Staying healthy through the festive season

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Have you ever had to secretly undo your buttons after a meal? Perhaps the food looked too appetising to resist and you found yourself immersed in feasting pleasures as though the next meal was three days away. And that was just lunch. The evening was already reserved for another Christmas dinner with old friends. Promising yourself that you will only be eating a small portion, your nose and eyes nevertheless lingered over your favourite creamed potato scallops and crème brulee, and you succumbed. This was only the beginning of the month and you know that there is a line of feasting dates before the year ends. How can one remain slim and not miss out on the special delicacies during the festive season?

The holidays have become the season of indulgence that revolves around socialising, gifting and feasting on big meals, as well as gorging on gifts of delectable sweets and snacks. More often than not it is easy to find ourselves with a weight gain and expanded waist at the end of the month. I’m pretty sure I’m not alone in this here! But this doesn’t mean we have to yet again be another yuletide victim. Here are five tips to conquer the overindulgence while still delighting in the feasting and socialising during the holiday period.

mindful feasting

Practising mindful eating is the first simple strategy to enjoy your favourite meal without getting carried away. Did you know it takes 20 minutes from the time you begin eating for the brain to send out the signal that you’ve had enough? Have you ever eaten your meal, or even a snack, while engrossed in a conversation, in front of the TV, at your work desk, while listening to a presentation or even while you’re driving? All of us have at one time or another been guilty. But is this something you do regularly? Mindless eating is when we gulp down the food either too fast, or without thinking, missing the pleasure of the moment, the aroma, the colours, the flavours and the textures. This habit can cause overeating. During the festive season when most of our activities revolve around food, engage with your meal. After finishing the first plate, check in with your brain before you reach for another helping by pausing for five minutes. Ask yourself “am I actually still hungry”? It’s important to get to know our hunger and satiety signs before, during and after eating. We might just find that the zipper might not have to be secretly loosened.


eat a rainbow

Benjamin Franklin says, “Eat to live, not live to eat.” Eating to live means considering your food as fuel for the body. We make sure that our cars run on the right fuel. In the same way, our bodies are engineered to run well on the right fuel. While we are in the festive season, the idea of being healthy is often thrown out the window as though we can’t enjoy foods if they are healthy. In fact, healthy food allows you to think clearer, have greater energy, have a better immune system and feel fresh. Plant-based foods such as vegetables, fruit and beans contain antioxidants and fibre to strengthen your immune system, to fuel your microbiome, to move your bowel and to reduce inflammation. Foods higher in fibre break down slower compared to processed refined carbs.

Make high-fibre foods such as leafy greens, whole grains, beans, sprouts and nuts the main contender on your plate and eat smaller servings of high-starch foods like potatoes, white rice, white bread and flour. Give yourself a challenge this season. When choosing from a menu, eat at least four different coloured plant-based foods rather than the usual yellow fried foods. Be adventurous and colourful with your next meal.

do the 80 per cent

When it comes to seeing our favourite foods, at times our eyes are larger than our stomach. The centenarians in Okinawa, Japan, hold the principle of Hara hachi bu, which means “eat until you’re 80 per cent full”. While many people say “I’m full” at the end of a meal, the Okinawan says “I’m no longer hungry.” Eating to 80 per cent means you don’t eat to the point you can no longer move. Instead, leave a little room and stop when you’re just satisfied. Not only do the Okinawans have lower rates of chronic diseases, they are also one of the longest-lived people, beyond 100 years of age. So how can you do the hara hachi bu? Think first of what is on the menu. Ask yourself, do I need to have everything? Remember the rainbow challenge. Instead of covering your whole plate, cover two-thirds of your plate with food. Aim to be satisfied with the pleasure of taste and texture than fullness. Pause before you reach for a second serving. Eat until you’re no longer hungry.

save the treats

During the festive season, you might be blessed with friends offering you scrumptious culinary gifts. Upon receiving them, delay the gratification to eat these treats at your meal time. This is not deprivation but smart gratification. We often eat when we are not hungry and when we do so, we induce our stomach to continuously churn foods. We make our pancreas continuously release insulin and our cells to continually uptake glucose. Before the end of the season, the scales make us feel guilty. But when we rest between meals, we allow the insulin to go down and the fat cells to release the stored sugar for energy. This might sound too much, but try the challenge this holiday in saving the treats for your dessert at your mealtime.

imagecombine rest and movement

The holiday period can be all about food, but why can’t it also be about doing well in daily rest and movement? Being exposed to daylight by walking outside in the morning and during the day improves our body’s natural circadian rhythm. Exposure to daylight allows our brain to induce our body to trigger the waking up and sleeping time. The combination of light exposure and movement of at least 30 minutes of brisk daily walking and strengthening exercise allows us to feel tired, sleep well and wake up well. Furthermore, sleeping for seven-to-nine hours daily (not less and not more) controls the regulation of our food hormone friends: ghrelin and leptin. When we have enough sleep for seven-to-nine hours, the body has a higher release of the leptin hormone to trigger us to stop eating and lowers the ghrelin hormone that induces appetite. Lack of movement outside can disrupt our sleep. Lack of sleep will deregulate the balance of these hormones with higher ghrelin levels to increase our appetite and increase the grazing behaviour in-between meals. Give your body a break this holiday season by balancing the act of eating, movement and sleep. Suggest a scenic coastal walk or outdoor picnic as part of your social gathering. Choose to make the time to sleep between seven and nine hours and move for 30 minutes per day. You might just feel better, look better and still have fun.

As Virginia Woolf said, “One cannot think well, love well, sleep well if one has not dined well.”

The key word is “well”. In intentionally choosing your food well, practicing self-control and getting enough sleep and physical exercise, you will likely enjoy the holiday period with less guilt and experience more joy and satisfaction.

Christiana Leimena has worked in cardiovascular research in molecular cardiology and hypertension. She obtained her PhD through the University of New South Wales and did her postdoctoral training at Loma Linda University, California. She has a passion in educating and promoting whole-person health and nutrition. She loves the outdoors and cooking.

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