The kilojoule bomb on your Christmas plate

2013-12-23 00:00

IT’S that time of year again, when retailers are advertising frantically to persuade us into spending our hard-earned money on the frivolities that have by the process of tradition become part of the celebration of Christmas.

Besides the mountains of decorations, presents, and cards offered for sale (which have nothing to do with the message of Christmas), there is also the so-called festive food that we are urged to purchase in vast quantities.

I am sometimes quite amazed at the culinary excesses suggested by our local supermarkets, especially when they spend the rest of the year polishing their squeaky-clean image of providing us with ethical food that is devoid of all additives and (it would seem) all kilojoules.

Summer climate

Why do we, who live in a climate that features temperatures well over 30ºC on most December days, buy and eat gargantuan turkeys bursting with stodgy stuffing, as well as cakes, pies and puddings so heavy with dried fruit and nuts that they could sink a ship?

It defies all logic and certainly is expensive and does our waistlines and blood fat levels a great disservice. The old adage, “A moment on the lips, a lifetime on the hips” needs a Christmas version, which could be something along the lines of, “A Christmas feast will bankrupt your pocket and your heart”.

I do, however, realise that eating foods that are so contrary to this time of year when all I crave is grilled fish, fresh salads and long cold fruit drinks tinkling with ice cubes, is wired into our social consciousness because food is so often a symbol of emotion, religion and tradition.

A long history

Most of the food traditions associated with a Western Christmas feast are ancient and originated in Europe during the Middle Ages or even earlier.

If you live in countries that are blanketed in ice and snow for half the year and all you have in the larder is a cured ham, some suet and dried fruit, plus a few precious spices and your last bit of sugar, then you would probably combine these ingredients for a special feast held on one of the coldest, darkest days of the year.

Back in the day, before Christopher Columbus sailed to the New World, you would also boil the cured ham or roast the largest fowl available, usually a specially fattened goose, to feed the entire hungry family gathered round to celebrate.

When turkeys made their way to Europe they supplanted geese as the fowl of choice for the Christmas menu, particularly in English-speaking countries. But many a goose still graces the tables of celebrants in Germany and other parts of Europe.

Thanks to the massive expansion of the British Empire on which it was once said “The sun never sets!”, these food traditions spread throughout the globe, including South Africa. The fact that we no long wear stifling Victorian clothing, but still eat meals that would have done Queen Victoria proud, illustrates how enduring food symbols can be.

TotTing up the kilojoules

So if we are caught up in the symbolism of food on high days and holidays, then it may be a good idea to consider what a burden of kilojoules these foods contain.

Considering that this festive meal adds up to nearly 10 000 kJ which are consumed in one long, often hot, sitting, is indeed cause for concern. It represents more than 100% of the daily energy requirement for an adult moderately active woman and is only 500 kJ less than the energy required by a moderately active adult man.

I think that most people will agree that eating this much food and drinking so much alcohol may well have been appropriate in countries where the mercury fell below zero on Christmas Day, but in sunny South Africa, it is totally excessive.

How to remedy the overload?

So how can one remedy this threat to our health posed by symbolic foods and drinks and traditions which we practise at this time of year? There are various solutions and I hope that you will be able to think up your own as well. For example, one can reduce the size of the portions and omit whole sections of this meal, starting with the after-meal indulgences.

Cutting out the drinks immediately removes approx 25% of the energy intake, but if you can’t face a celebration without having a drink, then rather reduce the number of drinks you consume, or stick to white wine diluted with soda water or ice.

Removing the drinks plus the after-meal indulgences will knock out 42% of the energy you consume and reduce your intake by a whopping 4 200 kJ.

Ideally, the entire meal should be replaced with light, low-fat foods like lean grilled meat or fish, salads and fresh fruits that are more in keeping with our climate and the fact that in our country, this festivity falls in the middle of summer.

We don’t need extra kilojoules to keep alive at sub-zero temperatures and we certainly do not need to add 10 000 kJ to our energy intake every time we have a birthday, attend a funeral, or participate in any one of the many traditional celebrations honoured by our diverse nation.

Let’s try to stop food symbolism from fuelling the rampant obesity epidemic in South Africa.


• Dr Ingrid van Heerden is a registered dietician and holds a doctoral degree in nutrition and biochemistry.

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