Susie Burrell

‘your food, your body, your life’

What overeating at Christmas does to your body.

No matter how strict you are with your diet during the week, or even on weekends, chances are that all bets are off when it comes to what you eat on Christmas Day. Turkey with all the trimmings – bring it on. Pudding? Of course! A mandatory cheese plate, plenty of chocolates and your favourite wine are just a few of the extras that are likely to be served this holiday period. Unfortunately these tasty holiday foods also come with plenty of kilojoules, kilojoules that can leave you feeling pretty sick and sorry for yourself if you are not careful. So this is what is really in your Christmas feast and the key ways to avoid a complete food coma after you have enjoyed it all.

To give some perspective, the average meal of meat, chicken or fish, a potato, some vegetables and a glass of wine that we consume at night will contain between 2000-3000kJ (the average adult burns between 5500-8700 per day). If you compared this to a holiday feast of a few canapes, 4-5 glasses of wine, a roast dinner with all the trimmings, dessert, cheese and a few Christmas chocolates you are looking at more like 8000+ kilojoules or more than a small female would usually consume in an entire day. Now while these are estimates only, it does give you an idea of while you may feel a little ill by the end of Christmas Day. And of course cutting back is easier said than done when you are exposed to much tasty food.

One of the first symptoms of blatant overeating is feeling short of breath as your overfull stomach (remember your stomach is only a little larger than a fist) pushes up into your diaphragm limiting your lung capacity. It is for this reason that sitting down after a big meal is the worst thing you can do – stand up and even go for a walk if you can. 

Next, actually feeling ill may be the result of eating too quickly but also exposing your digestive system to much more fat than it is used too. Indeed many a case of gall stones has been triggered after an extremely high fat meal has been consumed, with sharp abdominal pains being one of the first signs of gall stones. The bulk of food in the stomach, a mix of both fats and carbs will also send your insulin into overdrive, which in turn can leave you feeling tired and drowsy for a couple of hours after a big meal. Unfortunately your heart does not like overeating much at all either with higher levels of fat in the blood found after high fat meals are consumed partly explained by smaller volumes of blood circulating as blood flow is redirected to the digestive system. 

Once the initial stages of digestion are completed over an hour or two, next you are likely to be greeted with some abdominal discomfort, gas and bloating as food and waste is shifted through the digestive tract. And some of the heaviness will translate onto the scales even in the short term. It is not uncommon to gain a kilo or two after a big meal thanks to the bulk of food in itself but also a higher intake of salt which will further act to retain extra fluid. While this weight gain is short term only, once your kilojoule intake reaches a certain levels you will store more fat and research suggested individuals do gain a couple of kilos over big holiday periods, weight which they rarely tend to lose. 

So how can you enjoy your Christmas feasting and avoid some of these nasty consequences? The easiest thing you can do is keep as active as possible even though it may be a holiday day. A short, high intensity training session on Christmas morning of just 20-30 minutes will significantly increase insulin sensitivity in the body which will in turn mean you are less likely to store fat after your massive feed. Next, keep active on the day. Rather than retreating for a sleep straight after lunch, make a concerted effort to go for a walk to help the digestive process and move food through the digestive tract. 

Where possible have a break in between courses so that your 8000+kJ is spread over the day not just 2-3 hours and importantly remember that there is a big difference between enjoying Christmas treats and binge eating them simply because they are in front of you. This means enjoying a slice of pudding not three! The benefit of this approach is that you can enjoy all the tempting treats on offer without overdoing anything and feeling much better as a result.