Christmas: is there any time of the year at which food is more important? Food is more than nutrition; it is inextricably tied up with socialising with friends and family, tradition, comfort and celebration. At Christmas we want to fully enjoy the tastes and sensations food can offer, without feeling restricted. On the other hand, if you have been taking care with nutrition over the last year, then you might worry that eating differently at Christmas may set your health back, or leave you feeling less than your best.
How you approach food at Christmas is completely up to you. The aim of this blog is to give you ideas for making Christmas time more nutritious, without making you feel that you are missing out.
My single most important piece of advice is to plan your approach to food at Christmas in advance, and then stick to your plan with no regrets. To do this, think about your goals, and aim to balance your physical and emotional health. Your goals will be individual to you, but might include:
Avoiding symptoms that you experience when you eat particular foods, such as bloating, diarrhoea, eczema or headaches; this may be a high priority if the discomfort of the symptoms outweighs the joy you get from eating the food
feeling clear-headed and energetic, as opposed to lethargic
trying to eat foods that may have anticancer benefits
preferring to avoid ultra-processed or non-organic food
sharing food with family and friends without feeling excluded or being reminded that you have had cancer
carrying on your usual Christmas traditions
wanting treats in the dark of winter
Use your goals to decide what your limits are and what areas you can relax over. The tips below might help you with this.
1. Make your own version of your favourite Christmas foods
This could help you if you prefer to avoid additives, ultra-processed foods, or certain ingredients such as dairy or refined sugar. Of course, making everything from scratch can be time-consuming, but it could also become a new Christmas tradition for you. Look online and you will be certain to find a recipe that meets your requirements. To get you started, this month’s recipe book includes homemade cranberry sauce, pork and chestnut stuffing, and gluten-free mince pies, all of which I make and love most years.
2. Go prepared
How many times have you gone to a party promising yourself that you won’t overindulge, yet you somehow manage to eat more than you intend to? To reduce your chances of overeating due to hunger, have a small snack that’s rich in protein and fibre before you go. Options could be some nuts, veg sticks and houmous, or an oatcake with cream cheese
Many of us were taught when growing up that we should finish all the food on our plates. Remember that you are in charge now! Firstly, you don’t have to overfill your plate, but if you do and then realise that you have taken too much food, it’s better not to finish it all than to eat more than you need to. If you are worried that there won’t be any nutritious food on offer, could you bring a dish or some snacks yourself? There are some seasonal options for snacks and quick bites in the Christmas recipe book.
3. Plan your “big food days”
In terms of food, you can divide the holiday season into what I call “big food days” (such as Christmas Day itself, or days with larger family gatherings) and the “rest and recovery” days that fall in between. Whatever your regular daily meal pattern is, try to stick to it on the big food days. If you usually eat three meals per day, then make sure that you do have three proper meals. It’s easy to end up grazing throughout the day, but this can mean that you fill up without eating enough vegetables, protein, vitamins or minerals. Grazing doesn’t give your digestive system a break, which can increase the chances of feeling uncomfortably bloated. If you eat properly structured meals and then have treats in addition to these, you are likely to regulate your appetite and your blood sugar levels much better.
Make sure that you stay well hydrated. It is easy to forget this when there is so much food around! Drink a large glass of water upon waking, and then about an hour before each meal. It’s also key to have a good breakfast that is high in protein, as this will result in more sustained energy and fewer cravings throughout the day. Why not treat yourself to smoked salmon and scrambled eggs, a tofu scramble, or almond flour pancakes?
Christmas dinner itself consists of many nutrient dense foods. Try shifting the emphasis onto these, while still enjoying the less nutritious aspects in smaller amounts. Some of the top nutrient-dense Christmas foods include:
Brussels sprouts, which support liver detoxification
Citrus fruits such as satsumas
Cranberries are very high in anti-inflammatory compounds called anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins, which also have anticancer actions
Nuts – a fantastic snack providing both fibre and protein
Salmon for its anti-inflammatory omega 3 fats
Turkey, a lean meat rich in the amino acid tryptophan (supportive of mood and sleep), B vitamins, and of course protein
Consider taking it easy on the roast potatoes, and maybe swapping some for roasted sweet potatoes to benefit from the additional antioxidants. The larger you cut your potatoes before roasting, the lower in fat they will be, and remember that you can roast them in extra virgin olive oil. Christmas dinner lends itself to a variety of vegetable side dishes, so make plenty and fill half your plate with these. Steaming vegetables is generally the best way to retain their nutrients. If you don’t usually eat much meat but want to enjoy it at Christmas, consider having smaller portions of higher quality meat, such as organic or grass-fed.
4. Plan your “R&R” days
If you have been eating meat on your “big food days”, consider having a few plant-based days in between. Alternatively, eat some oily fish to gain anti-inflammatory benefits from the omega 3 fats. Salmon is one option; there is also a recipe this month for sardine and cranberry pâté. Remember to include lots of vegetables, filling half your plate at each meal. Consider having small amounts of fermented foods, such as sauerkraut, kimchi or kefir. These can help to support good digestion, the health of your gut microbiome, and immunity.
You may still have plenty of snacks around on R&R days. Try putting these back in the cupboard or fridge after you have had a snack rather than leaving them out, so that you are less likely to continue grazing.
It’s my job to remind you that there is no safe level of alcohol that does not increase cancer risk. If you are going to be drinking this Christmas, be aware that alcohol can raise your blood sugar in addition to its other effects. To minimise the impact of this, drink alcohol with meals, or else have a protein-rich snack (such as a handful of nuts) with alcohol. Try diluting your drinks with (sparkling) water or ice, or drink a glass of water between each alcoholic drink.
Please don’t feel socially pressured to drink if you don’t want to. Naturally alcohol-free alternatives include kombucha (this is fermented, so also has benefits for your gut microbiome), sparkling water mixed with a dash of fresh fruit juice served with ice, or turmeric or ginger shots mixed with sparkling water. There are also plenty of non-alcoholic wines and spirits on the market; check out Seedlip or the range at The Alcohol-Free Shop.
Some days you will no doubt enjoy Christmas cake or mince pies, but on other days include vegetables and protein in your snacks. Opt for vegetable sticks with houmous, guacamole or tzatziki; celery or apple slices spread with almond butter; full fat yoghurt, seeds and berries; or make your own energy balls (see the recipe in this month’s book). Remember that eating sweet treats at the end of a meal will have a lesser impact on your blood sugar than eating them on an empty stomach.
Whatever you are eating, remember to eat mindfully and enjoy it! I know that I am very much looking forward to some great food in the coming weeks, and I’m sending you all my best wishes for a very happy, healthy and nutritious Christmas!