Busting Food Myths with Nicole Senior

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Nicole Senior

Myth: Festive overeating is harmless.
Fact: Festive overeating can have adverse health consequences. It’s time to outsmart our primitive instincts and engage higher order thinking about how much we eat during the holidays.

The holiday season is rapidly approaching and chief cooks in households around the world are starting to think about what festive fare to serve family and friends (of course the better organised ones have already made the Christmas puddings, mince pies and cakes). Serving the special foods that are part of your cultural traditions is part of the ritual and something everyone looks forward to. In my family, ensalada rusa (Spanish potato salad) will always be on the buffet table along with other traditional Spanish and Aussie Christmas fare. It’s all so tempting, it’s hard not to overfill your plate …

ensalada rusa

However, is it really harmful? Well, professor of nutrition and psychiatry at Tufts University Susan Roberts reports Americans gain an average of between five and eight pounds in the short interval between Thanksgiving and the New Year (just one month). I’d bet most of that stays put after the Christmas tree is packed away.

The big problem these days with our festive fare is the the holiday season seems to have spread way beyond that special Christmas eve dinner or Christmas lunch with parties and celebrations galore, each vying for your eating affections. However each time you overload your system with excessive food, it’s akin to metabolic assault: your blood becomes milky with fat (post-prandial lipaemia); glucose, insulin levels and inflammatory hormones rise; your blood vessels become less flexible (called endothelial dysfunction) and your blood becomes more likely to clot (or pro-thrombotic). Unfortunately for those with diabetes or pre-diabetes, these adverse effects are worse.

And did you know that rather than signalling the body to ease-off at subsequent meals, huge meals actually increase appetite for the next meal perpetuating a vicious cycle of overeating (people often say their stomach has stretched). Eating high GI foods makes things worse. It’s no wonder emergency rooms experience a rush of cardiac patients on Christmas and Boxing Day.

Surely it’s time to move on? The planet can no longer sustain such excess and our physical health is suffering as a result. Here are some tips to help you resist the pull of festive overeating and holiday weight gain:

WHAT to eat

  • Utilise the hunger-busting power of protein (lean meat, poultry, seafood and eggs) and low GI carbs (dense grainy breads, pasta, milk and yoghurt) as well as the low-kilojoule filling-power of vegetables and legumes.
  • Focus on eating modest portions of food you really like and avoid the rest
  • Curb the liquid calories from sugary drinks and alcohol which don’t satisfy hunger but contribute to weight gain
  • Avoid or limit the calorific ‘nibbles’ served before or between meals
  • Limit how much alcohol you drink or you will lose those higher order thinking skills to put all of this into action

HOW to eat

  • Decide you will retain control beforehand and eat mindfully
  • Avoid turning up to festive feasts starving – this increases the chances of overeating
  • Resist the temptation to go for seconds
  • Enjoy small portions of rich foods like puddings and desserts – try sharing a single serving
  • If you are catering, be bold in offering healthier options and cook the right quantities to avoid waste. Don’t pressure guests to eat more than they need.
  • If you’re on the receiving end of pressure to overeat, be kind but assertive. Your health and comfort need not suffer to please others.

Many of the adverse effects of overeating can be reversed by exercise, but it’s hard to throw a ball around when you’ve fallen into a postprandial stupor and can’t get out of your chair. Perhaps the best test of eating the right amount is having some get-up-and-go a few hours after getting up from the table? Sincere best wishes to you and yours for a happy and healthy festive season.

Further reading: Why do people eat too much? by Jonah Lehrer

Nicole Senior is an Accredited Practising Dietitian and Nutritionist and author of Eat to Beat Cholesterol, Heart Food and Belly Busting for Blokes.