Christmas with Christine Bailey

Christine Bailey MSc PGCE MBANT CNHC

The festive season typically means an onslaught of parties, family gatherings and office nibbles making it hard to maintain a healthy balance with food. This year you can avoid the bloating, tummy discomfort and weight gain, as with a few savvy choices you can enjoy the festivities and still keep your gut healthy.

We consume, on average, a whopping 6,000-7,000 calories over the course of Christmas Day, four times a woman's daily recommended intake and more than three times a man's. It’s no wonder that on average people gain about 5lbs over the festive season. But if you also struggle with Irritable Bowel Syndrome (IBS) or digestive symptoms, then Christmas can be a particularly tricky time. Too much food, over- indulging in fatty and sugary foods, not to mention the alcohol and heightened emotions, can easily affect a sensitive gut. Here are some top tips to give your digestive system and your body a good time too.

christmas food and decorations

Healthy snacks such as orange segments, dipped in dark chocolate with pistachios

1. Reduce Your Portions & Chew

Being stuffed full of food can make you feel bloated and uncomfortable for the rest of the day, but this year simply downsize your plate to keep portions more manageable. It's also so important to remember to chew your food, as chewing your food properly can have several benefits: it reduces the amount of air you swallow (a cause of bloating); it helps stimulates digestive enzymes to help you break down food, and it makes you eat more slowly, which is linked to reduced food intake. So spend more time chatting this Christmas rather than just focusing on the food! To learn more, read the article: Bloating - all you need to know

2. Know Your Food Triggers

Food allergies and intolerances are relatively common. If you already know that you react to certain foods, then just plan ahead and take some 'free-from' options with you when visiting friends and family. Common food triggers which are particularly linked to bloating include lactose (the milk sugar found in many dairy products), fructose (fruit, dried fruit, fruit juices etc), wheat, gluten and eggs. Healthcare professionals can read more about probiotics and lactose intolerance on the Probiotic Professionals site. 

3. Cut Back on the Fat

Fatty foods can slow down digestion and emptying of the stomach. While this may have benefits for satiety, it can cause many people to experience indigestion or bloating. Some people find foods that support gallbladder function helpful so fill up on antioxidant-rich, fruits and vegetables and fibre rich legumes and cut back on fried foods, processed foods and alcohol. Beets, artichoke and dandelion greens can improve bile flow, which breaks down fat. Check out the savvy food swaps below for more ideas on how to cut back on fat over Christmas.

4. Take a Probiotic

Start the day with a probiotic supplement. Probiotics have a great number of benefits, especially when it comes to reducing the production of gas, bloating and general digestive problems. Start now and continue daily throughout the festive season.

5. Try Peppermint

Bloating may also be caused by the altered function of the muscles in the digestive tract - this can be aggravated by stress and lack of sleep over the festive season. Peppermint oil (available in supplement form) has been shown to help reduce muscle spasm and reduce various IBS symptoms.

6. Watch the Sugar

Many sweet treats at Christmas are packed with fat and sugar. Syrups, honey, sugars and dried fruits are all likely to aggravate digestive symptoms, not to mention the extra calories you will be consuming when you eat such foods. Alcohol can also upset your gut so alternate your drinks with glasses of water to keep yourself hydrated through the day.

7. Eat Fermented Foods

Settle an upset tummy by including some fermented foods daily. Read about our favourite fermented foods. Packed with an array of beneficial bacteria these foods can improve your microbial diversity while reducing some other disease-causing bacteria. Plain yoghurt, for example, makes a wonderful alternative to cream or custard, while kefir is delicious added to a breakfast smoothie. Not only do these foods support digestive health but they boost your mood. Healthcare practitioners can learn more about the research behind probiotics for mood and emotional wellbeing on the Probiotics Professionals site. 

Santa’s Superfoods

Not all festive food is unhealthy - here are some savvy food swaps to keep you feeling lighter.

