Sugar and Christmas indulgence - How to enjoy the festive season whilst staying healthy 

Written by Louise Mercieca - 4th December 2021

 

“It’s beginning to look a lot like Christmas!” The decorations are going up and the shops are filling up with festive goodies. Whilst things may still not feel entirely normal, we are of course, still in the midst of a global pandemic. One aspect of Christmas that is likely to remain, is the seasonal tradition of over-indulgence when it comes to our food intake.


Traditionally people would go through a period of fasting in the run up to Christmas (Advent), this continued until Christmas Eve and was followed by the celebrations of the 12 days of Christmas.  Understandably, people were ravenous after fasting and revelled in the consumption of mince pies (or pyes as they were then), meats, fruits, and turkey - indeed it was during the reign of Henry VIII that the first turkeys were brought into England from the new world.


We have inherited many of our modern-day Christmas traditions from the Tudor and Victorian ages, but unlike them, it is highly unlikely that we are going to encounter any period of abstinence before the excess.  Similarly due to modern-day food convenience, the availability of food means that we are able to eat far more and for much longer than the traditional 12 days of Christmas. Today, it seems the Christmas indulgence commences as early as late October/November and leads to many people facing a January full of regret as they embark on New Year diets and detoxes.


How can we enjoy Christmas, soak up the traditions and the festivities, but not negatively impact on our health and lead us into a miserable New Year? The best way is to understand the implications of excess, whilst not feeling as if you are having a frugal festive season.


Health approved Christmas Lunch 


Would you believe that in 2017 there was a Christmas lunch designed to NHS nutritional guidelines to calculate “what a public health puritan approved Christmas lunch would look like”? This lunch comprised of 125 grams of turkey, half a serving of boiled potatoes and 25 grams of sprouts, with pudding comprising of only a tenth of a serving of Christmas pudding and 15 ml of brandy cream!  There were some limited (one may say measly) portions of alcohol approved. This may be taking things to the extreme and is a Christmas lunch Scrooge would be proud of, but the sentiment behind the plan was to highlight the health risks of eating to excess.


For me the issue is not with the Christmas lunch itself or even with Christmas day. If you eat to excess on that day, then so be it. Enjoy yourself. Christmas is after all a time when we sit back and relax and share food experiences with friends and loved ones. The real issue is not with one day, but with the prolonged excess, and perhaps more importantly, the reason behind the excess.


Emotional Eating 


Christmas can be a time of great joy but also of great stress. There can be a pressure on ‘perfection’ to create the perfect Christmas, but this can place a toll on our health as we strive to achieve the impossible. It is worth noting that if we are creating the ‘perfect’ Christmas for children, they are actually much easier to please than we sometimes think. Children see magic where adults often do not, and this has nothing to do with how much money is spent or how co-ordinated the decorations are. Removing the stress of ‘perfection’ can potentially remove the urge to stress or comfort eat.  Emotional eating often leads us to consume the foods we associate as treats.


Treats


Why do we call some foods a ‘treat’? Why are these the foods that we crave when we are stressed and/or emotional? Often, we are seeking out a ‘food memory’, a time when food was used to make us feel happy. Christmas is a primary time for linking sweet foods with positive memories. The neurological association of sugary foods or ’treats’ being linked to something good and happy can make us subconsciously associate sugary foods with positivity, but is this actually the case?


On a biological level, no. Sugary foods will give a ‘temporary artificial high’ due to the way sugar impacts on our brain.  Sugar activates the pleasure and reward centre of our brain via the production of the neurotransmitter Dopamine. Dopamine is also however, the key neurotransmitter involved in addictive behaviours.  This makes ‘treats’ addictive and for those who link treats with emotions this makes a potentially dangerous cycle, especially when we consider just how much we are surrounded by sweet foods and how much stress we are potentially under during the festive season.


Another point to consider is that the positive association of the word ‘treat’ does not always reflect the nutritional content of the food.  For most people, the common ingredient in foods they consider treats is sugar and these foods are often nutritionally devoid (empty calories).


