You’ve worked hard all year to get that perfect body – or even just to keep your waistline under control. But with the festive season it can be easy to undo all that effort very quickly.
While sticking to health or weight loss goals over the festive period isn’t for everyone – for those who do want to maintain as much balance as possible, this time of year can feel very daunting thanks to the temptations faced.
Expert nutritionist Lujain Alhassan, from diet and meal replacement brand exante, has listed her top tips to help people stay on track should they choose. And she includes advice about everything from portion control and planning in advance, to setting boundaries with loved ones and the foods and drinks to be mindful of.
She explained why it’s so difficult to maintain health and weight loss goals in the lead up to the New Year. She said: “It’s notoriously known that December is the hardest month to stay on track with our health goals, so if you feel like you’re stalling, you’re not alone. During the festive season we’re surrounded by lots of food and drink that we often can’t resist. Limited-edition offerings from places like supermarkets and restaurants can be tempting and we can end up adopting a ‘might as well’ attitude.
“We often have lots of social events to attend which involve more food and alcohol, and Christmas itself can see us overeating. A lot of people find the festive period triggering which can lead to comfort eating. Physical activity is often reduced because of time constraints and on top of this, the days have been getting shorter and it’s colder outside.
“A mix of all of these things can cause motivation to lack and make sticking to goals and targets very difficult. It’s also common for people to experience the ‘post-Christmas blues’ and undertake rigorous January challenges to get back on track, which is often much harder when no balance is maintained in December.
“Be kind to yourself and do what feels right for you – don’t be ashamed if you don’t stick to your goals, or if you want to but others don’t understand why.” Here are her top tips to help with maintaining balance over the festive period.
Decide whether to stick to or switch your current diet – and set realistic goals.
According to Lujain, many people fall foul by not making this key decision. She said: “If you’re on a meal replacement or healthy eating diet and are consuming a lower amount of calories, it might be realistic to decide you’re only going to follow it for half of the month and allow yourself more calories on certain days. You might choose to follow it for breakfast and lunch, but not dinner – or on the weekdays, but not the weekends.
“Everyone will have their own personal choice, but it’s important to be realistic, for example if you have lots of social events to attend and you’ll be drinking more alcohol. This way, you can alter your goals and won’t be disheartened when you muddle through and aren’t where you want to be.”
You don’t need to avoid certain foods altogether – moderation is key. She said: “The belief among many is that staying on track means avoiding treats or other tasty foods – this however is not true – it’s about not being tempted to overeat them.
“This is hugely important for those on weight loss journeys. The problem is that once we tuck into that box of Christmas chocolates it can be hard to stop. Allow yourself a certain amount and then move on, it can be helpful not to buy large quantities of treats to avoid falling into the trap of overeating – out of sight, out of mind.”
Consider counting your calories if you don’t already
Not everyone likes the idea of counting calories, especially at Christmas, but as it’s the time of year we typically enjoy more food – it can be really beneficial to do so. The health expert said: “It’s common for people to underestimate their calorie intake, it’s something I see happen a lot. Gaining a better knowledge about what you’re actually consuming will stop you falling victim to thinking ‘there’s probably not that many in this’ – when in fact there might be.
“You might want to stay within a calorie limit on your healthy eating days, which would even go a long way if there are some days you don’t want to calorie count. This doesn’t mean you have to be rigid and stick to an intense calorie deficit, but it can help to make sure you’re not overeating too often and give you an insight into the amount of nutrients you’re consuming. There are lots of apps that help with this.”
Remember the importance of portion control and making use of veggies
“Having smaller portions is a great way to maintain weight loss. When it comes to Christmas dinner include lower-calorie staples such as roasted meats and vegetables, and gravy. While it doesn’t always feel easy, it can be as simple as stopping eating when you are full and not filling your plate to the brim with food you don’t need.
“Overeating can leave you feeling lethargic and may impact your mood. Making sure your plate has a source of protein, veg and carbs is a great and easy way to ensure you’re staying on track and nourishing your body. You can use your hand to measure portion sizes and if you don’t want to follow this on Christmas Day you might on other days throughout December.
