Ireland's health experts share their top tips for getting through Christmas

Health experts spend the whole year telling us how to live our best lives, but do they walk their talk at Christmas time? Ciara McDonnell finds out

The fitness expert

PAT DIVILLY is a renowned fitness expert, motivational speaker and author. He says that Christmas is not a time to deprive yourself, but to unwind and enjoy time with your loved ones.

Fitness expert Pat Divilly (right) says there’s no need to deprive oneself over the festive period.
Fitness expert Pat Divilly (right) says there’s no need to deprive oneself over the festive period.

“My approach to health is the same all year round — the festive season included. I never deprive myself or feel guilty about eating certain foods,” says Pat. “I follow the same lifestyle I encourage my clients to adopt. I know that certain foods make me feel better than others so I stick with them 80% of the time and allow myself a bit of leeway year round.

“A lot of people are too strict and attach guilt to eating certain foods. That’s no way to live, in my opinion.

“If you’re planning on getting some training sessions in over the Christmas, early morning can be best the time to do it. We’ve only got a certain amount of willpower which tends to diminish as the day go’s on so prioritising your workout before the temptation to sit on the coach and have a feast is a great way of keeping yourself ticking over.

“Try to pick three daily non-negotiables over the festive period. These are three daily commitments to yourself that you’ll commit to doing, regardless of anything else going on that day.

“Maybe it’s getting out for a walk, doing a 20-minute HIIT session or practising yoga before your morning shower. Whatever else happens in the day, by sticking to your non-negotiables you are building habits and in damage control mode

“On Christmas Day, Mum and Dad always make an amazing dinner so we’ll go all out and have a feast. Then the evening is spent playing board games and enjoying more than a few sweet treats.

“I like a few bottles of Peroni or cans of Guinness at Christmas time. I’m not really a sweets person typically but will find myself munching into a few selection boxes at home around the holidays.

“Oftentimes there’s food at Christmas that we don’t enjoy but we find ourselves eating it because it’s there, and that can throw us into a cycle of wanting more sugar and alcohol when we ‘crash’.

“Alcohol and junk foods put our body in an acidic state and incorporating a daily greens drink or green vegetables like watercress, broccoli, spinach and kale can be great ways of bringing the pH levels of your body back toward an alkaline level.

My top tip for staying healthy throughout the Christmas period is to practice what I call mindful eating. Ask yourself whether you want the food in front of you or are you just eating it because it’s there and you want distraction?”

The dietician

Paula Mee is one of Ireland’s leading dieticians and a best-selling author.

She cites her festive indulgences as “a glass or two of bubbly, spicy mulled wine and nibbles of smoked salmon and crème fraiche on mini blinis”.

Dietician Paula Mee likes to give herself a a free pass at Christmas to fully relax, savour, and appreciate the festive period
Dietician Paula Mee likes to give herself a a free pass at Christmas to fully relax, savour, and appreciate the festive period

“I like to give myself a free pass to fully relax, savour, and appreciate the festive period,” says Paula. “That doesn’t necessarily mean I go mad but I have a very relaxed holiday schedule and that definitely brings with it more opportunities to nibble and drink more frequently than usual. My position is probably in between the ‘moderation in all things’ and ‘complete overindulgence’.

“I know my weaknesses and I try and manage some demons that pop up this time of year for me. For example, if I feel party-stressed and exhausted I try and get an early night to shake off the start of a cold as opposed to endlessly going, doing, and partying and succumbing to a knock-me-down cold or virus.

“I mostly try and keep to my usual routine in as far as possible. A friend of mine recently told me her hubbie livens up their morning porridge with a good splash of whiskey and cream to make ‘sexy porridge’ on Christmas day. I think that’s great — it’s like enhanced fortified porridge if you like just for one day!

“I don’t believe anyone should feel guilty about enjoying the seasonal treats and fare, but it’s worth remembering that, on average, people can gain from one-five lbs (2kg) over Christmas.

“More often than not, it’s the festive between-meal nibbles that pile on the pounds rather than the meals themselves. Gaining 1lb of fat is as easy as eating around 70 chocolates from your favourite chocolate tin — that might sound a lot, but a couple of handfuls every day soon adds up.