The problem with sugar


As we have seen, sugary foods can lure us into a false sense of positivity via the activation of dopamine, dopamine however is short lived. Researchers have found that sugar provokes the same dopamine response as drugs in as much as you need to keep increasing the consumption to get the ‘same hit’.  This is one of the reasons why we seem to be capable of consuming large amounts of sugary foods in one go and why we can easily over consume when festive treats are all around us.


Indulge but not to excess


I am not going to advocate the ‘health approved Christmas lunch’ or suggest a sugar-free Christmas - neither are necessary or particularly practical, but being slightly sensible is advisable to avoid sugar excess potentially ruining your festive season.  Here are some signs to look out for if you worry you may be consuming too much sugar:


  1. Constantly hungry – whilst sugar satisfies your taste buds, it does not satisfy true hunger in the way that protein rich foods would. This can lead you to feel continually hungry despite constantly grazing on foods.
  2. Weight gain – sugar is the leading cause of weight gain due to the metabolic cycle of excess it can lead to, whilst most people may gain a few pounds over Christmas, it is not healthy to pile on too much in a short space of time, as it will make losing the weight much harder in the new year.
  3. Mood swings – if you are feeling slightly irritable, it could be due to your fluctuating blood sugar – our brains much prefer to have a constant steady level of blood sugar, rather than the spikes and drops caused by high-sugar foods.
  4. Feeling exhausted – if you feel you are not sleeping well (sugar affects the quality of your sleep) and are fatigued through the day, you may want to reduce your sugar intake as the more tired you are, the more of the hunger hormone Ghrelin you will produce, which ultimately will lead you craving more sugary foods. Another cycle you may find yourself in – poor sleep = increased cravings = more poor sleep.
  5. Nothing tastes sweet enough – due to the dopamine response, you will need to ‘eat more to get the same dopamine activation’ - this can mean sweeter foods and/or more of them.
  6. Spots and wrinkles – you may find you develop acne as glycaemic control supports kin health. A high sugar diet also accelerates the ageing process, leading to wrinkles.
  7. Joint pain – sugar is an inflammatory food so can create or worsen joint pain.
  8. Confusion – if you’re feeling forgetful or confused this could be due to high blood glucose.
  9. Digestive issues – too much sugar can irritate your gut leading to all manner of digestive issues and discomfort.
  10. Cravings - if you constantly crave sugary foods, it may be the time to reduce and look at sugar intake, as these cravings will only deepen, and you will feel out of control with your food intake.


There is nothing wrong with a bit of seasonal indulgence, the key is to try to keep in control and encourage other ways to make festive memories. Festive fun does not always need to include food, although food is a big part of the season. Encourage memories and connections around situations not involving food such as, a brisk walk, some arts and crafts or visiting a garden centre. We want to be able to enjoy the festive season without feeling unhealthy and guilty going into the new year.


Reference sources


https://www.historic-uk.com/HistoryUK/HistoryofEngland/A-Tudor-Christmas/ 

Public Health at Christmas - PG Robinson - Community dental health, 2018 - cdhjournal.org

https://www.express.co.uk/life-style/health/896228/christmas-lunch-food-healthy-guidelines-sprouts-public-health-england-taxpayers-alliance 

Gut-Brain Nutrient Sensing in Food Reward - NIHMSID: NIHMS920080

Dopamine and binge eating behaviours - NIHMSID: NIHMS245548

 

 

Louise Mercieca is a Nutritional Therapist, Consultant, Author, Presenter on Early Years TV Food, and Founder of The Health Kick, a business driven by the mission of providing understandable, practical nutritional advice, in a world driven by diet culture and convenience eating. Louise is influential in early-years health, making an impact that can influence the next generation’s eating habits. She is the author of ‘How Food Shapes Your Child’ and is hugely passionate about spreading the message that kids can make healthy food choices.