Your guide to a stress-free Christmas (and beyond!)
Want to celebrate the festive season without the usual fallout? You don’t have to head into your holiday feeling flabby or fatigued — let our dietitians show you how to enjoy the best of Christmas fare and feel fantastic!
The countdown to Christmas is a unique challenge: from sipping cocktails and munching canapés to racing around in a hunt for last-minute gifts, December’s scramble usually throws our normal diet out of whack.
We’re so time poor at the end of the year that it’s easy to resort to takeaways and snack foods, but these quick fixes are the last thing we need. Their excess fat, sugar and salt (and therefore kilojoules) make us feel less than fabulous, while their negligible nutrients fail to give us the energy we need to keep going. And as if that’s not bad enough, these unhealthy foods are the usual suspects behind the 1 to 2 kilos we tend to gain during this time.
It’s pretty ironic that our silly season lands midsummer, a time when we want to feel our best, not embarrassed by extra kilos or too exhausted to enjoy the sunshine. And no one wants to face a new year full of extreme measures to get back on track after the festive blowout.
Make this the year that ‘ho ho ho’ doesn’t take a weighty toll on body and mind. Start these simple habits today, and you’ll reduce stress, avoid weight gain and enjoy your healthiest, most energetic festive season ever!
Eat regular meals
Those frantic weeks before the big day can see you miss meals and eat haphazardly, making you vulnerable to energy slumps that leave you tired, hungry and irritable. Studies show that people who skip breakfast find it harder to control their weight, mainly because they overcompensate by eating more high-kilojoule foods later in the day.
Plus, people who miss meals often have low intakes of essential nutrients such as fibre, calcium, iron and zinc. And remember: A couple of glasses of champagne don’t make for a balanced dinner!
Carbohydrate-rich foods provide energy, so don’t be tempted to ditch carbs as a weight-control tactic. You’ll only end up feeling listless, and if you reach for food as a pick-me-up, you may overeat.
Instead, rid your diet of processed products such as cakes, biscuits, chips, white bread and soft drinks, all of which score highly on the glycaemic index (GI). High-GI foods give rise to an energy surge that quickly fades, leaving you craving yet another quick food fix.
For sustained energy, you need to eat carbs that have a low GI rating. These foods are also more satisfying, making you less inclined to snack.
Think about how you can incorporate low-GI choices such as these into your day:
At breakfast: bran flakes, rolled oats or unsweetened, untoasted muesli
At lunch: grainy wholemeal bread, salad leaves and salad vegetables
For snacks: fresh fruit, such as strawberries, grapes and cherries; or unsalted raw nuts and seeds
At dinner: basmati rice, brown rice, sweet potato (instead of white potato), quinoa, lentils or chickpeas
Eat to stay calm
The right foods can lift your brain’s levels of serotonin, a neurotransmitter that helps you sleep better and feel calmer. All protein-rich foods do this, so include lean red meat, chicken, turkey, fish, eggs, reduced-fat cheese, nuts and seeds in your diet. Carbohydrate-rich foods also bump up this helpful brain chemical, giving you yet another reason not to ban them.
The mineral magnesium promotes feelings of calm and improves sleep, too, and it also relaxes muscles and prevents an irregular heartbeat. Keep your mood on an even keel with rich sources of this essential nutrient, which include wholegrain cereals, brown rice, green vegies, nuts, seeds and seafood.
Stock a healthy pantry
When you’re caught up in the Christmas rush — late-night shopping, wrapping presents or travelling all over town to see family — you may be tempted by a quick takeaway dinner or drive-through meal.
For a healthier, more affordable solution, stock up on ingredients for quick and easy home-made meals. Eggs, fresh pasta, jacket potatoes, frozen fruit and vegetables, canned foods (such as beans, lentils and fish) and pouches of microwavable brown rice are great standbys.
And be prepared for sudden changes to your social schedule: if you do have time to cook, make and freeze extra portions so you can reheat meals in a flash. Or try one of these quick meal ideas… they’re all ready in less than 20 minutes!
Breakfast like a king
Kick off the day with a healthy move, and the rest of your meals will fall into line. It’s vital to resist the temptation to skip brekkie just because you’re looking forward to enjoying kilojoule-rich party foods later in the day.
A nourishing morning meal of wholegrain cereal or toast with eggs and sliced avocado provides lasting energy. Eat well at brekkie, and you’ll be less likely to seek a quick fix in snacks or overindulge in tempting festive treats.
Choose your drinks wisely
Fuelling up on cups of caffeine can make sleep more elusive and leave you feeling edgy at an already stressful time of year. Swap coffee, tea and cola drinks for herbal teas or sparkling water with a lime or lemon wedge.
Also, don’t forget that large quantities of alcohol not only disrupt normal sleep patterns, but also deliver a large number of kilojoules. Your body needs a couple of alcohol-free days a week, and the festive season is no exception. (See Alcohol: Is there a safe limit? for more information.)
Feed your skin
Your body needs iron for healthy skin and maximum energy. If you feel extremely tired all the time, an iron deficiency may be causing anaemia. Other symptoms include shortness of breath, pale skin, hair loss and flaky dry nails.
Around one in four Australian women has a low iron intake, so ensure you’re eating lean red meat and oily fish, such as salmon and sardines, two to three times a week, If you’re vegetarian, add plenty of beans, lentils, nuts and seeds to your meals, along with leafy green veg and iron-fortified wholegrain breakfast cereals.
Fresh fruit and vegetables also contain nutrients that promote good skin. Ensure that colourful salads and fresh fruit feature in your daily menu, and their zinc, selenium and antioxidant vitamins A, C and E will give you a healthy glow.