- 1 serving of protein is 1 palm size, 1 serving of vegetables is 1 fist size, 1 serving of fats is 1 thumb, 1 serving of carbs is a cupped hand
“Fruits and vegetables have high nutritional density, so you can have larger portions while maintaining your health goals because they have fewer calories. Lots of vegetables are also high in fibre, which means they’re an easy and healthy way to fill up. The method you cook your vegetables in is also important, because frying vegetables or adding lots of butter and oil to them can potentially reduce their nutritional benefits or increase their calorie content.”
Plan meals in advance – even if you’re going out
Lujain advises that preparing or planning your meals in advance can help people avoid making snap decisions they may regret later. “This can be done even if you’re going out for a meal,” she said. “It can be helpful to view menus online beforehand, and you’ll either be able to see the calorie contents, or decide on a healthy choice ahead of time so you don’t become overwhelmed or make snap decisions while you’re out. Or, if you’re going to have dessert or a higher-calorie meal, you can structure your other meals at home around it, and restrict yourself if necessary by reducing the amount you eat for breakfast or lunch.
“This is where having a complete view of your day or week becomes important. Planning your meals at home and buying the ingredients during your food shop will help you stick to the routine and avoid choosing foods out of convenience or hunger when you don’t really want to.”
Consider meal replacements – such as low-calorie, nutritionally-complete shakes
For those who find calorie counting and meal planning more difficult during this busy period, meal replacement products can complement their diets well. She said: “By opting for these, you know exactly what you’re consuming, and because they’re higher in protein they’re filling. Opt for shakes or other meal replacements that contain the daily reference intake of vitamins and minerals for a meal. exante’s shakes are low-calorie and contain 27 vitamins and minerals to ensure your body is nourished. They’re convenient and save the hassle of calorie counting.”
Don’t be afraid to say no, set boundaries and let loved ones know about your goals
Lujain believes being honest with those around you about your health journey can help to reduce pressure. She added: “Being offered food or treats, having people say things like ‘oh go on, just have one of these’, or ‘you haven’t eaten that much’ can be really difficult for those of us who are trying to avoid temptation.
“Being honest with people you’re spending time with over the festive period and letting them know you’re not wanting to overindulge can be really beneficial, and provide you with a sense of relief if you know you find saying no difficult. There’s no shame in wanting to meet your own health goals and stay on track, even at Christmas, and setting boundaries provides space for this.
“If you’re visiting someone else’s house for dinner, you may even want to make them aware of your nutritional requirements.”
Stay hydrated to avoid mistaking thirst as hunger and reaching for more snacks
Lujain said: “Drinking lots of fluids can really help with curbing temptations – research shows that water can act as an appetite suppressant. People often confuse symptoms of thirst with being peckish, but that feeling could be down to needing more hydration.”
Food and drink to watch
While it’s agreed you don’t need to avoid certain foods, and eat in moderation, there are a few things to be aware of, said Lujain. “Ready-made items from shops tend to contain more calories and fats, for example a side dish of cauliflower cheese. If you want to, you can keep things more simple by just having cauliflower or making your own healthier cheese sauce at home.
“I’d be mindful of eating too many fried foods because they’re usually higher in calories and saturated fats, if over-consumed, as are sides and desserts. Having too much sugar during the festive period can not only impact weight gain but have negative impacts on your health overall. If you have a sweet tooth I’d recommend opting for dark chocolate.
“Be careful with vegan meats if you’re eating them because you think they’re healthier – they’re generally higher in fats and preservatives. Many alcoholic drinks have hidden calories and sugars and contain a large amount of calories per serving. You can avoid alcohol contributing to much of your daily calorie intake by having lower-calorie options such as a spirit mixed with soda water or slimline tonic.”
Take part in simple activities
“Walking is a great way to stay active, it will get your endorphins going and help you to stay feeling motivated to stay on track generally,” the health expert added. “Don’t underestimate the power of getting your body moving even when you don’t feel like it – it doesn’t have to be strenuous exercise. Try incorporating a short walk into your day, before work if need be, so you can enjoy the mental and physical benefits of being outside and getting your blood flowing.”