Christmas is not the easiest time to stick to health-related goals, especially if they involve food or practicing new habits.
If you’re already dreading it all, and even telling yourself you’ll do what you want and eat what you want and sort it out in the new year, I urge you to keep reading. I promise this five-minute blog doesn’t impose a list of things which will make you feel guilty if you ‘fail’ to do them. Rather, it suggests a range of options from which you could choose a couple of things (maybe only one thing) that you can do over the festive period to navigate the Christmas minefield.
So kick your inner critic into touch. Forget beating yourself up. Instead, build a sort of self-compassionate bridge, from now – when things are going well – to after Christmas, when you can look back with a sense of achievement because you kept some of the good stuff going. No more feeling crap because you’ve got to start all over again… again.
Full disclosure: this is a revamp of a 2020 blog in which I focussed on avoiding Christmas weight gain. This version is still based on food, but I’ve tried to recognise other health goals, too. So whether you’re dealing with stress, sleep or making changes to accommodate a new diagnosis, many of the principles still apply.
Celebration, generosity and what seems like the whole world urging us to treat ourselves makes it hard to say no to a mince pie and leaves us feeling a bit Grinch-y if we resist. Treating ourselves seems to be more about food and feasting at Christmas than at any other time of year.
But celebrating doesn’t have to mean a tighter waistband or undoing all the good work you’ve put in over recent months. So, what tools do you have in your kit bag to help you through the festive period?
- Try to keep a sense of perspective. Christmas is really only a few days, although the media and commerce has stretched it to be much longer. Can you reframe it so that any relaxing of your ideal rules only applies to a couple of days rather than a couple of weeks? If you’re thinking of food, one or two indulgent meals (or days) won’t be a disaster – it’s long term over-indulgence which causes problems.
- Have some self-compassion… but remember that self-compassion doesn’t mean doing everything you want if it results in self-sabotage and makes you feel miserable in the new year. It’s absolutely ok to share and celebrate and not beat yourself up about eating or drinking more than usual. But you owe it to yourself to be realistic. Yes, of course you should join in and celebrate if you want. But will it help you to over-indulge for several days? Maybe. You know yourself better than anyone, so if you know you can’t do ‘just one’ perhaps you’ll get most personal satisfaction out of abstaining. But if you can do moderation, that’s a good plan, too. You’re the boss – make decisions that make sense to your health and wellbeing.
- Make choices on your own terms. You decide if you want some Christmas cake or another sausage roll. Don’t do it to please anyone else. You might need to find ways to explain it if you want to say no, but there are many ways to show love, friendship and gratitude that don’t involve either accepting food you don’t want or forcing it on others. Which leads us to the next point.
- Do some planning. If you think you’re going to be tempted around food or alcohol, decide in advance what you will and won’t do or consume. If you know there’ll be someone who’ll be expecting you to eat, drink or behave in a certain way, plan what you might say to them so that you’re happy and they’re not offended. If things get tricky, plan who you might enlist to help. There’s more on Christmas planning in this blog from psychologist, Dr Helen McCarthy.
- Enjoy your food. If you are eating something you love for the first time in ages, savour it. Notice it. It helps to eat mindfully ie slowly and appreciatively, to help you register pleasure. It’d be a shame to eat something that’s usually off the menu but not even notice.
- Be aware of your appetite. Food tastes better when you’re hungry, so nibbling on chocolates all morning might reduce your enjoyment of the main event. Another reason to eat mindfully is to give your appetite signals time to register fullness. If you eat fast it’s easy to eat more than you intended before either your stomach or appetite hormones kick in to tell you you’re full. If you’re not hungry, it’s ok to not eat unless there’s a reason to (taking some medications for example).
- Notice how different foods affect your appetite. We humans have efficient ‘off switches’ for fat and protein which is why, when we’re full after a roast or steak and vegetables we don’t want more roast or steak. But we don’t have an off switch for carbohydrates like sugars and starches … which is why, however full we are, there’s always room for pudding, cake or sweets. And if you eat a lot of sweet stuff, you’ll know your energy plummets regularly, making you reach for an ‘energy boost’ of more sweet stuff and you’re well and truly on the sugar roller coaster. This is hard work and stressful for your body and can leave you with low energy and low mood. If this is you, instead of having a sugary ‘energy boost’, try going for a five-minute walk, going outside or just moving around to recharge your batteries.
- Consider trying intermittent fasting… aka ‘not eating all the time’! Christmas is a great time to try intermittent fasting (like the 5:2 diet for eg) or time-restricted eating (restricting your food intake to say 8 or 10 hours in a 24-hour period). Grazing all day is not great for our appetite, can make us over-eat and is tough on our bodies metabolically (all aboard the sugar rollercoaster…). Intermittent fasting can help by reducing our food intake but research suggests it also helps our bodies work more efficiently. For example, our digestive systems need a regular break to do some ‘housekeeping’ to keep our gut in good condition – and overnight is when it is set up to do that. Leaving at least 12 hours between finishing your last food/drink at night and having breakfast the next day can help. In fact, just not eating between meals is a great way to start and to flatten the sugar rollercoaster to something a bit more gently undulating.
- Be savvy with alcohol. It’s not just about ‘the calories’, there’s a metabolic double whammy you might not know about. Firstly, alcohol interferes with fat burning so while we have alcohol in our blood, we won’t be burning fat to use for energy. Secondly, we can’t store the calories/energy from alcohol so our body has to deal with it immediately. This means any other energy already in our system from food is much more likely to get turned into fat and stored. On top of all this, one of alcohol’s effects is to reduce our inhibitions and decision-making abilities. So even if you’ve made your plans for a sociable occasion, if you do have a drink, you’re more likely to ignore your plans and make unhelpful decisions you might later regret.
- Get outside as much as possible. If you have some time off, make the most of being able to get outside for some exercise and daylight. Getting out for a walk benefits health in so many ways. It’ll give you exercise, help you sleep, reduce stress, and give you a chance to be alone/see friends and family (delete where applicable!). Even 10 or 15 minutes outside first thing in the morning (before say 10am) sets off a cascade of chain reactions in the body which helps with sleep, immunity, mood and a whole range of other positive effects.
So. Here’s a question to ask yourself. Which of these things makes sense to you? Does one seem easier or more workable than the others? Do it! Perhaps share it with a friend or loved one. Or write it down. And take one day at a time. Being consistent and working towards success in one thing, however small, is more likely give you both a sense of achievement after Christmas and hope from then on that you can reach your goals! That’s a great way to start the new year.
Lou Walker is a registered health coach specialising in weight loss using a real food low carb lifestyle approach. You can work with her one to one, or with a friend or partner (www.louwalker.com).