Christmas and Weight Gain

Adapted from Zoë Harcombe, 20/12/21, news@zoëharcombe.com


This advice is edited from an email I received from Dr. Zoe Harcombe, a researcher, author and public speaker in the field of diet and health, with a PhD in public health nutrition. Her particular areas of interest/expertise are public health dietary guidelines (especially dietary fat), nutrition and obesity. Whilst it's written with regards to Christmas indulgence, I think this advice is very useful for ongoing weight maintenance.



1) Keep "Eat real food" as the main principle.

In any articles about what we should eat, my first principle is always “Eat real food.” Avoiding processed food is the single best dietary choice we can make. The festive period features many delicious real foods and thus we can still make these the major part of our diet. Turkey, pigs in blankets (chipolata sausages wrapped in bacon), roast ham, sprouts, carrots, parsnips, smoked salmon, satsumas, cheese, are all available over Christmas and (together) they are nutritious satiating real foods. The beige stuff won't make you feel great, so the more real stuff you can eat the better.


2) Don't cheat too much; don’t cheat too often; be alert and stay in control.

I have written a few diet books and Phase 3 is the weight maintenance phase. The three tips for Phase 3 are “Don't cheat too much; don’t cheat too often; be alert and stay in control.” We call eating something that is not real food “cheating”. It’s important to see going ‘off piste’ as a cheat and not a treat, as the mindset of treat makes us think that it’s something that is good for us and something we deserve. Chips, ice cream, confectionery, muffins, cookies etc. are not good for us and we deserve better, quite frankly!

  • Don’t cheat too much means have a mince pie, but don’t have 10. Have a mince pie, but don’t have Christmas pudding too.

  • Don’t cheat too often means don’t have a cookie every morning over the festive period and don’t get into the habit of having a dessert every main meal.

  • Be alert and stay in control means just that. Cravings are behind many, if not most, weight problems and they can return astonishingly quickly if you go back to eating things that you’ve not eaten for some time. If you wake up one day and find that you’re craving something, you should avoid that item for a few days to break the pattern before it becomes more difficult to address.

Over the festive period, I would add another tip – don’t cheat too early in each day. Given that cheating will involve carbs, and probably refined ones, you are likely to set off a blood glucose level roller coaster. You might have a croissant for breakfast and go out of the normal blood glucose range, release insulin, dip below the normal blood glucose range, crave something else sweet, have some chocolates and so the cycle continues. This will lead to you craving sweet things every couple of hours throughout the day and you'll end up falling into a carbohydrate-stupor-induced-sleep at bedtime – really not feeling like you've had fun. You may well wake up with a carb 'hangover' and start the roller coaster all over again.


3) Don’t waste your cheating.

Don't eat something just because it's there or because you've eaten other rubbish that day, so why not eat a bit more. Every cheat that you have should be worth it – something that you really fancy. You should never cheat to the extent that you'll feel stuffed and uncomfortable. Cheating should be a conscious choice and it should feel indulgent. If it is unconscious, mindless and/or it makes you feel guilty – it's not fun, so don't do it.


If you want Christmas pudding and brandy butter – have it. Don't have a dry mince pie thinking that this will satisfy you. You'll only want the Christmas pudding and brandy butter and will probably have this in addition to

the mince pie. Make a conscious choice to have what you want; eat it slowly; savour every mouthful and make it worthwhile.


This principle goes hand in hand with dropping the good/bad day mentality. If you cheat with something, don't then think you've blown it and can eat everything and then start again tomorrow. Don't have any day when you eat so much you feel ill. Most weight problems could be resolved by never having a ‘bad’ day again. That’s when we do the most harm.


4) No mindless eating.

I can easily munch my way through a 100g bar of 85% cocoa content dark chocolate while working at my PC and have absolutely no recollection of having done so. It is so easy to be working on something interesting or watching a film and then to realise that you've obviously just consumed something but have no recollection of having eaten it. What a waste.


Make sure that you are never within reach of junk at any time during the festive period. Home parties usually end up being kitchen based and there are nuts, crisps, cheese cubes etc. on the table. Make sure that any nibbles are well out of your reach. You would be shocked by how much you could mindlessly eat while chatting to other guests. At drinks parties, have one hand on your clutch bag and the other on your drink – no spare hands for the canapés. (Those without a glitzy bag can stick the spare hand in your pocket.)


TV time is the other major risk for mindless eating. Most households have Christmas stuff on the coffee table – more nuts/crisps/chocolates. Don't be within reach of these either. For an extra way to resist temptation, have a glass of water in your hand and you'll find that you mindlessly sip, rather than mindlessly munch, and you'll be wonderfully hydrated by the end of your favourite box set.


5) Be on high impulse alert.

I used to work for Mars Confectionery (I know - I was young!) There was an entire team of people working in "sales display". Mars, Cadbury and Rowntree were the three UK leaders at the time. All confectionery companies knew that 7 out of 10 confectionery purchases were made on impulse; 7 out of 10! The builder going into the gas/petrol station and habitually buying a Snickers bar and The Sun newspaper each day, was the minority shopper. The majority walked into a petrol station not planning to buy anything and came out with a bag of M&Ms. Ever done that?!


This is why junk is placed at the checkouts and this is why the confectionery racks go alongside the queue to pay in shops. It is all designed to make you buy things that you didn't intend to buy. The sales display team at Mars could even tell you the odds of you buying each different confectionery bar depending on where it was on the brown plastic display rack. They knew where your eyes went first, second, third, what you would be drawn back to and what you would eventually buy. This isn't your choice you know!


This impulse manipulation goes on all year round. The extra challenge at Christmas is that it escalates to an omnipresent level. Did you spot how early the displays in the supermarkets/grocery stores were there for Christmas junk? Desserts, cakes, biscuits, mince pies, chocolates – all looking like such irresistible bargains that we didn’t feel we could leave them on the shelves. The pyramid of 'must have' greets you at the entrance to the store and then, every time you turn into a new aisle, the 'bargains' are on the end displays (the fake food manufacturers pay heavily to get those positions) or they are in bargain-bucket-type-baskets, which you almost fall over in the aisles.


One good thing about Covid-19 has been the removal of nibbles that everyone can dip their hands into. There are no longer nuts and crisps on bar counters (they were there to get us to buy more drinks). Our local post office used to have sherry and mince pies to thank regulars. Not this year. Clinics and hair salons have previously had a festive glass bowl of 'help yourself' chocolates, but that temptation has gone too. These are all helpful steps in managing the impulse risk. But there will still be the racks of junk near tills so go into the outlet well aware that the impulse risks await you and be determined to avoid them. Vow before you enter the gas station not to come out with a confectionery bar. If you don’t, I’m telling you from experience and sales analysis, you have a 7 in 10 chance of leaving with something in your hand and not knowing how that happened.


I really hope that even one of these tips works for you and gives you a good idea for coping with the amount of junk that we're all about to encounter.