All the yum without the tum: How to indulge sensibly over the festive season

Photo. (Getty images/Gallo images)
Photo. (Getty images/Gallo images)

Braai and beers, crispy fried chicken, piles of potato salad, ice-cream, gifts of chocolate, ice cold cocktails as you chill with your friends and family . . . It’s the season of indulgence all right.

But if you’ve spent all year religiously sweating it out at the gym and eating healthily, does this mean enjoying the silly season will see 11 months of hard work fly out the window?

Not necessarily. A month of letting go won’t cancel all that progress you made – if you’re smart about it. Here’s how you can indulge sensibly over the festive season.

The cocktail party

Be wary of cocktail snacks and canapés (such as samoosas, pastries and mini quiches) as they’re usually high in carbs and fat, warns registered dietician Lila Bruk of Cape Town.

Try to have a filling, healthy meal before you head out – you’ll be less tempted to snack. If you must have a canapé, go for high-protein ones containing chicken or meat. And eat nuts rather than crisps or chips.

 When it comes to party booze, it’s best to stick to red wine or whisky, recommends registered dietician Ashleigh Caradas of Johannesburg.

For cocktails, opt for sugar-free mixers or drink soda water, lime and vodka. Avoid sugary drinks and fruit juice bases, or ask for half-fruit juice, half-water.

The Christmas feast

Don’t skip meals before the main event. If you know you’re going to have a big lunch or dinner, it’s tempting to avoid eating beforehand to “save” kilojoules – but depriving yourself can have the opposite effect. If you’re ravenous by the time that festive meal is served, you’re far more likely to binge.

Eat regularly. This helps to stabilise your blood sugar levels, making it easier to control how much you eat and say no to too many tempting treats, explains registered dietician Wendy Lord from Johannesburg.

A little goes a long way. “Indulge in your favourite treat but have a smaller portion,” she says. “You don’t need to watch everyone eating all the ‘good stuff’. After the first few mouthfuls, the taste of the food is less intense.”

Bear in mind that you won’t gain weight from one indulgent meal, experts say. Enjoy your Christmas meal and compensate by eating lighter meals for the rest of the day, such as a fruit salad for breakfast and a vegetable salad for lunch or supper.

If you do want to cut corners with your Christmas meal, reduce fat by trimming the skin and fat off the meat, and avoid oily sides such as roast potatoes. You can also try to say no to dessert.

Avoid after-dinner nibbles and snacks such as the chocolates and biscuits that come out after dinner, dietician

Lila Bruk recommends. Treats after a big meal are unnecessary and often only make you feel uncomfortably full.

Support your gut and liver during the festive season. A good probiotic and combination liver support (such as milk thistle plus sulforaphane) might soften the blow, says nutritional therapist Hannah Kaye. Ask your pharmacist to recommend one.

The family braai

It’s easy to go overboard with a buffet-style setup – especially when your loved ones have all contributed their best dish. But remember the food portion rule: fill your plate with half vegetables or salad, a quarter starch and a quarter protein. Be conservative. Rather enjoy a smaller meal and go back for seconds than overload a plate and eat in a rush, says nutritional therapist Hannah Kaye. And remember your veggies. Your intake of charred meat at braais tends to go up at this time of year.

“You need additional phytonutrients from vegetables to mop up some of that toxic junk,” Kaye adds. