Mince pies, Christmas pudding smothered in lashings of caramel sauce, endless amounts of chocolate and a personal favourite, good old Lindor chocolate truffles, who doesn’t love a bit (okay, a lot) of sugar at Christmas?
The amount of sugar we consume during December can be shocking and what about the amount our children are eating? Trying to keep our blood sugar in some sort of balance at Christmas can be a minefield. So, Women’s Health spoke to a whole host of experts – some of the best nutritionists, GPs and PTs we know – to find out how you can best take care of your sugar levels this festive season while still enjoying a treat or two.
How to manage the festive sugar spike
“Whether you are a chocaholic like my husband Michael Mosley, who has been known at times to scoff more than a few slices of the children’s chocolate oranges, or simply have a sweet tooth, Christmas can be really challenging.”
Dr Clare Bailey of The Fast 800
Willpower is often overestimated and wanes rapidly when handed a chocolate cupcake after a long day. So, with all this temptation, how do we avoid abandoning ourselves to a full-on sugar fest?
‘Don’t forget that all these enticing confectionaries, especially chocolate and shop-bought mince pies are designed to be addictive – that combination of sugar and fat somehow manages to bypass those signals telling you that you have had enough… just one more slice of cake,’ Dr Clare added.
So how can you indulge without having major sugar surges?
“Unless you are very active, all those extra sugary calories won’t get burnt. Instead, as we slump on the sofa over Christmas, they will get stored as fat in all the wrong places, especially around the middle, affecting your metabolic health. Over time, raised sugar levels in your body cause inflammation, and this can lead to Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and even depression.”
Everything in moderation
Of course, if this is just an occasional indulgence and you are fit, active and a healthy weight, you don’t need to be too concerned, Dr Clare adds.
It’s completely expected to be surrounded by sugary treats around Christmas, rather than try to fight it, embrace the holiday season with open arms and don’t beat yourself up for enjoying the odd treat or two in moderation is the advice from MyFitnessPal’s Registered Dietician, Stephanie Nelson. The key word from the experts here though, is moderation.
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What are the best foods to balance blood sugar naturally?
We grilled Dr Clare further on how we can have our cake and eat it this festive season. “My advice is, if you have Christmas nibbles beforehand, try to avoid the crisps and Doritos and instead go for dips – ideally with vegetable crudites, or eat the sausages, or cheese as these foods are rich in protein and fibre and will help reduce your appetite.”
If you are prone to raised sugars you can still have a generously filled plate by adding plenty of turkey, fowl, meat or veggie equivalent, as the protein helps you feel full sooner, enjoy lots of red cabbage and mounds of green veg, but cut back on the starchy veg such as potatoes, parsnips as they rapidly convert to sugars. Remember that protein and natural fat beforehand tend to lessen the sugar surge.
Don’t indulge on an empty stomach
When it comes to the sweet stuff, don’t indulge on an empty stomach. If you eat protein-rich food beforehand the sugar spike will be flatter compared to eating it on an empty stomach.
“To prevent sugar spikes, eat protein-dense foods first, followed by high glycaemic carbs and desserts,” says Rosalba Martone, Director of Education at Perricone MD.
“If you’re dealing with a sugar spike that’s already happened, the best thing to do is go for a lovely Christmas walk and get some fresh air but any exercise will be effective. Try and get your body moving to help metabolise the sugar.”
Top tips for balancing your sugar intake this Christmas
Easier said than done but try to get in the mindset that you are enjoying some Christmas spirit rather than doing something wrong. Between family events, shopping and cooking, there’s no need to add extra stress over whether or not you should be enjoying sweets, MyFitnessPal’s Stephanie advises.
2. Prioritise regular meals
Many people think they should restrict what they eat during the holidays since they are eating more sweets, but all this does is make you more likely to overeat. Instead, focus on meeting your most important needs.
Outside of celebrations, focus on meals high in protein, fibre, fruits, vegetables and whole grains. Stephanie added, “I use the MyFitnessPal app and I shift my focus from calories, fat and sugar, to meeting my needs for fibre, protein and unsaturated fats. This helps me keep a balance and a healthy mindset toward indulging a little over Christmas.”
