Christmas can be a difficult time of year in terms of health and well – being. People tie themselves up in all sorts of knots worrying about their weight, whether they’ve bought enough food, or too much, fulfilling social obligations etc. And this is just one area people tend to concern themselves with: from the stress of overeating, hangovers, viruses, illnesses and arguments, many people return to work in January feeling worse than they did before. So how do we find this balance between enjoying ourselves and letting loose and making sure we’re not ill, a stone heavier and on non-speaking terms with the rest of the family?
The first and most obvious point is food and drink and as flippant as this might sound I will say that the best advice I can give to you is: eat what you damn well want. Seriously, this works on several fronts so let me break down how useful this particular idealogy is.
Firstly: you’re not going to do that much damage to yourself in terms of body composition in a week. It would take an excess calorie intake over the course of a week of around 10,000 to gain a kilo of solid fat! Now at this point most of you are thinking ‘puhh, I can knock that out in a day Hollis.’ But not so fast. I’m talking about 10,000 calories MORE than your body requires. For an average person that’s around 14,000. So to put on a kilo of FAT (not water etc) most of us would need to consume around 24,000 calories in a week. Break that down and it works out to just shy of 3500 calories a day. Every day. For a week. For one kilo. So for everyone that’s come back after Christmas half a stone heavier and had their heart sink, relax – barely 20% of that will be fat! Save yourself the heartache and wait 4 or 5 days before weighing yourself if you absolutely must, that’ll tell you how much actual fat you’ve gained.
Secondly: if you start fretting and setting unrealistic expectations of yourself, you will more than likely fall twice as hard. I’ve experienced first hand the ‘eating to spite yourself’ mentality and how psychologically and physically destructive it can be. It all starts with that doomed internal battle – constantly saying no to everything at the start, which is in itself miserable. Then there comes the inevitable ‘slip up’. Afterwards what tends to follow is what can only be described as an orgy of feeding, leaving the person doing it feeling sick, guilty and utterly self – defeated. The mentality of ‘well I lost the battle, I’ll try again tomorrow’ putting a pressurised timeframe on the excess. Of course, the next day the last thing you feel like is anything healthy and there’s still half a box of Celebrations left…
Sound familiar? Well take heart because that scenario is autobiographical believe me! However when I adopted the ‘I’m gonna eat what I want’ idea wholeheartedly a couple of wonderful things happened:
The first thing I noticed was how much more relaxed I was. By starting the day with a ‘que sera sera’ attitude that joy stealing internal battle is gone. You don’t feel guilty about the festive treats you enjoy and you don’t feel the constant social pressure of having to say no every time somebody offers you a mince pie because you genuinely don’t want it! By enjoying as much as you like without timeframe related pressures (‘I’ll start again tomorrow’ etc) you can actually enjoy the food you’re eating. After all, what’s the point of pigs in blankets if all you’re thinking about is the number on the scale whilst you’re eating them?!
Somewhat surprisingly, I also found myself making better choices. This is classic reverse psychology in action. The second that something becomes prohibited we want it more. From the child that wants to play with THAT toy simply because their sibling has it, to the Freshers at Universities up and down the country experimenting with all kinds of substances and behaviours that would make their parents’ hair fall out were they there to see, nothing breeds desire like prohibition. But take that prohibition away and something wonderful happens – you’re not on some timeframe to stuff yourself with as many Quality Street as your body can take before you need to ‘be good’ again, and all of a sudden you desire them less. You may even start to crave high quality ‘normal’ food much sooner and it’s no struggle to turn the occasional biscuit away because you genuinely don’t want one! People pick up on internal conflicts you see so in our first scenario of trying to ‘be good’ on any given occasion you may well use a phrase like ‘no, I really shouldn’t’ or ‘I’m trying to be good’ etc. This tells people that you’re struggling and suffering and in their own well-meaning way encouraging you to just eat the food and end your struggle is their way of helping. However in scenario B where we have had our fill for now and if we really want to eat more we can do so later, I for one am more likely to use a far less ambiguous phrase. Something along the lines of ‘get that bloody thing away from me now!’ perhaps. The fact that you also haven’t put yourself on some imagined timeframe of gluttony that you’re not going to stick to anyway also helps as you can relax safe in the knowledge that the treats will still be there tomorrow.
