Damage limitation: Festive feasting without piling on the pounds

Irish Examiner Article by Ciara McDonnell
link to original article.

The calories can easily add up over Christmas. But with a little planning it’s possible to indulge without piling on the pounds, experts tell Ciara McDonnell.

OVER the Christmas period, the average Irish person will gain half a stone in weight. Whether it’s delving into boxes of chocolates late into the evening, or enjoying those lip-smacking canapés at the office party, an extra 300 calories per day of seasonal excess can result in pounds that are hard to shift come New Year.

It’s not surprising, given that most of us consume 4,000 calories on Christmas Day alone— twice the recommended daily allowance for women and almost as much for men. Nutritionist Elsa Jones says that we should all enjoy Christmas, but it’s a good idea to put damage limitation in place before the season officially kicks off.

“The lead into Christmas comes far too quickly and I think that giving yourself a week or two to indulge yourself in food and drink is fine,” she says. “You’ll probably gain a few pounds, but if you start getting into the ‘ah sure it’s Christmas’ mentality from mid-November right through to January, it can be very difficult to get yourself back on track.”

Maeve Hannon of Dietetically Speaking says that it is essential not to put too much pressure on ourselves during the festive period.

“It’s important to enjoy the treat foods and that celebration around Christmas because it’s just not realistic otherwise,” she says. 

Around Christmas time there are a lot of conflicting messages around. We are told to enjoy the season, and eat whatever we want, and at the same time we are told to limit what we eat. The last thing we want to do is associate guilt with our eating around this time, because it can result in binge eating.

Cork-based nutritionist Mary Carmody believes that moderation is key when it comes to the festive season. “Remember to follow the 80:20 rule,” she says. “Aim to eat well 80% of the time and have the intention of eating well as much as possible and it will work for you!”

Want to feast without piling on the pounds over Christmas? Our experts share their top tips.

The office party

Dietician Aveen Bannon says that in order to navigate the office party and Christmas drinks with ease, preparation is key. “Never go to a party hungry,” she says. “We often eat faster and therefore more than we need when we are hungry — If you are going to a party straight after work, have a snack like nuts, fruit, soup or a yogurt with some fruit before you go.”

Elsa Jones agrees, citing water as a key addition to your drinks quota. “Limit the amount you drink before you are eating a meal. Don’t arrive to a party starving because the alcohol will go to your head, your hands will be reaching for the crisps and the nachos and the nuts or whatever is available. Crucially, make sure that you drink water throughout the night and it does help you the next day.”

Christmas Day

The key to navigating Christmas Day starts with a good breakfast, says Jones. “If you have eggs or Greek yoghurt for breakfast you are setting the stage for your blood sugar and you are much less likely to start snacking. Most people have their Christmas dinner in the late afternoon, so if you eat a good breakfast that will hold you for a few hours and you can be hungry and enjoy your Christmas dinner.”

Mary Carmody agrees, advocating eating often during Christmas day to sate potential hunger pangs. “For snacks have some roasted/regular nuts and a piece of fruit throughout the day. In my house, we tend to have some homemade granola with dark chocolate sprinkled on top with some dark hot chocolate for breakfast and allow the day to unfold as our children open their Santa presents.”

Christmas dinner is a feast, and should be enjoyed like one, she says.

It’s Christmas, so have what you want, but one thing I’ll do is make sure that I’ve a good portion of turkey, so I’ve got my protein, then I’ll add lots of veggies. I’m one of the very few people who love Brussels sprouts, so I’ll load up on them and red cabbage and carrots and parsnips. Of course I’ll have roast potatoes, but because I’ve filled my plate with protein and lots of colourful tasty veg, then really a lot of what’s on my plate is nutritious and good for me.

Stephen’s Day

Use the day after Christmas to get out there and get some exercise say our experts. “Anyone can survive the party season if they keep active and get fresh air,” says Aveen Bannon. “Don´t let the weather get you down, wrap up and get out for a brisk walk this will keep you fit over Christmas and help you burn off any extra calories you may have enjoyed over the party season.”

Elsa Jones will in her kitchen on Stephen’s Day, to make the most of her leftovers. Making sure that there are delicious, healthy options on offer will help us stay on track, she believes.

“Whip up a delicious turkey curry, or eat yummy open salad sandwiches the next day. If you concentrate on getting your five-a-day, then it leaves less room for rubbish. When you’re putting healthy food on your palate it makes you less likely to reach for the salty, processed food.”


Many of us will be welcoming family home this Christmas, and nothing says welcome quite like an elaborate breakfast. Serving a variety of foods at the brunch table will give people the option to choose healthier options, advises Maeve Hannon.

“By all means, if you enjoy the sausages and the rashers, go ahead,” she says. “Include a fruit salad or some yoghurt at the table. Offer wholegrain bread and remember that beans are a great high fibre addition to breakfast and count as one of your five a day. Even a glass of orange juice will up your nutrition intake at breakfast.”

Mary Carmody suggests serving smoothies and nutritionally rich breads like sourdough and spelt as healthier options for guests.

Visiting friends and family

Prepare yourself before visiting friends and family over the Christmas period, advises Aveen Bannon. 

“If you are not hungry, that’s OK,” she says. “ Say, ‘it looks delicious but I´m full’; ‘I already tried it and thought it was amazing’; ‘I ate before I came but thank you’ or the best option can often be “I’ll try some in a minute’, that way you aren’t saying no but not committing to eating it either.”

Our eyes are often bigger than our stomachs, and studies have shown that the greater the choice of food on offer, the more calories we will consume, says Bannon. “Rather than trying a little of everything from the buffet, stick to a couple of smart choices. Also, avoid standing right beside the food table or bar while you are talking. Easy access to food or beverages will be more of a temptation during any lulls in the conversation!”

Late-night snacking

The thing that probably puts the most weight on is the night time snacking over Christmas, says Elsa Jones. “We can tend to overdo it, so try not to get into the ‘in for a penny, in for a pound’ mentality because if we do, we kind of give ourselves the license to really overdo it. You can enjoy a dessert or a glass of wine with some crisps in the evening, without going mad.”