Who’s up for dessert, the Christmas lunch hostess asks… moments later she appears with the largest bowl of trifle you’ve ever seen, her husband following close behind with ice cream and custard.
Usually this would be a welcome treat, but so far you’ve already worked your way through pre-lunch snacks, starters, and mains.
Like a battle-worn soldier, you shift in your seat, trying to find a sitting position that minimises the uncomfortable sensation of your pants digging into your overfull stomach.
“Why not? It is Christmas after all,” you reply with a grin that masks your discomfort.
The above scenario is all too common over the festive period. And it isn’t just a Christmas day occurrence. The year-end functions, social gatherings, family meals, restaurant outings – they all add up.
Often, by the end of the festive season we’ve overeaten numerous times, and can feel the waistline changes to prove it. But apart from temporary weight gain, what price are we paying for our festive indulgence?
There are two actions related to festive feasting that contribute to poor health: overeating; and eating the wrong (junk) foods. When we do both at the same time, we feel the consequences even more.
Overeating is defined as consuming more energy than your body can expend through physical activity and normal metabolic processes.
Research shows that overeating combined with decreased physical activity (a common holiday combination), can lead to long-term increases in both body fat mass, and fat-free mass.
Various studies conducted on college students found that the body fat changes due to overeating, even for short periods of time such as a few weeks, lead to long-term decreases in fat-free mass (muscle mass), and increases in fat mass.
This is particularly concerning when the fat mass is stored in the abdominal area, as abdominal (visceral) fat is linked to metabolic changes and cardiovascular diseases.
The negative effects of overeatng are compounded when we consume processed foods instead of whole foods.
When the majority of our diet consists of unprocessed whole foods, we learn to tune into our body’s natural hunger cues.
This means that overeating is much less likely, because our bodies are well nourished and give us hunger signals at the appropriate times. The exact opposite is true when the majority of our diet consists of refined, processed foods.
These foods are devoid of essential nutrients and fibre, and high in sugar, salt, and fats. They often also contain preservatives and flavour enhancers that make them more addictive.
Diets high in sugar and refined carbohydrates are extremely addictive. This is why overeating and eating the wrong types of food often go hand-in-hand.
When a large amount of sugar enters the bloodstream, the body’s endocrine system perceives this as a threat that must be put under control.
The body releases adrenaline, insulin, and cortisol into the bloodstream to store the excess sugar (glucose) as glycogen and fat in the body cells.
It does this so well, however, that is causes a low drop in blood sugar levels which stimulates hunger. This sets off a vicious cycle of constantly eating more sugary foods to replenish glucose levels.
Eating addictive foods can also release dopamine (the feel-good hormone), which means that the more often people binge on junk foods, the more likely they are to reinforce an addictive pattern.
The body starts associating food with pleasure and reward, which could also lead to low moods and depression when deprived of these foods.
Processed foods are low in fibre, which can lead to constipation. This may be uncomfortable and may decrease the body’s natural ability to detoxify.
The insulin surge your body experiences when processed foods break down into sugar may also contribute to insulin resistance, which is a precursor for metabolic syndrome and diabetes.
So what can you do to protect yourself against the harmful effects of overeating this festive season?
Here are a few practical tips to kick start your journey to better health this holiday:
Eat nutrient-dense unrefined, whole foods instead of processed and refined carbohydrates. This will help eliminate cravings and naturally regulate hunger.
Read ingredient labels, and steer clear of products that contain long lists of unpronounceable ingredients or sugars (often ending in ‘ose’) or syrups. Did you know that there are approximately 56 different names used for sugar on ingredient labels?
Exercise regularly throughout the holidays. This helps to regulate appetite and metabolism, and curb junk food cravings.
Volunteer to bring snacks or desserts to social gatherings. This way you can choose to make your own delicious healthy options.
Eat a healthy meal before going to an event where you know there will be junk food or unhealthy snacks.
Set goals beforehand – decide what you will and won’t eat. This makes it easier than trying to decide on the spot when confronted with the situation.
Remember – when you feel good, life is more fun. So make this a feel-good festive season filled with delectable whole foods.