The Christmas’ jingle bell sounds are rolling and between now and the new year, tables are going to be prepared with all the goodies that, besides satisfying a sweet tooth and enhancing the pleasure of eating, can add an extra inch to your waistline.
Weight watchers including persons managing conditions like diabetes, high cholesterol levels, and hypertension are going to be wondering how to possibly enjoy the season when most of the food available is not necessarily the best option for good health.
A recent study of nearly 3,000 adults from across three countries found that in the 10 days after Christmas, there was up to a 0.6 percent increase in weight gain, compared with the 10 days before Christmas.
Furthermore, the researchers whose work was published in the New England Journal of Medicine found that by the following summer, participants had only lost around half of the weight gained over the holidays.
Here’s a list of five of the top foods to cut back on if you are trying to watch what you eat this Christmas:
1. Processed and high fat meat
Many nutritionists and dietitians in the West may place sweets above this group.
It is however ranked number one for this article for the simple reason that meat is generally considered a treat in many parts of Ghana (this observation has not been scientifically tested though it can be acknowledged that Christmas is the time when goats and fowls are in high demand).
Lean meat eaten at the right quantities is however not the problem. For the meat lovers, the season is a good excuse to indulge in processed meats like sausages, corned beef, pâtés, bacon among others.
It is also normal to find these products feature in the Christmas hampers traditionally given out during this period. They should be used cautiously, or completely avoided because they are usually high in saturated fat, cholesterol and salt (sodium). They also contain chemicals called nitrates and nitrites which can be harmful especially when these meats are grilled.
2. Cakes, pies and other pastries
Everybody loves cakes, biscuits and pies, and what a better time to indulge in them than now?
Unfortunately, this group of sweet delights are high in saturated fats and or sugar. Because most of these pastries are made with margarine and other vegetable shortenings, saturated fats are not the only concern, but trans-fat as well. These fats, found mainly in hardened vegetable oils, have been shown to be associated with heart diseases.
Some pastries, like pies and other rolls, also come filled with processed meat, meaning that they have the potential to do a “double damage”.
3. Soft Drinks
Soft drinks refer to drinks made mainly from water, sugar or other sweeteners, color and other additives.
They may or may not be carbonated (may be fizzy or still). Unlike juice drinks, which contain relatively higher percentages of juice, and pure fruit juices, soft drinks offer almost nothing but empty calories to the body. They are however consumed in large amounts during festivities. A can of regular soda regardless of brand, can supply up to 150 Calories, all of which is from added sugar.
Quite a number of people call themselves “occasional” drinkers but binge on alcohol whenever they get the chance to.
Alcoholic beverages, just like soft drinks, provide the body with energy without necessarily supplying nutrients.
Besides the potential to contribute to non-communicable diseases such as heart diseases, alcohol is shown to have some cognitive effects. It can act as both a stimulant and depressant, and therefore affects the senses as well as coordination.
Staying away from alcohol this festive season may not only keep you healthy, but may also reduce the risk associated with drunk driving.
5. Candy and other sweets
This group is at the bottom of the list not because it is better than those mentioned above but because it may not be a big problem for Ghanaian adults.
It is important, however, to keep an eye on children during these times because they could easily go overboard with candy. Adults with a sweet tooth should also be cautious because it is very easy to consume large quantities of sweets without noticing as they usually don’t fill the stomach up.
Is Christmas going to be boring then?
No. It’s not all gloomy this season. If you are concerned about watching what you eat, these are a few tips that may be useful.
1. Choose well balanced diets
A well balanced diet is always the first step to healthy living.
Choose meals that are a good combination of whole grains and cereals; vegetables and fruits; and healthy fats and proteins.
An example of such a meal could be jollof, cooked with minimal oil, with a piece of lean grilled chicken and a good serving of tossed vegetables and avocado on the side. Boiled plantain with a large helping of kontonmire sauce and tuna is another example. An option for snacks could be plain yogurt with fruit, or bananas with roasted peanuts.
Because everyone has individual needs, quantities have not been specified. It is important to see a dietitian to work out how many calories and how much protein you need before attempting to restrict quantities of your meal.
2. Compromise when you do cheat
How about just this one time? Please?
It can be hard to look at others munch on all the goodies and stay faithful to a 100% healthy diet this season. And truth be told, there is no one food that is a super food as even some good meals can be “unhealthy” under certain circumstances.
If you insist on indulging in the traditional Christmas treats, then it is important to make substitutions that can at least push meals a step up the healthy ladder.
Sugar, for example, can be reduced or eliminated in baked foods and replaced with other sweeteners like fruit syrups or whole fruits. Toppings made with fruits instead of icing are also a good option as there are about 80 Calories in 1 tablespoon of icing, mainly from fat and sugar.
Note, however, that these substitutions are still a source of calories and do not necessary mean you can overindulge. Hence, the third and final point:
Be conscious of how much you are eating.
Every dietitian’s mantra is “moderation” simply for the reason that regardless of what you’re eating, be it healthy or “unhealthy”, quantities always matter.
A 50g bar of sweetened chocolate for instance, contains about 270 Calories. Instead of consuming a whole bar, a third or half the bar could be consumed and counted into the calorie requirements that your dietitian has prescribed for you. This way, there is less likelihood of exceeding requirements for the day. Do this for everything else eaten unless you are certain that what you are consuming has close to “zero calories”.
Do have a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!
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Ruthfirst Eva Ayande is a Nutritionist and a Dietitian, with research interests in Maternal & Child Nutrition, Nutritional Epidemiology and a focus on Dietary Determinants of Pregnancy outcomes. In the last few years, she has been actively engaged in nutrition education and counseling in Ghana. She is an award winning novelist, a blogger, poet, and a music composer