“Don’t deprive yourself. There is nothing like avoiding every bit of party food to bring on the urge to give in and binge. Have a little of what you fancy and pick one or two parties over Christmas where you can indulge. Most of us treat ourselves a bit more at Christmas than usual, which is all part of the fun. One or two days of over-indulgence won’t set you back too far. Get back on track the next day.

“For those of us watching our waists this Christmas, I say enjoy the festivities, but aim to maintain your weight as it is by being selective about your treats. Choose a little of the things you really love, and really savour every mouthful. Eat when you’re relaxed and you’ll avoid indigestion.

“We’re talking mindfulness here. When you have that slice of pudding, really take the time to feast on with all your senses. Taste every morsel, by taking your time and slowing down.”

The psychologist

Dr Eddie Murphy is well known for his work with Operation Transformation, but come Christmas time, his role transforms into something far more festive becoming “an ambassador to Santa”.

Psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy (above) says Christmas is a time for family
Psychologist Dr Eddie Murphy (above) says Christmas is a time for family

“I am a big fan of Christmas. My wife Carol and I have two sons who are eight and six and we are very excited to be welcoming Santa to the house again this year,” says Eddie. “My Dad had a bicycle shop when I was a boy and over the Christmas period, he was one of Santa’s little helpers in our town. When I got big enough, I joined him and it is one of the reasons I have such a love for the Christmas period.

“Christmas is about family, relationships and connection. It’s about family traditions. The Late Late Toy Show is an all-Ireland tradition, in my opinion, and one of the great ones. It’s a night where the whole family can gather in their pyjamas for an all-singing, all-dancing slumber party.

“I think it’s important that we encourage family traditions and use Christmas as a way to show love to the people who matter most. A lot of people get carried away with the presents and the fanfare, but we forget it is really about memories and feelings of warmth, connectivity, and love nurturance, which are essential components of the family unit.

“Santa has a list for a reason, and planning is a key strategy when it comes to Christmas. Planning your budget, and crucially, sticking to it is essential for families so that they don’t find themselves overstretched over the festive period. It’s the relationships and the connection that’s important, not the things. The best present you can give a child is being present. The thing I ask people to do at this time of year is to reflect on the year past and set goals in place for the year to come.

“Ask yourself what your Big Audacious Hairy Goal for the next year is. Take some time to figure out what you would like to see happening in your work life, your relationship life, and your personal life and line that up with your own personal value system.

“Ask yourself whether your value system is backing up your goals for the coming year — you might be surprised at what you find out.”

Stick to healthy routines to survive the Yuletide

Paula Mee on dealing with festive parties:

“Don’t starve yourself or skip meals to make up for the unhealthy treats you have eaten, or are likely to eat, at a party. Eat your regular meals and try and have a healthy snack at home before heading to a party. If you go to a party starving, you are more likely to overeat and fill up on high fat, high-calorie snacks. Avoid standing right next to the food at a party. It’s easy to get carried away with the snacks if you’re on autopilot and next to a plate of food. Fill your plate with salads first as others stand in the long queue for hot food, leaving less room for those additional carbs you don’t need. Spending the night on the dance floor is a great way to burn off any excess calories.”

Eddie Murphy on family tensions at Christmas time:

“When the family comes together to celebrate Christmas, it can create a lot of pressure and reignite some of the dynamics of old, particularly when it comes to siblings. If this is the case in your family, then avoid too much alcohol as this can cause tension to overflow unnecessarily. Try to remember that your family are choosing to spend this time together, and that is a hugely positive thing.”

Pat Divilly on maintaining training during the festive season:

“One of the things I always tell my clients is that whatever form of exercise you choose, you need to enjoy. That way it’s not a case of dragging yourself to the gym, it’s instead looking forward to going to whatever the activity is.

For me the gym was becoming more and more of a chore this year so I sought out activities I enjoyed instead. I do swimming lessons and Brazilian Jiu-Jitsu classes so even with the bad weather in December it’s something I want to do and not something I have to force myself to do.”

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