Along with food comes drink of course. Now, assuming you are not driving and don’t have any pre-existing alcohol issues then the advice pretty much remains the same: be your own guide and don’t prohibit (prohibition and alcohol don’t have a great history anyway) because with alcohol the after – effects of drinking too much too quickly are pretty immediate and self – reinforcing. In all seriousness though, if you find yourself sitting there on Boxing Day at around 11am with your third can of Carling in your hand, you may want to ask yourself how you’re going to feel by teatime let alone tomorrow. I always approach clients with the same question: what’s going to benefit you? I’ve moderated my own food and drink intake with this question many times (to the point now that I barely drink at all) and honestly find it a very useful cue, especially if I can’t find any good reason to be doing it in the first place!
If however you do end up with a hangover, get as much water in you as possible and also try a vitamin B complex. Alcohol leaches B vitamins from the body which won’t help your headache!
Lately it seems that viruses and illnesses are as much a part of Christmas as Santa and the Nativity – even I was ill last year! Now, while there’s precious little you can do once you are ill to get better, there are ways to limit the chances.
One: don’t be a hero – last month’s blog focussed on the difficulties of November, December tends to be where we pick up the bill. Stress, lack of sleep and close proximity to others can all add up to illness. Boost your immunity via stress and sleep management techniques.
Two: Food – people have a tendency to change their eating habits in early December, either by ditching meals in favour of sweets and booze or by dieting. Both can impact your immunity. Keep giving your body what it needs, even if you’re having a few extras on top.
Three: Vitamin D. A much – overlooked ingredient in immunity. If you already take it, double the amount you’re taking, if you’re not, start now. Believe my, by mid – December your stores are running low.
Four: L – Glutamine. A little – known immunity booster. Very cheap, this amino acid is primarily responsible for gut health but its impact on immunity is well-noted. I have 5g a day mixed in with water.
Of these four I would say the first is most important as the other 3 are easier to manage if sleep and stress management techniques are in place. Personally, I would put my own illness last year down to stress: I’d worked since July without any real break, kept going right upto the 22nd of December, was pushing training hard (but getting nowhere – this should have been a warning) and it just felt like my body was waiting to get ill. Sure enough, the day I stopped, it did. This year, that number one point has been at the forefront of my mind in terms of training more effectively and better work / life balance and I’ve already laid the groundwork for this by having a longer break in November and finishing for Christmas a few days earlier, but I will be certainly ensuring that in this last week my sleep and stress management techniques are in place.
So you’ve managed to negotiate the food and manage to remain healthy, so lets get to the final piece of the puzzle. This should be the easy bit if the rest is in place: activity. Please note, I said ‘activity’ not exercise. One of the major reasons we end up feeling like someone’s poured concrete in our guts by January 1st is that excess can breed lethargy. Again, I know this may sound boring but keeping moving will benefit you in the long run; you’ll be able to enjoy the break and enjoy the best of both worlds if you keep up a degree of activity. If you exercise regularly, Christmas is the perfect time to experiment with other forms: a yoga class, round of golf etc. For years in my twenties, there was a traditional Boxing Day football game my friends and I played. If you don’t currently exercise, use the family time to go out for a Christmas walk: this too was a bit of a tradition for me (I used to like going out alone) and my wife’s family have a long-held tradition of everyone from grandparents to grandkids going for a long walk on Boxing Day. Honestly, it works wonders – the health benefits are myriad both from a physical and psychological standpoint and it’ll help to leave you feeling refreshed and energised rather than bloated and lethargic by the time you return to work. An added benefit too is that a change of scenery, whether as a family or alone can help to lift the claustrophobia of sitting together in the house drinking that often provides the spark for so many fallouts. Whatever you do should be fun and manageable, a pleasure not a chore.
So don’t let this Christmas become one of bloating and recrimination. Enjoy the food and drink, shake the dust off with a bit of activity and don’t sweat the small stuff. If you indulge don’t judge yourself and don’t beat yourself up. Stay healthy, keep moving and have a very merry Christmas and I’ll have more blogs, advice and stories for you in the new year.