Christmas Time… Mistletoe and Wine… and mince pies, and turkey with all the trimmings, and Christmas pudding...
Christmas for many is a time for celebration and reflection on the year gone by and the year ahead. For many of us it is also a potential nightmare for gaining a serious amount of weight. Or is it?
Eat, drink and be merry!
It is an unfortunate phenomenon that people traditionally gain a high amount of weight over the festive period. Let’s start by swapping ‘weight gain’ to ‘fat gain’, as we want to maintain as much of our ‘lean mass’ i.e. muscle, bone, connective tissue, as possible whilst decreasing our fat mass. Fat gain occurs over the course of prolonged periods i.e. several weeks and months. It is a long term positive imbalance between energy intake and expenditure: too much in, not enough out, resulting in excessive body fat increases (1). The festive period at most is around 10 days, which is hardly long term. So, the question is, is it actually fat that you gain over the festive period? The answer is in fact more than likely, no. That is not to say that it is impossible to gain fat over the festive period!
The scales don’t lie (most of the time!). So, what is causing that magic number appearing before you to have increased slightly before your festive indulgence?
It’s not quite as simple as that, but yes, the majority of your ‘weight gain’ COULD be water based (notice: we didn’t say ‘fat gain’ there). Water ‘weight gain’ can be affected by many things, a lot of which traditionally occur over Christmas; eating high carbohydrate based foods, eating saltier foods and performing less exercise.
Did you know?
Every 1 g of stored glycogen (carbohydrates) requires 3 – 4 g worth of water molecules (2).
When we consider the average healthy 70 kg human can store around 100 and 400 g glycogen in the liver and muscles respectively, this equates to 1.5 – 2 kg of extra weight in water alone.
The key thing here is WHAT you eat (and drink) over the festive period.
Drop those mince pies!
Unfortunately, traditional festive foods are usually carbohydrate dense, and not the fibrous, low sugar carbohydrates that are part of a healthy diet. They are also high in fats, which are calorie dense and as discussed earlier, it is a positive energy imbalance in favour of ‘energy in’ that creates fat gain. Fortunately for you, another tradition in the festive period is delicious turkey, which is packed with protein.
More turkey please
Simply swapping some (not all; after all it is Christmas) of the delicious stuffing, roast potatoes, pigs in blankets and the like for more turkey will help promote a feeling of fullness, without excessive calorie intake thus reducing the potential for excessive calorie consumption and fat gain.
Did you know?
Protein packed foods, especially foods such as Turkey (low in fat, high in protein, low in calories) can help suppress our appetites, making us feel fuller for longer. They also boost something known as thermogenesis* (3)
What about Alcohol?
One thing to try and keep an eye on, and potentially modify is indeed your alcohol intake.
Did you know?
1 g of Alcohol contains 7 calories. 1 g of Carbohydrate and Protein contains 4 calories; 1 g of Fat contains 9 calories (4)
For example, one medium glass of Sauvignon Blanc contains 120 calories.
Alcohol has a tendency to increase our appetite (alcohol munchies!), potentially leading to increased calorie consumption, increasing the possibility for fat gain. Furthermore, alcohol inhibits fatty acid oxidation and thus the use of fats as fuel, maintaining a greater percentage of fat that could otherwise be used as an energy source.
The saying ‘listen to your gut’ couldn’t be truer when it comes to food and festive indulgence. Gut health and physiology is beyond the scope of this article, however its importance in the fight against chronic illnesses like obesity, heart disease and cancers are becoming ever more prevalent.
In the interest of 'stuffing' your faces (did you see what we did there?), just a small change in the bacterial diversity and concentration in your gut from excessive consumption of processed and calorie dense foods can cause a dramatic effect on the way you ‘feel’, breakdown food for energy, and reduce postprandial (after meal) fullness (5). For example, a lot of people say they ‘feel’ like they’ve put on weight, but the numbers don’t always highlight this. This is often feelings of bloat, abdominal pain, cramping and dare we say it, increased flatulence!
Did you know?
The absorptive surface area of our small intestine is approximately the same size as a tennis court! That’s a lot of space for indulgence (not that we’re encouraging it)!
The reduced feeling of fullness is the most important point here for several reasons. It often leads to increased calorie consumption of unhealthy foods, such as mince pies (they’re easy to snack on!), leading to a positive energy imbalance, resulting in possible fat gain.
The alterations in gut bacteria are therefore compounded further:
Ingestion of processed/low fibre CHO = altered gut bacteria/↓ satiety/↑ cravings = further ingestion of processed/low fibre CHO = ↑ intensity in alterations of gut bacteria/↑ calorie consumption = positive energy imbalance = ↑ fat gain, especially over lengthy periods.
Why is this important (apart from the obvious)?
A diverse concentration of gut bacteria has been shown to be important in how we humans convert food into energy, whilst helping maintain normal digestive health and immune system function.
Furthermore, gut alterations from binge eating, as usually occurs on Christmas Day, could lead to altered eating habits in the long term, certainly then making us susceptible to ‘fat gain’.
Take home message, and simple tips for the festive period
From saying all the above, chances are you will consume slightly more calories than you need, and you will consume foods not benefiting of our health. If this is indeed a ‘binge’ and doesn’t become the norm, you’ll more than likely be fine.
Bottom line: keep things ‘sensible’, and utilise the below tips to maintain that waist line you had prior to Christmas, without being detrimental to your health at the same time!
- Monitor WHAT you eat – try to be sensible with the amount of highly processed, high sugar, low fibre carbohydrate rich food you consume
- Monitor HOW MUCH you eat – remember, a positive energy imbalance is still a positive energy imbalance. Long term; this will lead to ‘fat gain’. Aim for sensible portion control.
- EAT MORE TURKEY (other protein sources are available!) to increase satiety; will lead to reduced calorie consumption. This is our biggest tip for the festive period.
- Monitor ALCOHOL intake; alcohol is metabolised at a rate of roughly one standard drink, i.e. a very small glass of wine, per hour. Therefore, try to alternate between an alcoholic beverage and a non – alcoholic beverage, preferably water.
- Continue to EXERCISE as normal, or increase your activity levels if you don’t exercise often.
- Eat (sensibly), Drink (in moderation) and be (very) Merry!
Merry Christmas, and have a great festive period.
*Thermogenesis, or more appropriately the thermic effect of feeding, refers to the generation of heat due to digestion and metabolism of food. That means calorie for calorie more of the energy from protein is given off as heat and less is available for storage as fat.
- Gerard, P. (2016) ‘Gut microbiota and obesity’, Cellular and Molecular Life Sciences, 73, pp. 147 – 162.
- Wasserman, D.H. (2009) ‘For grams of glucose’, American Journal of Physiology - Endocrinology and Metabolism, 296 (1), pp. E11 – E21.
- Halton, T.L. and Hu, F.B. (2004) ‘The Effects of High Protein Diets on Thermogenesis, Satiety and Weight Loss: A Critical Review’, Journal of the American College of Nutrition, 23 (5), pp. 373 – 385.
- (2017) ‘Alcohol Metabolism’, Bowling Green State University, https://www.bgsu.edu/recwell/wellness-connection/alcohol-education/nutrition.html
- Spector, T. (2016) ‘Why frequent dieting makes you put on weight – and what to do about it’, The Conversation, https://theconversation.com/why-frequent-dieting-makes-you-put-on-weight-and-what-to-do-about-it-69329