How to successfully navigate the festive food minefield
What if I was to say you could come out of the festive period healthier than you went into it. Sounds odd, right? Most of us resign ourselves to overindulging when December rolls around and accept we won’t be feeling our best come 1st January. Whilst some people have iron-will, most of us will kick back and give ourselves some latitude before promising to “get back on it” in the new year. But how about making a few minor tweaks now, so that when January rolls around the changes you vow to stick to religiously don’t need to be quite as dramatic?
What’s the point, why bother at all?
Before we jump into the practical ways to do this let’s set the scene; cardiovascular disease (CVD), which includes heart attacks and strokes, is the leading cause of death worldwide. And CVD is by and large a disease of prosperity.
The condition that precedes CVD is something called insulin resistance, also known as “prediabetes”. This occurs when our cells stop responding to insulin, which is the signal for glucose in the blood to enter the cells. Insulin, produced in the pancreas, is the master hormone when it comes to what the body does with the energy (calories) we consume. Insulin signals to our cells to “store and grow”. Therefore, one key element of fat loss is to do things that keep insulin low. Not to demonise insulin, we need it, hence why type 1 diabetics (who can’t produce insulin) need to inject it to keep some fat in body storage. The problem however is when insulin is chronically high.
Assessing insulin resistance isn’t as straightforward as measuring blood glucose levels so to assess your risk level answer these questions:
- Do you have high blood pressure?
- Do you have more fat around your waist than you’d like?
- Do you have high fasting glucose, and/or a family history of type 2 diabetes?
- Do you have high triglycerides?
- Do you have a family history of heart disease?
If you answered yes to two or more, you’re likely to be insulin resistant. Answering yes to one means you are likely on your way to insulin resistance unless you do something about it. Good news though, these symptoms are almost always lifestyle driven so changes in lifestyle can also have a huge impact on improving them and reducing your risk.
1. Time Restricted Eating
Generally speaking, eating raises insulin, some foods have more of an effect than others as we’ll come onto, therefore, increasing the time not eating will prolong the time our insulin is low. Time restricted eating (TRE) simply means only consuming food within a set time window, usually 12 hours or less. If you finish your last meal at 8pm, a hour 12 fasting window would mean not eating until 8am the next morning. You could of course go longer if you feel comfortable, one benefit of this is that when insulin is low it allows our body to dip into our fat stores and convert fat into energy. This does not happen if insulin is raised.
So, if you’ve had an energy-packed meal the night before try and extend the fasting period by delaying your first meal the next day. Drinks are ok but stick to water, tea, and coffee.
On a similar theme, snacking every hour or so, particularly on refined carbohydrate foods like biscuits, chocolates, cereal bars, and crisps, are going to spike insulin, locking fat away in our fat cells. Leaving time between meals will also give your gut the opportunity to fully digest the food before the next meal.
Try and leave substantial gaps between eating, 4-5 hours, this will let your insulin come back down to baseline before the next meal, whilst also refamiliarizing you with your hunger, rather than eating out of habit or boredom.
No surprise with this one but the data on this are clear. If you have a good level of cardiorespiratory fitness your risk of death goes down much more than your risk goes up if you smoke or have diabetes (which double or triple your risk of death depending on the time frame)! Having an elite level of aerobic fitness compared to someone that’s unfit reduces all-cause mortality (death by any cause) by five times! But you don’t have to be elite to benefit either. The good news for people that don’t exercise is that most of the benefit (three fifths of that five-fold improvement) come from going from ‘not fit at all’ to ‘average fitness’. We don’t have drugs that reduce mortality by that much!
Exercise also improves insulin sensitivity; this means your muscle cells are more sensitive to insulin so the pancreas needs to produce less to have the same effect.
In that time after Christmas, when you don’t quite know what day it is, get out and move your body, whether it’s a walk, run, swim, gardening…something is better than nothing.
4. Control Carbs
As mentioned in the TRE section above, some foods raise insulin more than others. Carbohydrates when digested break down into glucose, which is the main nutrient insulin responds to. Therefore, if we’re looking to keep insulin low it makes sense to reduce the carbohydrates we consume, particularly simple carbohydrates found in processed foods.
Minimise processed carbs like bread, pasta, white rice, baked goods, chocolate, and cereal. Virtually any food that comes in a packet or a box. Eat real food.
5. Prioritise protein
What to eat then? Well, a good rule of thumb is to prioritise protein. Protein is the most satiating macronutrient, (we feel fuller for longer) and the most thermogenic, (meaning we produce more heat, which requires energy to metabolise protein than for fats and carbs). Not only this but protein is generally dense in nutrients, including zinc and iron, and contains essential amino acids which our body can’t get from other sources
Try to eat a portion of protein at each meal. Meat, poultry, game, fish, tofu, tempeh, eggs, cottage cheese, lentils, beans all have good amounts of protein.
Let’s be honest, alcohol, or ethanol to be precise, doesn’t have any direct health benefits, however before you stop reading, let’s not throw the baby out with the bath water. There is undoubtedly some benefit in the relaxing, unwinding quality a glass of wine can provide. If you’re going to drink, better to do it earlier in the day (schedule permitting!) giving your body time to process the alcohol thus reducing the impact on your sleep.
Enjoy your drink but skip the nightcap.
Hopefully there’s at least a couple of points that you can incorporate. Nutrition science is being updated all the time, but these suggestions make even more sense when viewed through an evolutionary lens; our ancestors would have followed all these principles without knowing they were doing it. Carbohydrates would have been hard to come by most of the year, we were naturally exercising every day, and without electricity sleep times were more in tune with the natural light/dark cycle. However, we don’t need to go back that far to justify the benefits. If you spoke to your grandparents, I expect they’d say it’s how they ate when they were young, tellingly, before the epidemics of diabetes and obesity took hold.
Merry Christmas, enjoy the festive food and I hope you go into the new year with a few fundamentals under your belt!