As we enter the festive season of celebration, partying, eating and drinking, for many of us, mixed in with that Yuletide spirit is an uneasy sense that all this overdoing it can be damaging to health, which is tempting to dismiss with the excuse that it only happens once a year, so where’s the harm? But perhaps, there are some things we should consider, such as how to avoid weight gain, how to avoid food poisoning, and how to be sensible about drinking and alcohol, without spoiling the cheer, so we can look forward to a Healthy Merry Christmas.

According to the British Dietetic Association, the average person in the UK consumes around 6,000 calories on Christmas day, which is three times the daily guideline amount for women, more than twice that for men. However, as well as this, over the festive period, which seems to start earlier every year, the average person consumes an extra 500 calories a day, equating to a weight gain of about 5 lbs (2 kg) by New Year’s Day.

Holly Hull, a researcher from the Department of Health and Exercise Science at the University of Oklahoma in the USA, says that Thanksgiving is the start of a high risk season for people who are already overweight. Nowadays, the holiday season is not just one day of overeating:

“You have this period that extends through the new year where there’s more alcohol, more snacks, more finger foods and appetizers that are energy dense,” says Hull in an article in the New York Times.

When you look across the various studies that have been done on how much weight people put on over the Christmas period it ranges from around 1 pound on average to about 5 pounds (about 2 kg). But while researchers may disagree on the exact figure, they all agree that the problem isn’t so much the amount of gain itself, but the fact that once gained, it is hard to shift, so as the years go by, our body weight creeps up.

So perhaps the message we should focus on, is treat Christmas as any other time of year when you have a party or go out to dinner, and be mindful of a few things that are not too difficult to do, but when you add them all up, they create a shift in mindset and behavior that makes a significant difference to helping you keep a trim waistline.

With that in mind, here are some “small step” tips to help you avoid putting on those pounds over the festive period, and indeed, at any other time of year:

  • Go for a brisk walk if you have over-eaten. Not a jog or a run, as this could give you indigestion, but instead of flopping on the sofa and reaching for those chocolates or nibbles, slip into your trainers or stout walking shoes and take a brisk 15-minute walk round the block.
  • Don’t eat in front of the TV: prepare your meal thoughtfully, sit at the table and focus on savouring the food.
  • Become aware of the triggers that encourage you to keep on eating when you are not really hungry: practise Mindful Eating, a topic we covered last year in our article on how to have yourself a mindful merry Christmas.
  • Don’t eat just because the food is there: either take it away or move yourself away. Learn to listen to your hunger and appetite signals: there is a difference between feeling “peckish” because you can see something tempting, and feeling hunger pains. (And don’t stand next to the food at parties!)
  • Eat slowly: remember, there can be a 15-minute delay before the stomach tells the brain it is full. If you eat too quickly, you will be over-full. So, slow down, savour every bite, and when you have finished what is on your plate, tell yourself: if you are still hungry in 20 minutes, then you can have some more, and even then, only a bit more.
  • Don’t starve yourself to compensate for over-eating: respect your appetite. Keep to a normal eating pattern of meals. Starving confuses your appetite rhythm and you may find yourself trapped in a vicious cycle of crash diets and over-eating binges.
  • Going to a dinner party? Eat something before you go so you are not tempted by second and third helpings. Don’t be afraid to say “no” if pressed to eat more, prepare a nice compliment for your host “that was delicious and just the right amount, any more and it will spoil it, thank you!”
  • When eating in restaurants, have a larger starter and skip the main course, or share courses. If tempted to have a dessert, then ask for one dessert and several spoons and share it. You don’t have to finish every dish: tell yourself the main reason you are there is for the company, the atmosphere, the food is secondary, so don’t gorge until you are full.
  • Avoid eating when you are bored or depressed: become aware of the reason, then “switch” the trigger to an alternative activity, like getting on with that hobby, play a game, or go for a walk.
  • Beware of tempting buffets at parties, especially those canapés: they pack a lot of fat per mouthful. Choose the non-creamy, non-pastry varieties, take one or two, and then politely refuse. If you must stack your plate, make it mostly salads and crudités, and go easy on the sauces and dips.
  • Plan a realistic Christmas (or any other time) exercise regime: half-hour brisk walks around the block can burn off 200 calories at a time, and might be easier to fit into your schedule than over-ambitious three-hour sessions at the gym. Or do one trip to the gym and two walks.
  • Research shows that doing vigorous exercise in short bursts, even five or ten minutes at a time, is as beneficial as a continuous long session. So, go up the stairs instead of the lift or elevator, park the car at the other end of the car park and walk briskly to the mall entrance, get off the bus two stops early and walk the rest. With these small, achievable strategies, you may find that even on a really busy day, you can can fit in the equivalent of a half-hour work-out with the same health and calorie-burning benefits.
  • Get onto the dance floor at those parties, or even at home, get up and move and shake to your favourite dance CDs. Not only will you burn calories, and hopefully have some fun, it is difficult to eat when you are dancing!
  • Don’t shop when you are hungry! This will also help you keep your money under control. Plan what to buy and stick to the list. Many people shop with a “siege” mentality at Christmas, as if the shops are going to be shut for weeks.
  • Don’t be tempted to eat the leftovers after a meal. If having friends round for dinner, offer them the leftovers. Have plenty of containers and food bags ready, so you can pack the leftovers straight away, either for friends or for the freezer.
  • Balance rich, energy-dense foods with healthy options: the average mince pie contains about 250 calories (that takes 40 minutes of cycling to burn off, or 25 minutes of swimming, or half an hour of jogging, or 25 minutes on a Stairmaster!), so when offering mince pies, offer some fresh or dried fruit and nuts: a plate of mince pies with a bowl of satsumas, for instance. Or instead of reaching for two mince pies, reach for one plus a satsuma or a handful of nuts. Some people remove the pastry “lid” and eat an “open” mince pie as a way to cut down some of the calories.