3. Hydrate and encourage your kids to hydrate as well
This will help minimise the impact sugar has on your bloodstream and may lighten the sugar rush in kids so they don’t become as wild.
4. Pair sweets with other foods
The more food in your or your kids’ stomachs, the slower it’ll hit the bloodstream. Whenever possible, time the sweets so they come at the end of a meal.
What is the best way to tackle sugar overload in children this Christmas?
The number one thing experts told us when it came to managing sugar overload in both adults and children was to go for a walk and get the body moving.
The second thing is managing when they eat and what they eat the sweet treat with. Health researcher and chemist, Dr Tim Bond from the Tea Advisory Panel (TAP) agrees, advising you to take children who have eaten too much sugar out for a walk or to the park for a game of soccer.
An interesting report by TAP highlighted the importance of not depriving anyone of sugary treats as it can make them want them more, so keep this in mind.
“Protein and natural fat beforehand tends to lessen the sugar surge.”
Get creative in the kitchen
It’s best to enjoy indulgent treats soon after lunch so they are full – the sugar rush is less and you are not having to restrain their indulgence (much!).
“Try making a cake, muffins or biscuits which are sweetened by natural fruits such as bananas, dates, cranberries or blueberries,” Dr Clare advised.
Swop to using whole grain flours, or ground almonds as a base, as these are gut-friendly and help support a healthy gut microbiome thanks to the extra fibre. Avoiding a sweet tooth makes it far easier and protects them for life.
Homemade is always better than food that is mass-produced and packaged in a factory. Something to bear in mind about chocolates and biscuits bought in the shops-processed sweet treats contain few nutrients, are designed to be addictive and are likely to damage your gut microbiome, as well as your teeth.
What exercise is best for children who’ve had too much sugar this Christmas?
“The reality is, there aren’t specific ‘quick fix’ exercises for children and adults who’ve had too much sugar intake during the holidays. The general rule of thumb is to avoid processed sugars and find healthy alternatives and get your kids moving,” Martial artist and social activist Coach Chris Otokito told us, himself a dad of two.
“We as parents have the blessed responsibility to discover and introduce our children to healthy options and choices. The best way of doing this is to lead by example. I’m personally a huge advocate of training myself and coaching my own bambinos, plus other warrior cubs in MMA (Mixed Martial Arts); specifically, Jiu-Jitsu, Kickboxing and Boxing. It helps teach kids discipline and let off steam.”
Is it harmful to binge on sugar once in a while?
“No, but it’s just going to wreak havoc with your sugar levels leaving you tired and possibly craving more sugar, so be aware of how often you do it,” Celebrity Trainer Monique Eastwood told us.
“It’s perfectly normal and fine to have sweet treats occasionally. The best thing to do is have a proper healthy meal first and then finish with that treat. This way you may want less of the sugary stuff as you will not be substituting your meal with those unhealthy sugars. Just try and make sure it’s not an everyday occurrence.”
Any tips for mums who have diabetic children or have diabetes themselves?
We went straight to Dr Tim for this one who told us that Christmas can be a challenge for both diabetic children and adults. Children may be used to working out their insulin doses. Let them know what food to expect and don’t tempt them with any extras.
“Bear in mind that it’s not just sugary foods and drinks that are a problem,” he added.
“Keep all foods out of sight between meals. Look out for signs of high and low blood sugar, make sure your child tests as often as they are recommended to do so (maybe more often at Christmas) and get them to talk in private about any distress they may feel regarding diabetes with others present.”
“For an adult with diabetes, create a food plan and stick to it. Make this plan when you are not hungry as hunger distorts what you want to eat. Tell your family about your plan so they don’t offer you anything outside of it. Factor in alcohol as it contains calories and can impact blood sugar levels. A small glass of wine with one meal a day over the festive period is likely to be fine (but check with the GP or dietitian).”
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Look out for hidden sugars
“Hidden sugars are sugars which have been labelled differently and are usually the words which end in “ose” For example, dextrose, maltose, fructose,” Curaprox’s Children’s Dental Ambassador, Theodora Little, advised.
It is always important to read labels and check for these hidden sugars before giving them to babies and young children. Yoghurts should also be checked thoroughly. Fruit juices also contain natural sugars and should be limited to meal times only.
