Christmas is a time when we indulge in some of the most delicious foods - sumptuous roasts with lashings of gravy, steaming puddings with custard, canapés wrapped in flaky pastry and just about anything covered in cheese. It’s traditionally a time for decadence, and hell, we all need a bit of that right? Celebratory food is a fantastic way to bring people together - we eat, we drink and we be merry.
But whilst the festivities are a lot of fun, they can leave us feeling rather sluggish. We all know that feeling of being so uncomfortably full that we might burst out of our trousers - the only way out is a nap on the sofa. Once in a while, we can live with it, but it can feel like the whole of December is a merry-go-round of food comas and hangovers. It probably explains why so many of us choose to go on highly restrictive diets when January comes around.
I don’t know about you, but I question how our bodies feel about being given anything and everything one moment and then being deprived the next. Whilst we now know that a period of fasting (12-14 hours overnight) can be good for our health (1), it seems clear that "yo-yo" dieting where we swing from one extreme of eating to the other, is not. This kind of eating can lead to decreased hunger regulation (2), increased body fat percentage vs muscle mass (3) and an increased risk of getting fatty liver (4). Really, what our bodies seem to like is a bit more consistency.
So, whilst I have no intention of being the the fun police here - you will still find me eating all the foods I love this Christmas - I now try and employ a more intuitive approach towards eating, just like I do during the rest of the year. Which means I don’t eat huge amounts of the things that make me groggy or sluggish, I eat more slowly so I know when I’m full and I add things in that keep my digestion working in tip top form. With these tools I am able enjoy myself without the energy slumps or stomach bloat and I certainly don’t feel the need to be restrictive in January.
Tips for helping you feel as good as you can through the season:
1. Slow down your eating
Many of us eat as though we’re in a race. I get it - when it tastes good, it’s hard not to! But the problem with eating fast is that it doesn’t give our digestive system a chance to work properly. This can lead to acid reflux and poor absorption of nutrients, leaving us low in energy. When we slow down, we are also much more likely to know when we are full as it takes 15-20 minutes for our hunger regulation hormone to be released (5).
2. Go easy on the white flour
Refined flours found in breads, cakes, pastas and biscuits turn to sugar very quickly in our bloodstream (6) and that means we get a big spike in energy followed by a crash. These foods are often responsible for the post meal slump which leaves us feeling like we need a nap. To maintain energy through the day, try and switch up white flours for alternatives which we metabolise more slowly, such as buckwheat flour, sourdough bread, sweet potatoes and lentils.
3. Booze earlier
Many of us love a good tipple at this time of year but all the night-time parties can wreak havoc on our sleep. I know it feels counter intuitive - “alcohol makes me sleepy!” I hear you cry. Whilst it is true that alcohol can help us fall asleep faster, it also creates a “rebound effect” which means that in the second half of the night we wake more frequently and have less deep sleep (7). If you are going to drink, try opting for a lunchtime vino, as this way your body has a chance to metabolise the alcohol before bedtime.
4. Keep up the veggies
We can often let our vegetable intake slide over winter - they are less available and they don’t seem to accompany as many of the comforting dishes we have at this time of year. But think of vegetables as being even more important for you now. Winter brings less sunlight, more bugs and we are likely to be making more pro-inflammatory lifestyle choices. Vegetables are packed full of antioxidants which support a healthy immune system and our body's anti-inflammation efforts (8,9). You can find lots of yummy plant-based recipes here.
5. Add in prebiotics
If your gut is working harder than usual, it needs a bit of love. Prebiotics are a type of fibre that our gut bugs like to feed on. They help the healthy bacteria in our gut to flourish, which supports good digestion and overall health (10). Try adding some fermented foods into your diet as these are naturally very high in prebiotics. Kimchi, sauerkraut, miso or kefir yoghurt are good choices. Here is an easy dinner recipe which is packed with prebiotics.
6. Avoid the acid reflux meds
Contrary to popular belief, the most common cause of acid reflux is actually too little stomach acid in the wrong place. Acid gets into the wrong place (the esophagus) because the muscle between the stomach and the esophagus has been weakened, often by stress and over exposure to chemicals and certain foods (11). When we have too little acid in our stomach it compounds the problem. It leads to delayed gastric emptying after eating, and this creates abdominal pressure which pushes acid past the muscle and into the esophagus.
Acid reflux drugs simply suppress low stomach acid further, so whilst they may give some short term symptom relief, they continue to fuel the problem long term (12). Unfortunately, you can end up worsening the acid reflux and setting up further issues such as nutrient depletion and suppressed immunity. The best route to fixing this is to reduce your exposure to aggravating factors and replenish stomach acid. A functional medicine practitioner or nutritionist can help you do this, but a gentle place to start is by sipping on a water with fresh lemon juice while you eat.