
Healthy Balance for Long Term Health
Research actually shows us that having a little bit of what we fancy is positively good for us. So if you indulge in a little bit of chocolate or a few glasses of wine, it might be good for your health, as long as you don’t have too much. That’s the same with everything in nutrition… often a food or drink is either good for you, or does no harm, as long as it’s in small amounts. The problem is that often we’re not good at boundaries and control. So when we over indulge, that’s when our health can be affected.
Whether it’s coffee, chocolate, wine (especially red wine) or tea… these foods and drinks have been shown to have amazing benefits for our health. But why? Well, one reason is the flavonoids in the dark chocolate, which are potent antioxidants and beneficial for our cardiovascular system. However, there’s a huge difference between 70% dark chocolate, or raw chocolate, and a very mass produced, high sugar milk chocolate. Same goes for coffee… one or 2 coffees per day, drank without sugar, with or near to food, might be good for your cognitive function and may even help with dementia prevention. But 10 cups of instant coffee with sugar… not so good!
A few glasses of red wine a week… really great for your heart (again it’s those flavonoids which give it the dark red pigment). A bottle a night to help you manage your stress levels… not good.
I also truly believe there’s something else going on with these foods. It’s not just the goodness they contain. But also as humans, we don’t do so well on an overly restrictive diet, long-term. I know for some of you there are foods you need to avoid to keep you healthy, especially if you have an autoimmune condition, allergy, intolerance or gut problem. But having a little bit of what we fancy, as long as it’s not potentially damaging to our health, is positively good for us.
The Joy of Food: Teaching Balance
I truly believe that food should be enjoyed. We should be able to have a social drink with our friends and family. We should enjoy a hearty meal with our families on a regular basis, and even occasionally, eat a little too much!
Our children need to understand that it’s okay to sometimes indulge in desserts and sweet treats, but after a meal, not to replace it.
When it comes to Christmas, I’ll certainly allow my kids to eat as much chocolate as they want, on that day only! But it will be great quality darker chocolate, alongside lots of other healthy food (a traditional Christmas dinner packed with veggies, protein from turkey and a hearty breakfast such as pancakes or bacon and eggs.)
The Blue Zone Principles:
I’ve been reading a lot recently about The Blue Zones… the places around the globe such as Okinawa in Japan and Sardinia, where they have the highest concentrations of centenarians.
There are a number of common habits of people all around the world who live to be over 100. These include eating quite simple diets, eat a lot of vegetables, often grow some of their own food and commonly meet most days with friends or family to enjoy each other’s company, often with a glass of wine or other kind of alcohol.
Now I’m not saying you should over indulge and be drinking wine every afternoon over the Christmas break! But I do think it’s important to have a healthy relationship with food and alcohol. Enjoy a little bit of what you fancy… but in moderation, and don’t feel guilty about it.
Pack your diet with plenty of healthy ingredients, and try to eat as well as you can 85% of the time, particularly keeping a watch out for sugary foods. The rest will take care of itself.
A lifetime of healthy eating
In my view we should be focusing on a lifetime of healthy eating. When festivities and other celebrations come, it’s okay to enjoy some treats. If we try to be “good” when everyone else is having fun, we’re more likely to secretly eat. Or then have a binge on the wrong stuff and feel guilty about it afterwards.
I also teach my clients how to make healthier versions of treats and snacks. So when I’m baking for my kids, the majority of the time everything is lower sugar and packed with fibre and goodness. This way I don’t even mind them eating my bakes for breakfast! I know it can be tricky when you’re on a stricter diet, due to health issues, but there are now so many alternatives you can find so that you have something to enjoy on special occasions. Whether it’s a few squares of really special dark chocolate, a glass of champagne or gin and Fevertree tonic (tend to be gentler on the tummy for those of you with IBS) or a home-made avocado chocolate mousse that feels totally indulgent.
So on Christmas day, I certainly will be enjoying my Christmas pudding and a few chocolates (and they won’t be the low sugar variety on that day – but they will be good quality and at lest 50% solids!) But then I’ll be back to my usual eating regime, which is keeping my food as healthy as I can at least 85% of the time…. and enjoying my red wine and dark chocolate when I fancy it!
Happy Christmas all! Here are my top tips for enjoying the festive season in a healthy, balanced way:
- Pick one or two days where you don’t worry about what you’re eating… just enjoy the food, have a few drinks, and then get back onto healthier eating the rest of the time. No guilt about the day you let your hair down… just enjoy it mindfully, and then move on. (Obviously if you have food allergies or intolerances, or must avoid a certain food for medical reasons, then you should stick to this).
- Treat yourself with the best quality ingredients: if you want to indulge in your favourite foods, get the best quality you can. Organic dark 70% chocolate (Booja Booja truffles are my fav Christmas treat), organic fresh coffee, lovely red wine… that way you’re giving your body a real treat with top quality ingredients.
- If you have a treat, enjoy it mindfully! Don’t snaffle it down and before you know it, it’s gone! Be present with your food. Really enjoy it.
- Don’t go to a buffet or party on an empty tummy. Have some protein and slow carbs before you go, so that you don’t drink on an empty tummy and then hit the carbs mindlessly!
- Go for some extra walks after your food... to aid with digestion, enjoy some outside time and out of the house away from food.
- When you bake, add healthy ingredients like chopped or ground nuts, plenty of fruit and try to get in some more wholemeal grains (eg wholemeal spelt flour).
- Make sure you drink enough water or herbal tea: sometimes we mistake hunger for thirst, so by keeping hydrated you’ll be more able to listen to your appetite. Also have a glass of water for every alcoholic drink on a night out – you’ll thank me for it the next day!