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Staying ‘elfy’ this Christmas

by Sarah Williams | Analysis

23 December 2013

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Think Christmas is the week that health forgot? Well think again, because as celebrations go, some festive favourites are actually not too bad. Traditional Christmas turkey, satsumas in your stocking and a snowball fight? That’s white meat, snacking on fruit and a bit of physical activity – all good ways to enjoy a healthy lifestyle.

If you’re trying to stick to healthy goals, Christmas can seem like an unwelcome intrusion trying to knock you off course. So it’s worth remembering all the ways that festive fun also ticks the healthy box – and keeping an eye out for pitfalls to avoid, of course. And remember that living healthily is more about getting a balance than banning foods outright. While it can be tempting to give up on healthy living completely, giving yourself a little more leeway than usual on Christmas Day doesn’t mean there’s no point in trying the rest of the time.

A few years ago we got together with Weight Concern to create Ten Top Tips for a healthy weight. The tips are evidence-based and encourage you to make small changes that you can stick to – helping you lose weight and keep it off. They’re also designed to fit into your daily life, and become healthy habits for good. Read on to find out how they can fit into your Christmas life too.

Try to eat at regular times

Try to eat at regular times (image from Wikimedia commons)

Keep to your meal routine

Stick to your normal routine in the run up to Christmas and between Christmas Day and New Year – eating at around the same time each day, whether that’s twice or five times, helps you avoid unplanned meals and snacks. There’s no harm in making an exception for Christmas Dinner, but having a healthy breakfast at your usual time could help you resist the lure of the selection box that bit longer.

Go reduced fat

Whether it’s the mayonnaise in your coronation turkey (yum), salad dressings for a festive buffet or the milk in Christmas Eve cocoa – go for a reduced fat option. Or, if you’re the guest and they’ve already bought full-fat, think about having a smaller portion.

Walk off the weight

Stretch your legs over the festive period

Stretch your legs over the festive period (image from Flickr)

Christmas cards to deliver? Over-excited children (or indeed adults)? Just realised you haven’t bought sticky tape or batteries? Nothing a brisk walk won’t fix. The more you can walk each day, the better. It doesn’t have to be an epic trek (unless you fancy one), and the little bits all add up.

Pack a healthy snack

We’ve already mentioned the noble satsuma, but there are other healthy Christmas snacking options to help you say “bah” to humbugs. Try plain popcorn – there are lots of reduced-calorie and lower-salt options available – or make your own at home, then you know there aren’t any hidden extras. Serving nuts that need to be shelled can help stop you eating too many – particularly when someone hogs the nutcrackers.

Look at the labels

Claims on food packaging aren’t always what they appear, not even at Christmas. So take your inner Grinch to the supermarket. Try not to be taken in by products that may have a bit less fat but are packed full of sugar – and particularly in the lead-up to January’s resolutions, beware of ‘superfoods’, ‘detox’ and other meaningless marketing speak.

Caution with the portions

Caution with your portions (image from Flickr)

Caution with your portions

Help yourself to veggies first, and you’ll be less tempted to fill that empty plate with meat and roast potatoes. And don’t be fooled by the special Christmas china, just because the plate’s bigger doesn’t mean your portion has to be too. Plus, where would Christmas be without leftovers? – don’t eat it all first time round.

Up on your feet

This is where charades can come in handy – it gets people out of their seats, but gently. Other Christmassy ways to break up your sitting time include checking to see if it’s snowing yet (it’s not), stepping away from the TV in the ad breaks and going to do the washing up to get some peace and quiet.

Think about your drinks

A lot of drinks are higher in calories than you might think, so make that ‘eggnog and tinsel’ coffee a skinny, and bear in mind alcohol is full of empty calories. Having spritzers or shandys, rather than straight wine or beer, is a good way to cut back on the amount of alcohol in your drink – but use soda water instead of full-sugar lemonade to help cut back on calories too.

Focus on your food

Gather round the table

Gather round the table (image from Flickr)

Christmas is one time of year when the focus is on sitting down and eating together, taking your time, and enjoying good food and better company. Paying attention to your food means you’re less likely to absent-mindedly eat more than you meant to. This can roll on into next year too, so maybe try to sit down and eat together at the table more often for the rest of the year.

Don’t forget your 5-a-day

From crudités at a buffet to a refreshing Boxing Day fruit salad, the festive period has lots of options for getting your 5-a-day. And while few vegetables can ever be described as iconic, sprouts are as Christmassy as tinsel and dodgy jumpers. Just don’t feed them to the dog…

Those were our Ten Top Tips with a festive twist. But remember, don’t beat yourself up if you have the odd slip. If you had a few too many chocolates yesterday, it’s what you do today that counts. Have a happy and healthy Christmas – see you next year.

Got any of your own tips for a healthier Christmas? Let us know in the comments below.

Sarah Williams is a health information officer at Cancer Research UK