(this article was first published in a London-based magazine)
Ah, Christmas time … Logs on the fire, presents under the tree, and pounds of extra flab around your waist.
Working in the nutrition and health industry I see just how worried people are about Christmas fat gain, and how they struggle to lose the extra flab in the new year. So, is there a way to make this process easier and more effective? A recent paper in the Journal of Physiology seemed to show the answer: daily exercise. OK, it’s evidence based and effective in trial, but in the real world this advice may not be very helpful. Christmas is, after all, a very busy time.
Now, you’d be surprised but some nutritionists are normal people, we like to socialise, enjoy meals out and so on. We also need to stay in reasonable shape, as being overweight or unhealthy is bad for business. So, how do we - the ones of us without a bad case of othorexia at least – relax and enjoy the holiday festivities and sidestep the flab?
Here’s looking at the problem through a nutritionists’s eyes.
Step 1: Relax it’s just a few days
Nutrition is about the big picture, whereas most people talk in terms of daily calories, a good nutrition specialist will gauge intake in terms of days but also weekly blocks. Daily fluctuations in food intake happen and they don’t do much, it’s the bigger picture of increased intake over days and weeks that counts.
You cannot get fat in a few days or a week, your stomach may be full and you may hold extra water under the skin, but you will not be holing noticeable extra fat. A few days of overeating here and there are not going to result in added fat if you get the big picture right.
- Concentrate on the big picture: in other words all those other days in December and January.
Step 2: Make sure it IS only a few days
At this point though it’s worth keeping in mind that those special days should only be a few days here and there. The biggest problems I find people have in the pre-Christmas period is the frequency of parties and events means they flip-flop between attitudes, saying “ah, it’s Christmas, I’ll do what I want” then the guilt the days after. This constant trying to get back onto the normal, more healthy eating pattern leaves your self-control fatigued.
- Save the effort for the main pinch points, like the period between Christmas and New Year, or the family or social get-together that are near the big day. Make sure that they don’t merge into one big splurge.
- Plan ahead with some tasty favourites that are more like your normal, more healthy, eating pattern. If possible have the meals prepared ahead of time.
With January comes the New Year’s resolutions, the health kicks, the gym membership and so on. These rarely last of course, but there are ways to tip the odds in your favour:
Step 3: Don’t go too hard too soon: start small
Sometimes I’ll see someone in clinic and when, at the end of an hour or ninety minutes, I hand them only one or two things to work on they look at me as if to say “That’s it?”. Of course, I could have given them a list of twenty things to work on per day but how much of that would get done long term? Answer: most of it for a few days, and none of it long term.
Most make the mistake of trying to overhaul everything at once. The total diet overhaul, the gym every morning, and so on. These huge changes doesn’t stick long term and it is the long term that counts.
- Pick that you’re doing wrong and work on that.
- Pick the right thing, it’s usually glaringly obvious with a little honest self reflection.
Step 4: Keep it simple, and think long term
Simple plans get done. I just wrote a book in it I discuss food coaching and intermittent fasting (IF) , a huge amount of cash is being pumped into research into IF because it’s simple and easy. The point is this, many diets work but they usually ask too much of you, for something to work long term it has to be simple, easy and healthy effective long term.
- Make it easy, don’t use extreme plans, think in terms of less work but over longer time spans.
- The internet gives you lots of choice. Avoid ‘analysis paralysis’, pick a plan or a credible source of info and put it into action, and don’t bounce between different plans.
Step 5: Build new, good habits
Habits are the foundations of getting things done simply and easily long term. We teach healthy habits like brushing teeth to our kids, but forget to develop them ourselves. Making cooking a double potion of that healthy, tasty dinner and freezing it of having it for lunch the next day instead of a Pret All Day Breakfast and bag of crisps, can make a huge change over the long term
- Focus on one or two changes, work on them every day repetition builds the habits.
- Work on it for a few weeks or a month and, once it has stuck, then try to build another.
There’s a list of habits you could work on, on my site [HERE], but here are some tips as well.
I’ll admit I am not a fan of most Christmas diet tips, statements like ‘try to go for better choices’ helps no one, but there are a few things that do work:
- Don’t try and lose weight over the holidays, I’d go further don’t weigh yourself until you have got back to a normal healthy diet. Relax, lose the guilt enjoy a few days of eating differently, but see it for what it is – a holiday. Save you effort for after.
- Alternate alcoholic drinks and water. Fizzy with the slice of lemon or lime works best. It may slow you down, it will at least keep you hydrated.
- Get outside, go for walks with the family, revel in the time and space the holidays give you, this will make you feel better and get away from the snacks in the house
- Talk at the table. Eating more slowly will help your body’s satiety mechanisms to catch up and mean that you get full before you have a chance to pack away too much food.
Christmas and New Year are just a few days out of many, relax and enjoy them safe in the knowledge that if you are being smart about the bigger picture, and building good habits, then you have nothing to worry about.
About the Author
Drew Price BSc MSc is a Registered Nutritionist working in London in clinic, sport and industry. His book The DODO Diet is released through Random House in December.