Christmas is one of the few times of the year people find themselves preparing to cook a large turkey or other bird, and many have little idea of the health risks.

Strangely enough, many Christmas cooks actually wash their turkey before preparing it. This is not just a waste of time (since running water will not rid the bird of the bacteria that cause food poisoning, only high temperature can do that), but actually increases the risk of spreading any germs to other parts of the kitchen, for instance by splashing them onto surfaces, worktops, chopping boards and utensils. Germs that cause food poisoning can also linger on surfaces for days.

In 2007 the UK’s Food Standards Agency (FSA) surveyed over 2,000 people and found 80% of them wash their turkeys before cooking them, thereby raising “significantly the risk of food poisoning”. Apparently, women over 45 were the most likely offenders.

Judith Hilton, Head of Microbiological Safety at the FSA, said “it’s not possible to wash off the germs that cause food poisoning with water. They’re killed by heat. By washing your raw turkey, you’re actually more likely to spread the germs than get rid of them.”

The FSA says 20% of all food poisoning outbreaks are related to poultry, and they receive more reports in December than any other month.

Around a quarter of turkeys eaten at Christmas in the UK will have been bought frozen, yet many people don’t thaw the bird correctly, allowing salmonella and campylobacter to survive the cooking process.

The agency says one in three cooks also puts the stuffing inside the bird, but they recommend you don’t do that. The safest way is to cook the stuffing separately, outside the bird, in its own roasting tin, because cooking it inside the bird raises the risk that the poultry meat might not cook through fully.

The FSA says to make sure your turkey is cooked properly:

  • Check it’s piping hot all the way through,
  • Cut into the thickest part to check that none of the meat is pink, and
  • If the juices run out, they should be clear
  • .

NHS Choices has a comprehensive webpage on how to defrost, prepare and cook the perfect Christmas turkey or other poultry, including goose, duck and chicken. There is also useful advice on how to handle leftovers, which should be refrigerated and never stored at room temperature.

Christmas is a special time of year as we catch up with family and friends and celebrate, and for many, the spirit of the season is accompanied by the ready flow and consumption of that other spirit, alcohol. But as the festive period now extends into weeks, it can be rough on your health, and may well cause you to feel physically and mentally worn out.

How much harm does regularly drinking too much at Christmas, or indeed at any other time, do to your liver? And what about your health in general?

Chris Day, professor of liver medicine at Newcastle University in the UK, says you run the risk of developing “fatty liver” if you regularly drink more than 8 units a day if you are a man or over 5 units a day if you are a woman, for two or three weeks. So if you are regularly drinking three or four pints of beer a day, or several glasses of wine, or three or four double whiskies, you are likely to be running that risk, because one unit of alcohol is 10ml or 8g of pure alcohol, which is the amount of alcohol in one 25ml single measure of whisky (ABV 40%), a third of a pint of beer (ABV 5-6%) or half a standard (175ml) glass of red wine (ABV 12%).

In an article on the website of the independent charity Drinkaware, Day explains how alcohol affects the liver:

“Our liver turns glucose into fat which it sends round the body to store for use when we need it. Alcohol stops this happening, so your liver cells just get stuffed full of fat. Your liver gets larger.”