Don’t deprive yourself
We rate the advice from PCOS Dietician Jodie Relf, spokesperson for MyOva who told us that one of the most important things we can do at this time of year is to permit ourselves to eat the foods we love and enjoy.
“Remind yourself that these foods are readily available throughout the year. One of the reasons so many of us struggle with this time of year is because of what happens next – the “New year, new you” diet pressure OR because we tell ourselves that once January starts, we’re going back to eating healthy and there will be no more chocolates. This narrative encourages us to eat ALL the chocolates and delicious foods now because come January there will be none. If we know we are allowed to have these foods after Christmas, there’s suddenly less of an urge to eat as many of them as you can now.”
Fill up on fibre
“Increase your fibre intake as this slows down carb digestion and sugar absorption. This applies to children as well as adults and think outside of the box to make colourful festive-themed snacks out of vegetables, fruits, legumes and whole grains,” advised Nurse Yasmin Shirazi of Remedi London.
Check your cravings
Check-in with hunger and satiety cues. Ask yourself if you’re reaching for those Christmas chocolates simply because they’re there, are you genuinely hungry or do you simply really fancy a bit of chocolate?
If it’s just because they’re there, rather put them away and save them for when you really fancy them – you’ll enjoy them more. If you’re hungry, could you have something slightly more substantial and balanced to go alongside your chocolate? Remember that pairing carbohydrates (including sugars) with a protein or fat helps slow down the release of sugars and reduce the spike in blood glucose levels.
Have healthy snacks ready
Have nuts, fruits, wholegrain crackers, hummus, yoghurt (check for hidden sugars) and cubes of cheese available for when hunger strikes amidst the Christmas chaos.
How should women with PCOS manage their blood sugar levels this Christmas?
“Insulin resistance is thought to be present in up to 80% of those with PCOS and those with PCOS are at an increased risk for developing type 2 diabetes, so managing blood sugar levels is an important step in managing your PCOS symptoms,” PCOS Dietician Jodie Relf, added.
In order to manage blood sugar levels, it’s important to make choices that improve insulin sensitivity. This includes the following:
Remove the labels
The first step is to remove the labels we give food and not to think of foods as ‘good’ or ‘bad’. This narrative is not helpful and is what drives a lot of our behaviours around the foods we really enjoy.
Give yourself the freedom to eat the foods you love alongside foods that nourish your body and energise you.
Notice how foods make you feel
After having a well-balanced breakfast, how do you feel for the rest of the day? Possibly more energised and more satisfied. Compared to grabbing a quick mince pie or a pastry – does this keep you satisfied for as long? Do you find yourself feeling a bit of a slump later in the day or snacking loads before lunchtime? Once we can identify how certain foods make us feel it makes it easier to make better decisions.
Our muscles use glucose as a main fuel source, therefore if we increase our muscle mass and use our muscles this increases the amount of glucose we require and the efficiency of being able to metabolise glucose.
When we leave long gaps between our meals this can cause large fluctuations in our blood glucose levels. What’s more, our body can start to crave sugar because it’s the quickest way to get energy.
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Include protein and healthy fats
Try to include a source of protein and/or healthy fats with your meals and snacks – it takes the body longer to break down protein and fat which helps slow down the release of glucose present in that meal.
Protein is also great for keeping us fuller for longer. As an example, having toast with jam for breakfast contains very little protein. If you have you add an egg or two and have jam on just one slice of toast, the addition of protein will help keep your blood sugar levels stable for a lot longer and keep you fuller for longer.
Prioritise sleep and stress
The festive season can be a stressful time, we’re also more likely to stay up a little later than usual due to all the socialising. Research has shown us that both sleep and stress can influence the types of foods we reach for and can have a negative impact on our insulin resistance. When we’re tired or stressed we’re more likely to reach for sugary, high-energy foods to keep us going.
Inositol effectively improves insulin sensitivity and reduces levels of male hormones (testosterone), making it a great supplement for individuals with PCOS and enhancing ovulation.
Don’t punish yourself if you feel it’s all gone wrong – this will lead to a binge restrict cycle. If you do find that you’ve overindulged get back to regular balanced meals as soon as you can.
This article by Margarita Mitchel Pollock was originally published by Women’s Health UK. More