How to eat healthily over Christmas and the New Year

Last updated: 23-Aug-18

By Renee McGregor

Many of us that take our running seriously, regardless of what level, tend to be fairly structured and disciplined. By now you will most likely have your race calendar for the new year planned and your thoughts will be turning towards embarking on the next training block.

Having successfully negotiated time off from work, partners or both, there is probably one final barrier to overcome before you can get into a real groove with your training… Christmas and New Year celebrations. 

Over the festive period, any previous structure can get railroaded; training sessions get swapped for Christmas shopping and social occasions; recovery shakes turn into mulled wine; and your nutritional intake may start to resemble more party food than performance nutrition.

While for some, Christmas may actually provide an increased opportunity to go out for a long run, it is important not to over stress yourself. Time off from a strict regime of training and racing is important for everyone –it helps restore both the mind and the body, especially if your schedule has been relentless. That said, while a welcome change to start with, after a few weeks, this lack of structure and change to your normal practices can leave you feeling a little out of sync and wanting to once again regain some form of “control”. 

It is this desire to get back on track with your training and progress that may drive some of you to try and restrict your intake; over train or, in some cases, just throw in the towel completely and embrace over indulging. All have a negative impact on your general health and long-term training.

So, is there any way you can survive the festive season and maintain some form of balance?

The worst thing you can do is become overly restrictive and suddenly increase your mileage. Not only can this lead to a risk of injury, it is also important to be aware that after a period of time of eating slightly more than normal, your body will actually have raised your metabolism to cope with the additional energy intake.

If you then drastically cut this down, the body becomes very confused; you will shock the body to think it is “starving” and this will mean the body will actually work against you, not with you. When the body feels “the threat of starvation” it tends to go into “preservation mode” which means it holds onto extra body fat.

The key is not to be too harsh on yourself. Don’t set unrealistic goals to lose weight over the festive season, instead focus on putting a strategy together for the New Year. For those that know they will gain a little weight over the festive period, set yourself realistic targets.

So, instead of thinking I will lose 2Kg in 2 weeks; tell yourself that over the course of January, you will aim to lose this extra 2Kg. This is more achievable and means that you will not be putting your body under huge amounts of pressure and in the long run are more likely to succeed. 

The key to surviving the festive season, is to be a little more mindful.  That is not to say that you cannot join in with your seasoned favourites but the following tips may help to keep things in check. 

Snacking

While this may not be normal practice for you, over Christmas with food being so abundant, it can be easy to take a handful of nuts every time you walk past the coffee table, a slice of Christmas cake with every cup of tea or give into temptation with the cheese and biscuits.

Deprivation is definitely not the answer but why not try to limit your choice to one of these a day. In this way you don’t miss out, but you prevent the inevitable over-eating that seem to be associated with Christmas. 

Another tip is to be clever with your Christmas treats. 

Can’t resist a slice of the panettone? Why not use it as a pre-run fuelling choice?

Love hot chocolate and can’t resist the marshmallow and whipped cream topping? At this time of year, use this as your recovery choice after a hard run.

The Main Event

Christmas parties and family gatherings come hand in hand at this time of year –after all it is an opportunity to bring people together and what better way than around a feast? However, eating out night after night can take its toll on the body.

Once again, the key is not to deprive but to think about moderation. If you are eating out three days in a row, choose to have pudding on just one occasion. 

Think about portion sizes; while there are a number of delicacies and indulgences at this time of year, the bare bones of Christmas dinner is actually very healthy. 

Turkey provides a great source of lean protein –aim to make it 1/3 of your plate; keep roast potatoes to another third and don’t forget to pile your plate full of vegetables –carrots, red cabbage, sprouts –not only will this help you to feel full but it will also provide your body with vitamins that will aid digestion and metabolism.

For every alcoholic drink you have, make the next one a soft option such as sparkling water with some lime or lemon. Not only will this tactic help prevent a hangover, it will also ensure you stay hydrated so that you do not suffer at your next training session.

The key thing to remember is that even if you do over indulge for a couple of weeks, it’s not the end of the world – it is not going to have a detrimental impact on your longer term training and race plans. 

5 take home messages

  1. Be realistic – fasting or overly restricting is not going to undo any additional eating and drinking over the festive season – in fact it will probably lead to continued eating to excess.
  2. Set achievable goals – start with changing one meal or snack over the course of a week that will result in a calorie deficit but without you feeling deprived.
  3. Increase your intake of fruit and vegetables, as this will provide your body with additional vitamins, minerals and fibre benefiting your immune and gut health.
  4. Drink plenty of fluids. Many people do not realize that when they are dehydrated, this can actually make them feel more bloated and uncomfortable.
  5. Make a commitment to do something physical everyday even if it’s just a 30 minute walk or stretch. This will start to change your mindset, easing you back into a full training programme.

About the writer: Renee Mcgregor is a Sports Nutritionist and Author who has worked with Paralympics GB and many GB endurance athletes.

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