Can we enjoy the Christmas holidays without gaining weight?

Helen O’Callaghan talks to fitness and nutrition experts about how to minimise the effects of festive feasting.

December’s eating and drinking extravaganza is in full swing — extra lunches out, Christmas parties, mince pies in the office, Quality Street at the hairdresser’s, festive tipples with friends.

And Christmas Day isn’t even here yet, the apex of all this culinary imbibing, the day we feel duty-bound to gorge, the day on which experts say we amass 6,000 calories, about three times what we eat on an ordinary day.

It’s not hard to see how the calories mount up, says exercise and nutrition specialist Marc Smith.

“Between the rashers, eggs, and black pudding at breakfast, the selection box under the tree, the bit of chocolate through the morning, the mince pie with cream, the couple of drinks, picking away at the Roses — six of them would give you 600 calories — the big dinner and later that night the turkey sandwich with butter and stuffing and cranberry sauce: It creeps up.”

Can we enjoy the Christmas holidays without gaining weight?

And we pay for it. A US study at the National Institute of Child Health & Adult Development found adults weighed more in February/March than they did in September/October. Surprisingly, the weight gain wasn’t much — about 500g to 1kg — but the bad news is people don’t tend to lose it. The researchers said winter weight gain “probably contributes to the increase in body weight that frequently occurs during adulthood” — so all those gorgeous Christmas ‘moments on the lips’ really do stay a ‘lifetime on the hips’.

Not to sound like Scrooge or the Grinch who stole Christmas (and the brandy butter, the stuffing, and Christmas pud), this year we especially need to tighten our collective belts and leave off our permissive elasticated waistbands. We need to get fit, not fat, for Christmas. Because this year we discovered we’re on course to becoming, within a decade, the most obese country in Europe. Irish men already rank number one in Europe for highest body mass index (BMI), while Irish women rank third.

There are other sobering stats. The Healthy Ireland Survey 2016 found only 24% of the population said they’d like to control or lose weight compared to 28% in 2015. The survey also reported 60% of us eat high-sugar, high-fat snacks every day.

Of course, it’s easy to go mad on the grub and the gargle over the holiday period. It’s a social season. We’re in a celebratory mood. Food — glorious, rich food — and alcohol are everywhere, whether it’s more family meals or supermarkets relentlessly promoting high-sugar fare. The weather’s colder and wetter. Lack of light affects our mood. Maybe we suffer from SAD (seasonal affective disorder) or we find Christmas stressful. We eat for comfort. Add to that the break in routine, increased free time, scheduled mealtimes out the window. Plus everybody else is partaking too and you’re thinking: ‘Ah go on, sure what’s the harm, I’ll have one more.’

And yet, while we might want to lounge on the couch in our comfort-fit tracksuit, Christmas is also the season when we want to look great.

“We want to step out in that wow black dress — people are home who you mightn’t have seen in a year,” says former Cork camogie captain Anna Geary, a coach with RTÉ’s Ireland’s Fittest Family.

However, there’s a lot we can do in the next 10 days — despite the temptations — to make ourselves feel and look better. A pre-Christmas diet? Forget it, says Geary.

Can we enjoy the Christmas holidays without gaining weight?

“Diet suggests food shortage, crash, drastic measures.”

Instead, she suggests thinking in terms like: ‘I’m changing my food plan’ . “It’s positive and has a suggestion of improvement”, she says.

If your immune system’s down and you feel run down, it’s much harder to stay on track, she says.

“Take a probiotic. Up your greens. Put spinach, kale, and broccoli in a smoothie with some berries and porridge oats,” says Geary. “I add peanut butter to my smoothie. I notice the difference in how I feel. I have more energy — having that extra energy means I make good choices. When you’re tired you don’t make good choices.”

When Geary doesn’t exercise, she gets cranky.

“My temper gets short. I get irate. Exercising is a way for me to alleviate stress.”

Yet our physical activity tends to drop in winter, with one study finding it 2%-4% lower for every 10mm of rainfall.

December — sandwiched between the busy months of November and January — is a dead month in the gym, says Smith. Yet the only barrier to exercise and fitness is ourselves, he says.

“December’s actually a great month to start exercise — you’ve got more free time than usual immediately after Christmas.”

Even if all you do in a day is half an hour, high-intensity exercise will get you results. Smith suggests a routine of warm-up followed by 20 minutes where you alternate every minute between picking up the pace — getting your heart rate up, bringing yourself into an uncomfortable state — and taking the next minute to recover. Then finish with a cool-down period.

“If you’re out for a jog and you see a hill, sprint up that hill. Train with a friend — it makes you accountable.

“You don’t even have to leave the house. Look on YouTube for a home exercise programme. You could do sets of squats, planks and press-ups. Burpees get more muscle groups going so you burn more calories.”

Avril Copeland, a physiotherapist and founder of digital health care company Tickerfit.com, advises injecting a bit of realism into exercise plans over upcoming weeks.

“Put in your calendar some exercise appointments you’re going to stick to,” she says. “But be realistic about what you can commit to, especially if you’re travelling.”

Can we enjoy the Christmas holidays without gaining weight?

And while apps that monitor exercise and track calorie intake, such as Myfitnesspal, can be hard to stick to over a long period, Copeland says they can work well over a short two-week spell, making you more conscious of energy consumed and energy burned.

