By Matt O'Neill, MSc(Nut&Diet), APD
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The secret to enjoying Christmas without feeling guilty about your diet, exercise or weight is in choosing the right strategy for your circumstances. And it may just involve indulging.
Everyone's approach to food and fitness over the Christmas period is different. Generally, there are three ways things play out.
One, you try to be 100% healthy but then blow out,
Two, you have a planned indulgence period at Christmas.
Three, it's all naturally healthy for you as a habit.
Let's take a look at each approach to build your best strategy and work with family at Christmas too.
1. Trying to be healthy then blow out
How many times have you heard, “This Christmas I'm not going to go crazy with food and drink.” Then, the craziness happens.
You may have the best intentions and if it was just up to you, you'd stick to your healthier-Christmas plan. But under the influence of family members who are keen to indulge, you end up fighting a losing battle until your willpower fails.
If this is your festive Groundhog Day or week every year, your approach of “trying to be good” is clearly not working. It just ends up in frustration and guilt. And that's not what the festive period is all about.
The blow out can snowball when family members are caught in the same be good, not bad cycle.
2. Planned indulgence
If you've been eating well all year, exercising regularly and are in good shape, choosing to indulge at Christmas time can be the logical option for a number of reasons.
It can give your willpower a rest. If you've been putting in significant mental effort to eat well and work out all year, a break from fitness and healthy food prep can provide a holiday for your willpower.
If you come back refreshed and motivated, then the break may do you a lot of good. Plus, if your indulgence leaves you feeling a little stodgy or bloated it can be a strong reminder of why you don't normally eat or drink this way.
A planned indulgence works best when you have a good fitness routine to return to quickly. This is more of a day-pass to indulge rather than a season-pass. If you tend to gain weight easily when you indulge or there's a risk you may not take off the weight you gain then your planned indulgence may need to have more limits.
Regarding family, a planned indulgence may be the best option when family feasting is a strong tradition. Christmas is a time that takes many of us back fondly to our childhood. Eating Christmas pudding with “gluggy custard” has been a Christmas tradition in my household for years, but it doesn't happen any other time.
By choosing a planned indulgence at Christmas, you can feel less pressure on your willpower, feel more in control and enjoy the time more.
3. Naturally healthy as a habit
This approach to the festive period is second nature for people who effortlessly live and breathe wellness every day, without the need for a break.
Christmas food generally includes healthier versions of traditional fare, like Christmas cake with more fruit and nuts or even added chia seeds.
Traditional items like stuffing, Yorkshire pies or pudding may not make it onto the menu. And you'll see fruit cut up and made into the shape of Christmas trees or real strawberry Santa's for the kids.
As for fitness, the routine doesn't stop. If anything, the holiday period offers more time for fitness, going for long runs, bush walking or water sports.
This approach can be very normal for some people, whereas others will view this as just not Christmas. It all depends on your upbringing, family traditions, habits and mindset towards health and wellbeing.
Being naturally healthy as a habit can be the way you've always been or it could have developed as a transformation you've made.
Building your best Christmas food and fitness strategy
The lead-up to Christmas is full of tips on how to make Christmas healthier, from dietitians like myself. But it doesn't mean you should put all the advice into action, feel guilty for not using the advice or feel you just can't make a healthier Christmas work.
Finding your best Christmas food and fitness strategy could start with not trying to go it alone one hundred percent healthy and instead give yourself permission to indulge.
You may find you end up eating and drinking less without the emotions that result from a willpower-only strategy that backfires
Setting some limits can be helpful. For example, knowing you'll indulge on Christmas Day and perhaps Boxing Day but then making a switch back to healthier choices. It's more about getting your fix than having your fill.
Then take some selected strategies from the naturally healthy people. Appetising salads and Christmas-themed fruit platters are generally a hit for everyone. For exercise, starting with a walk late on Christmas Day or Boxing Day can refresh both body and mind.
Combining a planned indulgence with carefully chosen healthier options is certainly better than going to Christmas with no plan.
What about getting family on board?
Waiting until everyone arrives on Christmas Day is too late to negotiate your way out of a feeding frenzy. If you want to do Christmas with less of the extreme indulgence, you'll need to suggest, request or insist who brings what food and drink-wise in advance so you don't have excess.
A confident, “Let's add some leaner options for those who want them” works better than taking treats off the menu. You are aiming to surprise family members with how yummy the salad was or how Uncle Bob actually ate a real strawberry Santa.
Of course, just how much you aim to influence family to become healthier at Christmas time is a delicate choice. If family members are putting their health at risk due to their inactivity or poor diet, you'll be more motivated to try. But of course, you may not want to make people feel uncomfortable or hold a family intervention - even though it may be what's required.
Asking for feedback on your leaner options later in the festive get-together can return positive feedback and open up a dialogue for healthy change. You may even find a discussion develops about how the whole family are going to get into shape and challenge each to get fit.
You may even see some commitment for how next Christmas is not going to be another feeding frenzy and instead, will become more of a day-pass.
This is how transformations start and whole families become naturally healthy.
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