When this happens, you can feel vaguely uncomfortable in the abdomen, as your liver is swollen. You can also feel nauseous and lose your appetite.

However, the liver is a remarkable organ that is wonderful at repairing itself, and the chances are, if you are not a regular heavy drinker, then your liver will recover from a bout of heavy drinking. But, says Day, if you continue to drink alcohol on a regular basis, above 2-3 units a day for women, and 3-4 units a day for men, that fatty liver will persist and become inflamed, raising the risk of developing hepatitis, and then eventually, cirrhosis, which is scarring of the liver from continuous hepatitis.

Unfortunately, the problem is people can be completely unaware of the damage being done to their liver. You can spend 20 years damaging your liver and feel fine until the damage is serious, says Day who warns that “two or three heavy sessions a week for a year will increase the chance of liver damage”.

But the liver is not the only part of your body you need to take care of where alcohol is concerned. Heavy drinking sessions have other consequences, such as causing irregular heart rhythms and raising the risk of developing a heart attack. There is a term for this, the so-called “Holiday Heart Syndrome”, where people feel they are having a heart attack. Jonathan Chick, a consultant psychiatrist specialising in alcohol dependence, says people who have 15 units of alcohol or more in one session are vulnerable to Holiday Heart Syndrome, which can lead to sudden death.

Other problems that result from heavy drinking sessions are damage to the stomach lining, which can lead to vomiting and diarrhea; feeling shaky and anxious, as your brain reacts to alcohol withdrawal; and changes in mood, skin, weight and sleep.

Returning to a healthier lifestyle usually addresses all these consequences, but if you drink too much on a regular basis, you are more likely to develop diabetes, liver and mouth cancer, chronic pancreatitis and mental health problems.

Drinkaware suggest if you are planning to drink this Christmas, then stay within the daily unit guidelines. In the UK the government advises men should not regularly drink more than 3-4 units of alcohol a day, and women should not regularly drink more than 2-3 units a day.

Day also suggests you give your liver a break, and have days when you don’t drink alcohol at all over the Christmas period:

“There’s no doubt that the liver does much better when you give it a break.”

Another fact that may not occur to people out to have a “good time” at Christmas, is that when you are drunk you are very vulnerable. According to Thames Valley Police in the UK, one third of rapes happen when the victim is drunk, almost half of all violent crime is alcohol-related, as are 80% of pedestrian deaths on a Friday or Saturday night. Their message is it is fine to have fun and go out and enjoy yourself, but plan ahead, drink sensibly and “look out for one another”.

They offer tips like plan in advance how you will get home, save the number of a cab firm in your mobile or cellphone, don’t accept drinks from strangers, never leave your drink unattended, stay clear of any trouble you see, and avoid walking alone through dark or unsafe areas (men as well as women).

And of course, don’t drink and drive, and remember, you can still have alcohol in your system the day after a big night out: enough to be over the legal limit.

Finally, here are some more tips from Drinkaware to help you keep your alcohol intake in check:

  • If you want to cut down, do it gradually rather than go “cold turkey” and you are more likely to stay committed.
  • Keep track of your drinking: count your units and see how the pattern develops over time.
  • Know what you are buying: check how much alcohol is in different drinks, eg it’s not uncommon for some wines to be nearly 15% ABV (alcohol by volume), which means you would be over your daily limit if you drank more than one glass. Fortunately more and more wines at 10% ABV are starting to appear, so check the labels.
  • Smaller measures: an easy way to cut down is to use smaller glasses. For example, go for 125ml wine glasses rather than the larger 250ml ones. You will get six glasses out of a standard 750ml bottle with the smaller glasses, rather than just three as you would with the larger ones.
  • If you like your spirits, get an alcohol measure for home use and make it easier to keep track of your units.
  • Confine your drinking to dinner time only, rather than treat the whole evening as drinking time.
  • Don’t feel tempted to finish off the bottle because there is still some left: get a good bottle stop, or get inventive with what you can do with leftover wine, for instance in cooking.
  • When you are out, beware of “rounds”. This is more of a British tradition, but it can be dangerous not only for your wallet but for your health if you feel forced to keep up with the heaviest drinker in the group just when you are trying to cut down. Duck out of a round, or choose a smaller drink, or a soft drink.
  • Track your drinks as you go along, go for smaller drinks, and sip soft drinks in between alcoholic ones, to help you cut down the rate of your drinking when you are out. If out clubbing, take a bottle of water with you on the dance floor, so you are not tempted to quench your thirst with alcohol (and also increase your dehydration).

Written by Catharine Paddock PhD