But it’s the season to be jolly, a time to kick back and join in the collective festive spirit.

“Go easy ‘til December 23,” advises Smith. “If you want to go mad at Christmas, go mad. You have 50-odd weeks to get in shape, though you do have to be very focused to get the weight down.”

Geary advises consciously deciding how you’re going to indulge at Christmas.“And then do it. And enjoy it. Don’t feel guilty with every mouthful.”

It’s fine to indulge at Christmas, says Joana da Silva, chief specialist in nutrition at Safefood. “There is a social side. It’s important to share that meal with family. It’s fine to indulge. It’s not fine to over indulge.”

So what’s the difference? Indulging, she says, is the young man enjoying a “very small glass of champagne before the meal, half a glass of wine during dinner and sharing a piece of Christmas pudding with someone after the turkey”. Overindulging is his cousin at the other side of the table, who had “two pints before dinner, two glasses of wine during, and is now eating a big slice of Christmas pudding with cream”.

On the subject of alcohol, da Silva urges sticking to recommended daily limits — two units for women, up to three for men. Know the calorie content of particular drinks and choose accordingly: 125ml red wine has 85 calories; 125ml of white wine could contain 83-118 calories; 500ml can Guinness has 176; 35ml whiskey has approximately 80; port has 183 calories per 100ml; while 125ml mulled wine has 120.

Da Silva recommends being just as savvy about calorie intake when it comes to food on the Christmas table, e.g. 100g slice of Christmas pudding has 312 calories — adding 30ml of cream packs an extra 108 calorie punch. If you’re set on a big traditional Christmas dinner, compensate the day before.

“Keep calorie content down and stay active,” she says.

And eat breakfast on Christmas morning.

“It’s a huge mistake not to,” warns da Silva. “Your mood will be affected. Your blood sugar will drop. You’ll be starving by the time dinner’s served.”

Ideally, go for porridge with seasonal berries, seeds, and cinnamon, which raises metabolic rate. If you crave a more indulgent cooked breakfast, opt for grilled lean slice of bacon, grilled tomato and mushrooms, poached egg, and brown toast.

The pace at which we eat makes a huge difference to how much we consume. Slow eaters engage a natural inbuilt moderating mechanism.

“Fast eaters eat more,” says da Silva. “People who eat slowly tend to eat less because their message of satiety — that they’re full — appears mid-meal. So enjoy the company, the conversation and eat slowly.

Dublin-based personal trainer Niamh Fitzgerald advises watching the period between Christmas and New Year. She suggests a get-together with friends and family for this window — specifically to finish leftover sweets and treats.

“For extremists among us, I’d say bin it,” says Fitzgerald. “If it’s a choice between pumping your body full of extra sugar and ‘not letting things go to waste’, I know which I’d choose. But people find the idea of binning good food a bit tough, so having a ‘let’s eat everything’ shindig is more palatable.”

Like the technology we all love — which has a reset button when it goes haywire — our bodies have a re-set function too, says Geary.

She suggests going to bed on Christmas Night or St Stephen’s Night and hitting that re-set button.

“Tomorrow’s a new day. I’m not going to let today’s bad food choices affect tomorrow’s.”

Which sounds like a good recipe for being fit, not fat in January.

Be Fit, Not Fat

Exercise/nutrition specialist, Marc Smith

  • Plan ahead: If having dinner out with friends on Wednesday, eat light salad for lunch.
  • Agree to keep the sweets in the office in a designated, non-central spot.
  • In restaurants, make sensible choices. Ask for sauce on side.
  • Avoid a walk before Christmas dinner, you’ll work up an appetite. A 25-minute walk after dinner regulates insulin spike.
  • Keep moving. If going shopping, walk into town. Carrying shopping adds extra weight work, burning some energy. If on a night out, get up and dance.

Physiotherapist/founder of Tickerfit.com, Avril Copeland

  • Set up exercise goals like Goal Mile held at Christmas in communities countrywide (goalglobal. org/events/event/ goal-mile) — or park run (www.parkrun.com).
  • Buy activity gifts — runners, heart-rate monitors, bikes — it’ll increase chances of having company while exercising.

Specialist in nutrition, Safefood, Joana da Silva

  • Go for healthier snacks: Satsumas and mango; handful unsalted nuts — chestnuts are low fat; reduced fat crisps, plain popcorn or pretzels; dried fruit (dates, figs).
  • For Christmas dinner starter, try melon or smoked salmon. Avoid turkey skin as it’s high in fat. When roasting potatoes leave whole — cutting them smaller means they absorb more fat. Fill up on vegetables— steamed rather than boiled. Allow turkey juices to settle, then skim off fat before making gravy. Use low-fat custard instead of cream/brandy butter with pudding.
  • Do fun exercise activities at home: Have a dancing competition; exercise during TV/movie ad breaks — jumping jacks, running on spot.

Energie Fitness Club experts

  • Pick your party. If you have a few events, pick one to really enjoy, food and drinks wise. Be more cautious with nibbles/ drinks/desserts at the others.
  • Alcohol is the real killer — it increases appetite and decreases willpower. Be the designated driver as often as possible.
  • Swap every second drink for water. Swap pints for bottles and wine for spritzers. Have large sugar-free mixers or water with spirits.

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