Tips to avoid Christmas weight gain

With just over two weeks until christmas day, the festive period is officially upon us and for many of us the rest of the month is going to involve indulging in a few more mince pies and glasses of wine than would normally be the case.

Indeed, the Christmas period results in an average weight gain of between 2 – 5 lbs. Even more depressing is that studies have shown it takes around 3 months to lose this weight that is gained! In this week’s article our in-house nutritionist Clare Daley looks at some hints and tips to prevent over indulgence during the Christmas period.

‘Mindless Eating’

Sharing food with family and friends is one of life’s great pleasures. What we don’t always realise is how strongly our family and friends influence what and how much we eat.

When we are with people we enjoy spending time with, we often eat for longer than we would otherwise and pay no attention to what we are eating and drinking.

On average, if you eat with another person you will end eating about 35 per cent more. If you eat with a group of 7 or more you will eat nearly twice as much as you would if you were eating alone.

Brian Wansink – an American professor in the fields of consumer behaviour and nutritional science – studies eating behaviour and has written a book called ‘Mindless Eating’ which includes details of experiments that show how our environment can cause us to overeat or to eat mindlessly.

In his book, Brian talks about cues that encourage us to consume when we don’t need to – packaging, smells, lighting, family, friends. We eat for emotional reasons, comfort, reward, boredom, to feel good, when feeling good, when feeling sad etc!

Every time we pass a food item or open a kitchen cupboard we are making an unconscious decision about whether to eat it or not.

How many food related decisions would you say you make in a day? Most would probably say between 10 and 15, however Wansink reports that we make over 200 food related decisions per day.

Do we eat because we are hungry?

You might think so – however this book talks about how dozens of scientific studies involving thousands of people have shown that ‘what’ and ‘how much’ we eat depends on all sorts of cues that have nothing to do with how hungry we are.

For example our dinner plates have increased in size in the past 50 years – and this has unconsciously resulted in bigger portion sizes. In one of his studies, Wansink gave subjects either a medium size or large size bowl (17 oz and 34 oz) – those with the large bowl served themselves 31% more ice cream than those with the small bowl. If he also gave them a large scoop they served themselves 57% more ice cream. As the size of our dishes increases so does the amount we pile onto them.

When we eat we often follow eating scripts. These are automatic patterns or habitual behaviours. We have breakfast scripts, dinner scripts, snack scripts, restaurant scripts, family scripts, and we learn these scripts at an early age. Children aged 3 stop eating when they are full. By the age of 5 they ignore signals that are telling them that they are full and carry on eating. And that’s because we tell them to clean their plate. They are following a ‘clean plate’ script.

Control your environment

Given that our environment can encourage us to overeat, with some planning, we can engineer our environment so that we minimise the mindless eating cues. So here are some tips to allow you to enjoy Christmas without paying for it in January.

At home:

  • Keep unhealthy Christmas foods out of sight e.g. in a cupboard you have no reason to open regularly. Remember every time you see a food you make an unconscious decision about whether to eat it. (Alternatively don’t buy them, enjoy a cake when you are out).
  • Reduce the variety of junk foods purchased. When we eat a particular food we eventually reach a boredom threshold. If, for example, we have one type of biscuit we will reach that threshold faster than if we have a variety of biscuits. Avoid the variety boxes or different types of snacks / cakes / biscuits.
  • On the other hand, if you have lots of different types of vegetables on your plate you will eat more than if you just have 1 or 2. So aim for 3 or more types of vegetables with each meal (excluding potatoes which don’t count as a vegetable).
  • Avoid drinking alcohol while preparing food as this is often done mindlessly or for thirst. Drink wine / alcohol mindfully.
  • Buy some smaller wine glasses eg 125 ml.
  • Serve a smaller portion of puddings. The first 2 mouthfuls are the most enjoyable, after that we may be eating it because it’s on our plate and we are running a ‘clean plate’ script.

 

In the supermarket:

  • Make a shopping list and stick to it. Avoid ‘buy 1 get 1’ free offers on junk foods.
  • Avoid shopping when hungry.
  • Avoid the inner aisles at the supermarket (stick to the edges where the fresh food is).
  • Consider buying your Christmas food shopping online to avoid the supermarket temptations and impulse buys – new products, prettily packaged products.

At work:

  • Review arrangements at work e.g. avoid the kitchen to make drinks if this is where people leave cakes etc.
  • Suggest colleagues refrain from bringing cakes / chocolate to work during the Christmas season. Is there another way you could share some festive cheer?

At restaurants:

  • Before you enter a high-risk environment run through every step in advance of the event in your head. So picture yourself deciding not to reach for the bread when it is passed round the table. Imagine choosing a meal that fits with your eating choices. This does work – sportsmen use visualisation. It helps solidify your commitment to mindful eating by helping you focus on your intentions and maintain control over your thoughts.
  • Develop “If …. then ….” scenarios. Eg “If when I arrive at the restaurant there is a bread basket, then I will move it to the other end of the table”.
  • Identify and write down triggers that may lead to overeating at restaurants and parties. Then write a list of “If …. then ….”. And mentally rehearse how you will deal with the situations. See yourself in each situation dealing with it in the way you have chosen to.
  • Always order a side of vegetables, even if the dish comes with vegetables. Eat all the vegetables and fish/meat on your plate before the potatoes/rice.
  • Ask for sauces to be served ‘on the side’ so you can choose how much to add.
  • Share a pudding – it’s the first few mouthfuls that are most enjoyable.

At parties:

  • Avoid arriving at a party (or restaurant) hungry. Have a high protein snack before leaving home.
  • If it is a buffet, start off by munching on any vegetable crudités to take the edge off your appetite.
  • Offer to take a plate of food with you to a party – make this some vegetable crudités then you know there will be some for you to start with.
  • Avoid hovering and chatting close to the buffet table.
  • Are there any foods that you find particularly “moreish” eg crisps or cheese. If you know you can’t stop, don’t start!
  • Make your first drink a large glass of water – to avoid drinking for thirst.
  • Avoid the “well I’ve broken the diet now so might as well go for it mentality …”

Although by no means comprehensive, we hope you find some of these suggestions useful and we would love to hear your own tips for enjoying Christmas whilst avoiding the unnecessary overindulgence and weight gain – so please do post any ideas below.


If you have any questions regarding the health topics that have been raised, or any other health matters please do contact me (Clare) by phone or email at any time.

clare@cytoplan.co.uk, 01684 310099

Amanda Williams and the Cytoplan Editorial Team: Joseph Forsyth, Simon Holdcroft and Clare Daley


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