Tucking into nut roasts and Brussels sprouts, singing festive songs and appreciating gifts will make us feel better, discovers Christine Fieldhouse
It might be the most wonderful time of the year, but Christmas is also potentially one of the unhealthiest. For those of us who celebrate the festivities on December 25th, we can consume a staggering 7,000 calories and walk fewer than 500 steps. That’s the equivalent of half a week’s calories consumed in just 24 hours. And it’s acknowledged around the world that walking 10,000 steps a day is only moderately active so Christmas could be very bad news for our health.
But experts stress this isn’t necessarily the case. Rather than being an excuse to feast on three-course meals and be a couch potato, they say the holiday period has a lot of plus points for our physical and mental health.
We can consume a staggering 7,000 calories on Christmas Day –that’s the equivalent of half a week’s calories consumed in just 24 hours
For a start, some of the food we eat around the festivities is highly nutritious – especially for vegans and vegetarians – according to nutritionist Victoria Tipper, who is based at Sports City in Dubai.
‘Many vegans or vegetarians will go for a festive nut roast at Christmas,’ says Victoria, ‘and this is good because nuts are an amazing source of healthy fats.
‘Almonds are a great source of monounsaturated fatty acids, which help reduce the speed at which glucose is released into the bloodstream. This will help anyone with diabetes or blood sugar issues.
‘Walnuts are a source of omega 3 fatty acids, which help to reduce inflammation and boost heart health, while Brazil nuts are a source of selenium, an antioxidant which is very important for thyroid health.
‘Different nuts offer different essential nutrients, so it’s wise to go for a variety and throw in seeds too. For example, chia and flaxseeds are another great source of omega 3s, as well as adding fibre for a healthy bowel. They also make you feel fuller for longer, so they may stop you from overeating on Christmas Day!’
The second Christmas staple is the Brussels sprout, which we either love or hate. ‘They pack an almighty nutritious punch,’ continues Victoria. ‘Part of the cruciferous vegetable family, they’re potent cancer-fighting veggies, thanks to their high antioxidant content. This also makes them great for heart health and for preventing cardiovascular disease.
‘One cup of Brussels sprouts will give you your daily Vitamin C and Vitamin K requirement, keeping your immune system robust and your bones healthy. This amount also contains 4g of protein.’
Thirdly, the cranberry gets good festive press for a healthy Christmas, thanks to its high antioxidant content.‘They have one of the highest antioxidant contents of all fruits, even higher than blueberries,’ adds Victoria. ‘They’re a low sugar fruit, and they have a low Glycemic Index, which makes them ideal for anyone with blood sugar issues or for those trying to lose weight.
‘One of the most powerful nutrients in cranberries is quercetin, which is great at reducing inflammation and can alleviate allergies and improve joint pain.’
As well as eating nutritious foods, Victoria urges us to make a few tweaks for a very merry and healthy Christmas. She suggests we reduce the sugar in cranberry sauce by making our own, using coconut sugar or stevia as a sweetener. And raw nuts, soaked overnight, are better than salted or roasted nuts.
‘As well as being more nutritious, raw nuts will be easier to digest. Avoiding too much salt will reduce water retention and stop us feeling bloated,’ advises Victoria.
‘If you’re having a salad with your Christmas meal, go for an olive oil and fresh lemon dressing to reduce calories and sugar, and to boost stomach acid and digestion. Ditch the milk or white chocolate in favour of the dark variety, which is lower in sugar and higher in antioxidants.’
Kindness Is Good For You
But Christmas isn’t just about eating. It’s also the season of goodwill when most of us try to practise kindness and gratitude, both of which, says Gill Hasson, coach and an author, will reduce our body’s inflammatory markers and make for a healthy Christmas. These markers, when raised, are linked with illness and diseases like cancer.
‘When we’re sad and depressed, our immune system is weakened and we’re more vulnerable to bugs and diseases,’ she explains. ‘But when we’re being kind and appreciative, and giving gifts, and hugs, our happy hormones flow, reducing our stress levels and making us healthier.’
According to Gill, the same goes for gratitude.
‘When we thank someone for doing something kind – like making us a cake or giving us a gift – our gratitude makes the other person feel good, but we also give ourselves and our mental health an enormous boost.’
A surprising and fun health benefit to Christmas is singing together, whether it’s a candle-lit carol service or belting out an old Slade number round a piano. Swedish research has found that singing helps us control our breathing and regulate our pulse and heartbeat.
‘The lovely thing about Christmas carols is most of us know the words,’ says Gill. ‘It’s about group consciousness – people come together and sing, sometimes in harmony!’
As for those 10,000 steps per day, Victoria Tipper says the weather in Dubai is perfect to be outdoors.
‘You don’t have to run a 10k race on Christmas Day, but doing something active will prepare your body for the feast that’s about to follow,’ she says. ‘Make it part of your day to go for a walk along the beach or in the park and especially over the festive season for a healthy Christmas. Walking or any exercise on an empty stomach improves the body’s insulin response, which means we’re less likely to store those extra calories as fat.
‘And if you really do plan to overdo your food, have one or two tablespoons of apple cider vinegar before meals, or ginger tea with meals, to boost digestion!’
Victoria Tipper is a qualified nutrition and life coach, who specialises in NLP, neuro-linguistic programming www.victoria-tipper.com
Gill Hasson is a trainer and writer who is based in Brighton, East Sussex in the UK. She is the author of Emotional Intelligence Pocketbook (Wiley) www.gillhasson.co.uk