Snack smart on nibbles
The festive season offers a bounty of treat foods, from cakes and biscuits to chips and dips. As a result, the usually clear line between ‘party time’ and ‘normal day’ can easily blur, especially when colleagues hand out goodies in the office, or when you receive delicious edible gifts.
Try mentally classifying your food choices into two groups: occasional indulgences and everyday healthy fare. If you’re tempted by fancy chocolates and other festive treats during a normal day, you’ll have the willpower to decline if you know you can enjoy those foods when it’s time to celebrate.
When you arrive at an event, take a look at the snack food on offer and plan what you’re going to eat — and how much — before you begin nibbling. This way, you avoid the mindless grazing that occurs when you lose sight of your intake, as well as any subsequent feelings of remorse.
Meanwhile, fill your pantry, fridge and desk drawer with healthy snack options, such as fresh fruit, unsalted nuts or low-fat yoghurt. When you feel peckish, you’ll have healthy bites on hand.
Toss fresh and tasty salads
One of the great things about summer is that it makes you want to eat light meals. Crisp vegie salads are an excellent way to lift your fibre intake and lower your meal’s kilojoule load. For extra flavour and texture, try adding crunchy toasted nuts, parmesan shavings, a sprinkling of chia seeds or freshly chopped herbs.
Fruit also makes a deliciously surprising salad ingredient. Try mouth-watering combinations of watermelon and feta, pear and avocado, or, for a tropical twist, pomegranate seeds and sliced mango.
To ensure your salad is a satisfying meal, add protein-rich grilled chicken, lean meat, prawns, hard-boiled eggs or fish to the mix.
Stay well hydrated
Even slight dehydration can make you feel lethargic, so sip at least two litres of water a day. If it’s very hot or you plan to exercise, you’ll need even more. Stash a water bottle in your bag and keep refilling it.
Drinking water can also prevent overeating, because water causes the food in your stomach to swell, stimulating your brain to acknowledge that you’ve eaten enough. At parties, make every second drink a glass of water.
Downsize your plate
At a party buffet, browse first, then choose the smallest plate to eat from. (Look for a bread and butter plate instead of a dinner plate.) And when you’ve taken your food, step away from the table.
A US study that compares the habits of overweight adults with those of their lighter peers proves the power of this strategy: Slimmer subjects were more likely to choose a smaller plate, took their time to see what was available, faced away from the food once they’d chosen and were less likely to clear their plate.
Get plenty of shut-eye
Are you always the last to leave the party? Or do you lie awake worrying about organising the Christmas lunch? A lack of sleep can disturb your mood, appetite and eating habits.
To help yourself stay focused in the Christmas craziness, try to minimise late nights, stick to regular bedtimes and wake up at roughly the same time, too.
Be active every day
Our workouts are often the first thing we drop when we’re busy, yet that’s exactly when we need them! Exercise relieves stress, burns kilojoules and tones your muscles — three good reasons to get moving every day.
You can fit exercise into even the busiest schedule. Do your shopping during the least busy hours, and you can power-walk around the stores. At the same time, ramp up your activity level by swapping escalators for stairs. Have your Christmas get-togethers on the go, too. Encourage everyone to take a scenic walk instead of sitting in a restaurant, or kick off the holidays with a night out dancing instead of drinking at a bar.
Savour the flavour
You don’t have to feel deprived or miss out at social events during party season. Just try not to eat treats when you’re concentrating on something else. When you indulge in a mince pie or Christmas truffle, focus on the flavours of every delicious mouthful.
Denying yourself festive food will only make you crave it more, and possibly lead to overeating. So choose foods you love and really enjoy them!
Boost your B vitamins
Foods that contain B vitamins help your body turn meals into energy. Happily, the best B sources are all those foods we think of as healthy: wholegrain cereals, oats, reduced-fat dairy products, lean red meat, poultry, fish, eggs, legumes (such as beans and lentils), nuts, seeds and leafy green vegies.
Add these foods to varied, well-balanced meals to help you overcome stress and prevent anaemia, which can result in extreme fatigue.
When life gets hectic, leaving you no time to do the weekly fresh-food shop, you may find it tricky to hit your daily target of five serves of vegies.
Stock up on frozen veg, such as peas, corn and stir-fry mixes, so you can prepare meals in minutes. And buy a good supply of pantry staples, like canned beans, lentils and chickpeas, to toss into salads or bolognese sauce, or blitz into vegie patties.
Wise up to party food
Use these four smart strategies to avoid overindulging this Christmas.
Hold on to your glass and napkin. With your hands full, it’ll be harder to keep dipping into bowls of nuts and chips.
Practise the one-in-three rule. Take only one canapé for every three you’re offered.
Set a healthy limit. Decide what you’re going to eat from the buffet before you start grazing. This approach lets you eat the foods you love in a sensible way.
Help your host. Grab a platter and mingle — you can’t eat and serve at the same time!
Christmas is a special time when we relax in the company of family and friends. December isn’t the month to start restricting all indulgences — you’ll only feel deprived, which hardly makes for a festive mood. This year, aim to maintain a healthy attitude to food, and allow yourself to relax and enjoy your holiday!
‘Tis the season to be… stressed out
It’s official: Christmas is stressful. The definitive list of anxiety triggers includes several situations that can cause distress during December. Health professionals have been referencing this ‘stress scale’ since the 1960s, when US psychiatrists Holmes and Rahe invented it. The inventory identifies the 43 specific life events that heighten stress and make us more susceptible to illness — which include trouble with the in-laws and changes in eating and sleeping patterns, along with Christmas itself!
Eating well will help you better cope with whatever the season throws at you. If you’re feeling good, you’ll find it easier to shrug off, say, your mother-in-law’s ‘helpful’ advice as you’re struggling with the turkey!