From cutting calories to blitzing boozy units, Liz Connor finds out how to enjoy the festive season without sacrificing your wellbeing.
Ah, Christmas. It’s the most wonderful time of the year, but equally the most disastrous for your waistline, liver and stress levels.
Between the thousands of Quality Street, visits from the in-laws, gallons of booze and a mammoth roast dinner to fork your way through, it’s no wonder we usually enter January feeling hungover, burnt out and ready to splurge on whatever gym membership or wellness cure claims to restore some semblance of vitality.
But December doesn’t have to be a calorie-laden blowout, as keeping the decadence in check is easier than you might think.
We spoke to leading fitness and nutrition experts to find out how you can have a healthy Christmas this year, without missing out on the festive fun.
Swap your drinks for lower-calorie alternatives
When you’re busy socialising during the festive season, it can be tricky to keep track of what you’re drinking – one drink turns into many, and before you know it, you’ve polished off a whole bottle.
“Many of us are unaware of just how much sugar and how many calories there are in some of our favourite alcoholic beverages,” says Elliot Moore, lifestyle health adviser for Bupa UK (bupa.co.uk), and it can easily add up. “A pint of lager for example, contains the same amount of calories as a slice of pizza.”
As well as staying conscious of your drink count, Moore advises switching to low-calorie mixers with spirits, plumping for a spritzer instead of white wine and nixing the sugar-laden cocktails completely.
It’s important to pace yourself and stay hydrated too. “For every unit of alcohol you drink, it takes your body around one hour to digest it, so be mindful of how fast and how much you’re drinking and try to space your drinks out.”
Keep it real
With January looming on the horizon, it’s tempting to get a head start and kid yourself you’ll be hitting the gym every morning. You might be off work for a week, but let’s face it – amongst all the festive drinking and killer Christmas TV, the likelihood of you sticking to your plan is pretty low.
“Keep your goals realistic so you can minimise the number of excuses you could be tempted to give yourself,” says Darren Sealy, a personal trainer from Mindset (mindsetfit.co.uk). “Switching your plan to three times a week, for example, is so much more achievable than aiming for a daily workout.”
“Get a Christmas workout buddy too,” says Israel Rivera, head of group exercise at Virgin Active (virginactive.co.uk). “A little friendly competition can provide support, accountability and motivation over the festive week.”
As the weather in the winter months can be unpredictable, it’s good to stay flexible about how you’ll be getting a sweat on. Perhaps the roads are too icy for a run? Or the gym is closed because of a heating problem? “Christmas is the perfect time to take to the living room instead with a free YouTube workout video” says Sealy.
Consider these dinner table swaps
If you’re on chef duty this Christmas, think about making a few simple switches that can slash your all-important calorie count, without sacrificing the taste.
“As a general rule, if you’re trying to limit your calorie intake, avoid anything deep fried, battered or covered in pastry,” says Moore.
“Swap crisps and salted nuts for popcorn, raw nuts or olives, and instead of serving sausage rolls or pigs in blankets, why not try smoked salmon blinis or prawn skewers instead?”
Poach your turkey
Not everyone is a fan of eating turkey on Christmas day, but white meat is secretly your best friend as it’s an excellent source of protein, and turkey in particular is very lean – plus, it’s particularly low in saturated fat.
It’s also rich in essential amino acids such as tryptophan, which Moore explains are important for supporting mood and sleep, and packs an iron and B vitamin punch – both of which are both important for energy production.
If you’re looking to make your roast healthier this year, Moore suggests poaching your bird in a broth of herbs, spices and vegetables – it’s just as delicious but won’t leave you with that ‘food coma’ feeling.
Pimp your potatoes
Christmas dinner requires roast potatoes, and although they may not count towards one of your five-a-day, they actually contain good amounts of vitamin C, potassium and fibre.
“Keeping the skins on will mean you can benefit from some extra fibre and no fat is needed – prick them all over and pop them in the oven for an hour on a low heat and they will be lovely and crispy on the outside with a fluffy centre,” says Moore.
“Try swapping regular oil for coconut oil instead, which contains medium chain triglycerides which have been shown to support energy expenditure and heart health.” You could also add some rosemary, which helps to support your circulation.
Try putting some purple on your plate too – beetroot is a fantastic addition to your roasting tray as it rich in iron and phytonutrients.
Don’t scrimp on the sprouts and cranberry sauce
“Sprouts are so underrated,” says Moore, “they really are little nutrient powerhouses.” Loaded with important vitamins and minerals including B vitamins, vitamin C, vitamin K, iron and magnesium, they can help to give that all-important winter boost.
“Try roasting them alongside some traditional chestnuts for an added sweetness, as these are another surprising source of vitamin C.”
Cranberry sauce is another healthy guest pleaser. “Berries are packed with nutrients – brightly coloured foods are often super rich in antioxidants – and cranberries boast an impressive array of vitamins and minerals, including vitamin C, which is good for skin health, and iodine, to help support your metabolism.”
Make your own cranberry sauce to avoid pre-packaged versions high in added sugar, and give it a splash of orange juice for an extra charge of sweetness and vitamin C.
Finally, don’t skip the Christmas brekkie
In the excitement of unwrapping presents, it’s easy to skip out on breakfast on Christmas day, or run solely on chocolate and Bucks Fizz.
“Although this may seem like an easy way to eat fewer calories on the big day, skipping meals is a really bad idea,” says Harley Street nutritionist Rhiannon Lambert (rhitrition.com), “as it often leads to overeating and may also promote binge eating behaviour.”
Research has shown that those who skip breakfast are significantly more likely to consume unhealthy foods than those who make time for a quick bite in the morning, she explains, so it’s important to sit down for regular, nutritionally balanced meals.
Vegetables, protein sources and complex carbohydrates are a great way to satisfy hunger and prevent over-consumption of calorie dense foods over time, so an early morning bowl of porridge, a slathering of avocado on toast or a smoked salmon bagel could be all it takes to curb the temptation to go in for seconds or thirds at the Christmas dinner table.