Life Christmas

Sunday 26 January 2020

How to stay healthy throughout the Christmas season

Christmas is a time of overindulgence, but you can eat to mitigate the damage, writes dietitian Orla Walsh

Managing your children's sugar intake over the festive period will help them manage the break to their routines
Managing your children's sugar intake over the festive period will help them manage the break to their routines

Orla Walsh

The festive period can lead to colds and flus, low mood, poor sleep, bloating and feeling lethargic. Self-care is crucial at this time of year. Fortunately, food can help us feel better. So here are my top tips for surviving Christmas with the family with the help of food, exercise, mindfulness and sleep.

■ Focus on sleep

This is a time to recharge the batteries. You wouldn't let the battery die in your phone, so don't let your internal battery dwindle. Adults need about seven to nine hours of good-quality sleep each day. To enhance your sleep, there's lots that you can do.

Melatonin is the hormone that regulates the sleep-wake cycle. Melatonin is found in walnuts, and when eaten increase blood concentrations of melatonin. Additionally, both kiwis and cherry juice have been shown to aid sleep. While some foods and drinks aid sleep, others, such as caffeine, hinder sleep. Caffeine has a half-life of three to seven hours. What this means is that it takes three to seven hours to half leave your system, with research suggesting longer if pregnant. Taking that into account, and the effect it has on sleep, why not try and keep your caffeinated drinks to the morning time.

■ Get outside to walk

Walking within nature, aka 'green exercise' has been shown to immediately enhance mental well-being. Why not try to get outside in nature during the day when off work over Christmas? Research shows that lunchtime walks in nature provide a greater restorative effect than equivalent built-up area walks. Additionally, nature walks may improve essential recovery during night-time sleep, potentially enhancing physiological health. As for physical health, being outside walking takes you away from the food for a little while, reducing snacking and aiding digestion.

■ Stay hydrated this Christmas for better energy and digestion

One of the most important things we can do for better energy and digestion is ensure we are optimally hydrated. We need about 35 millilitres for every kilogramme that we weigh. Most women need about two litres of fluids while most men need 2.5 litres. To avoid being up all night, focus on having one litre before lunch and another before dinner. If it's cold out, why not meet your targets with some warming herbal tea or perhaps some healthy vegetable soup.

■ Manage kids' mood

If you're a parent, you'll be spending more time with your kids during the holidays. In a bid to keep the peace, and help facilitate lots of quality time together, in may be worth tweaking your children's diets in a bid to stabilising and optimising their mood. Many parents report that a child's mood gets worse if they go too long without eating. The brain's preferred fuel is carbohydrate. So, aim to provide balanced meals regularly that contain a source of wholegrain carbohydrates like wholegrain bread and cereals, brown rice, potatoes and quinoa. Keeping the structure within their day that they're used to is important. Balanced meals at regular times will help keep their energy levels stable enhancing mood and behaviour. That said, Christmas time is awash with sweets and processed foods. A study from 2007 brought to light the possible impact of artificial colours and other food additives such as sodium benzoate on behaviour. Although the dury is still out on the link between food additives and hyperactivity, it is still something worth considering.

■ Eating zinc-rich foods may help to treat colds

A 2015 analysis of clinical trials found that zinc helps to reduce the length of colds when taken within 24 hours after symptoms start. A wide variety of foods contain zinc. Oysters contain more zinc per serving than any other food, but red meat and poultry provide the majority of zinc in Western diets.

Other good food sources include beans, nuts, certain types of seafood (such as crab and lobster), whole grains, and dairy products. Phytates, which are present in whole-grain breads, cereals, legumes, and other foods bind zinc and inhibit its absorption. Thus, the bioavailability of zinc from grains and plant foods is lower than that from animal foods. Nevertheless, every little counts!

■ If weight gain is a concern, aim to eat more mindfully

Christmas is full of delicious foods, and it's normal to look forward to them and enjoy them. But are people really getting the full enjoyment from their festive meals? Guilt is not a beneficial food additive. Mindful eating is about paying attention to our food, on purpose, moment by moment, without judgment. It enhances an individual's sensual awareness of the food and their experience of the food. The intention is to help individuals savour the moment and the food and encourage their full presence for the eating experience. Focus on the sight of the food, its smell, the feel of it in your mouth, the sound your mouth makes with each bite and of course, surrender yourself to its taste. By eating food more mindfully, you may find yourself being satisfied by less.

■ Avoid an irritable gut

When your gut is acting up, it can really impact your quality of life. For better gut function this festive period, aim to have regular meals and try to avoid having long gaps between eating. It might be helpful to limit the amount of resistant starch you eat as this starch resists digestion in the small bowel, reaching the large bowel intact. Resistant starch is often found in re-cooked foods and processed foods. If you have wind and bloating, you may find it helpful to eat oats such as porridge in the morning, oatcakes or porridge bread. You may also find including one tablespoon of linseeds each day beneficial.

■ Avoid heartburn: pay attention to how and when you eat!

Heartburn is a real pain. Certain foods can trigger heartburn in people such as alcohol, caffeine, acidic foods and fatty foods. These foods are around in abundance over Christmas. To tackle it, try and eat smaller meals, avoid lying down for at least 45 minutes after eating and avoid eating two to three hours before bed. It's also worth avoiding clothing that is tight across your belly and raising the head of you bed by six to eight inches when sleeping.

■ Avoid the hangover

When it comes to alcohol, less is more. However, if you are enjoying a tipple, there are a few things that you can do to prevent the symptoms of excess. Before you drink alcohol, make sure you urinate clear urine. This indicates that you're well-hydrated. Eat before you drink alcohol to slow the release of the alcohol into your system. Aim to have no more than one drink per hour as it allows your liver some time to metabilise the alcohol. A cup of coffee the next day can give you a little energy and help ease the headache resulting from dehydration. Additionally, a bowl of potato and leak soup can be a good way to replenish electrolytes and potassium.

■ Nourish your body

In order to flourish, you need to nourish! Despite the increase in festive foods, it's important to remember that our bodies still require carbohydrate for energy, protein to support muscle function, fats to support hormone function and lots of fruit and vegetables to protect against illness. Make sure to enjoy the festive foods but try to keep meals balanced. You'll feel better for it!

The New Year is fast approaching. With this in mind, if preparing for change, be sure to check out upcoming articles on these pages, helping to guide you through this reformative time

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