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Blog: Tips to avoid gaining weight over Christmas

Lecturer and Lead Sport and Exercise Scientist at St Mary’s University, Twickenham Paul Hough has written an article with dietary, lifestyle and mindfulness top tips to bear in mind this Christmas. Paul’s twitter handle is: @the_hough. December is an enjoyable time of year, but also one of the most difficult times to maintain good habits: regular exercise, eating healthily, drinking alcohol in moderation etc. The festive period involves more social events, inevitably leading to the consumption of more food and drink, particularly alcohol. The dark, cold nights make exercise less appealing compared to sitting in front of the TV, and of course, tradition dictates that Christmas day is a time for gorging down as much food as possible to induce the classic afternoon slumber. In short, December is the perfect storm for gaining weight! Many people see December as a time to adopt the ‘what the hell’ approach, which means accepting weight gain as an inevitable consequence that can be dealt with in the new year. This gives rise to the annual predictable spike in gym attendance figures in January. Overindulging in food and drink and the neglecting of exercise routines will likely lead to small increases in body fat, however, these increases can be minimised, or even prevented, by adopting certain strategies or ‘hacks’. You can literally ‘have your cake and eat it’. Alcohol My usual advice to clients who want to lose or not put on weight is ‘don’t drink calories’. However, this would not make for the liveliest of Christmas parties! Calories in alcoholic drinks can add up very quickly: a standard pint of lager contains around 200 calories! 5 pints alone equate to 1000 calories: half the recommended daily energy intake for most males, and close to the recommended weekly maximum intake of 14 units. If you drink alcohol, go for the lower calorie options. For example, spirits with diet mixers or soda water. In general, the most calorific drinks are sugary cocktails, beer and wine. If you fond of your current waistline, steer clear of egg nog! It is also a good idea to drink water between alcoholic drinks to reduce dehydration and minimise a hang-over the next day- you’ll thank yourself in the morning! Exercise strategically To minimise the likelihood of the body storing excess calories from a big dinner or buffet, try to exercise beforehand. During high intensity exercise (e.g. strength training) the muscles rely on glycogen (carbohydrates) for energy. Following a training session the muscles glycogen reserves are lower meaning carbohydrates consumed in the period after a training session are more likely to be used to replenish glycogen rather than being stored as fat! Don’t ‘save up’ calories Some client’s I have worked with have adopted a ‘saving calories’ approach before a social event, which involves avoiding eating during the day so they can splurge at the event. Adopting this fasting approach on a long-term basis can actually have health benefits (Barnosky et al., 2014). However, saving calories for a one-off binge will lead to overeating and bloating. Drinking alcohol on an empty stomach also causes blood alcohol levels to rise rapidly, meaning early drunkenness and most probably an early night. Instead of saving calories, eat a small snack before you leave. This will prevent overeating and feeling bloated, which can often ruin the occasion. Every little counts The extra calories consumed over December means that most people will be in a positive energy balance, i.e. consuming more energy than they are expending. This is ultimately what leads to an increase in body fat. As calorie intake increases it is important to maintain your regular physical activity habits which burn calories. Although it may not be possible to maintain your typical exercise routine, bear in mind that most of our energy expenditure comes from non-exercise physical activity, for example, daily living tasks that involve movement (Levine, 2002). Try to incorporate more physical activity within your daily routine - use the stairs instead of escalator, take ‘walking meetings’, get off the train/bus a stop early and walk. These might seem like insignificant actions, but they all add up! Think Appetite and hunger are complex sensations. They are influenced by a number of psychological, physiological and environmental factors. For example, appetite can increase rapidly at the mere sight or smell of food, which is why coffee shops strategically display delicious cakes next to where you wait for your order to be taken. Before you eat/drink, take a few moments to ask yourself:
  1. Am I actually hungry, do I really want this?
  2. Would I have eaten this if I didn’t see it or if I wasn’t offered it?
Relax Appetite is also influenced by our thoughts and emotions, such as stress (Wansink, 2010). For example, a stressful day or incident might lead to cravings for reward foods (e.g. cake, biscuits etc.) - this is commonly known as ‘comfort eating’. Mindfulness involves focussing on the present moment, and paying close attention to your own thoughts, feelings and surroundings (NHS Choices, 2016). Practicing mindfulness has been shown to reduce stress, which may also reduce the desire to comfort eat (Kristeller et al., 2014). For more information on mindfulness visit: For a discussion about your health and exercise performance levels, your needs, or for if you have any questions, please make a booking or contact us: Website | Email | 020 8240 4070 Barnosky, A., Hoddy, K., Unterman, T. & Varady, K. (2014). Intermittent fasting vs daily calorie restriction for type 2 diabetes prevention: a review of human findings. Translational Research, 164, 302–311. Kristeller, J., Wolever, R.Q., & Sheets, V. (2014). Mindfulness‐based eating awareness training (MB‐EAT) for binge eating: a randomized clinical trial. Mindfulness, 5, 282‐297. Levine, J.A. (2002). Non-exercise activity thermogenesis (NEAT). Best Practice & Research Clinical Endocrinology & Metabolism, 16(4), 679-702. National Health Service. (2016). Mindfulness. Retrieved from Wansink, B. (2010). From mindless eating to mindlessly eating better. Physiology and Behaviour, 100, 454‐463.

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