Christmas Dinner

Turkey: Great source of lean protein, iron, zinc, selenium and B vitamins. Contains tryptophan, an amino acid which the body converts to serotonin a brain chemical known for its mood-boosting properties (useful if the family’s already stressing you out!).

Make it even healthier: A 100g serving of roast turkey, without skin (104 calories, 2g fat). Removing the skin saves you 40 calories and over half the fat. Light meat has fewer calories but darker meat contains more iron.

Roast Potatoes: A carb lover’s dream plus a great source of potassium and B vitamins. Don’t drench them in oil or you’ll end up stuffing down 149kcal and 4.5g fat.

Make it Healthier: Boil or bake your potatoes instead, and try antioxidant-rich sweet potatoes.

Brussels sprouts and other veggies: If you do struggle with a bloated tummy then Brussels may not be the best choice despite being incredibly healthy. But that's no excuse not to eat your veggies - simply choose lower bloating options like green beans, spinach, carrots, parsnips, peppers, sweet potato and courgettes.

Stuffing and ‘extras’: Sausages, meat stuffing and bacon are laden with calories, salt and fat. Just one rasher of bacon contains up to 6g fat and 90 calories. Add a serving of stuffing with gravy and you’re eating over 320 calories and 20g fat!

Make it healthier: Make your own using lean turkey mince or opt for a nut and fruit-based stuffing instead.

Cranberry Sauce: Rich in flavonoids, these red gems will help to support immune health and keep urinary tract infections at bay. Cranberries are also rich in polyphenols - plant compounds that provide food for our gut flora.

Make it healthier: Shop-bought versions can be sugar loaded so make your own by simmering fresh cranberries with a little fresh orange juice.

Christmas Desserts

Mince pies: Just because they contain dried fruit, this does not make these a healthy choice. One mince pie contains 203 calories and 10g fat. A delicious gut-healthy option is to place a little mincemeat in the centre of a whole apple and bake in the oven. Apples are another great polyphenol-rich food and packed with fibre to support healthy gut flora.

Christmas Pudding: Again a serving will set you back over 300 calories and 11g fat. Add a dollop of brandy butter and you are talking serious calories over 450 calories and 20g fat.

Make it healthier: Swap the cream and custard for plain yoghurt and watch your portion size.

bowls full with nuts and dry fruit

Try trading some of the sugary treats for nuts & fruits!

Healthier Snacking

Pass on the sweets and try these options instead!

Satsumas: A low calorie treat bursting with vitamin C - two satsumas contain just 36 calories!

Dark chocolate: Choose at least 70% cocoa solids and watch your portion sizes. Polyphenols from cocoa can increase the quantity of beneficial Bifidobacteria and Lactobacilli bacteria making it a gut-healthy treat.

A handful of mixed nuts: Rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats plus vitamins and minerals, choose unsalted varieties. To avoid eating the whole bag, buy nuts in their shells as it takes more effort to eat them.

Remember too the benefits of that Christmas Day walk. Even a 20-minute stroll will help soothe nerves, improve digestion, and reduce bloating and constipation. By making a few smarter food choices and tweaks to your eating patterns and lifestyle you can still enjoy all the festivities of the season and get through the Christmas period without digestive upset.

About Christine Bailey

Christine Bailey is an award-winning, degree-qualified nutritional therapist, chef, author and broadcaster with over 18 years of experience. Known for her engaging style and enthusiasm, Christine’s writing on nutrition has been featured in the national press and she appears regularly on TV. She’s a nutrition expert on Sky News and has appeared on BBC’s The Truth About Stress & The Truth About Sugar. Christine is also the author of the Gut Health Diet and The Brain Boost Diet. Trained with the Institute of Functional Medicine, Christine has the unique ability to translate nutritional research into everyday practical recipes and diet programmes.

For more information about having a healthier Christmas check out:

Will your Christmas tipple cause you leaky gut and further cravings?

Which probiotics are for IBS?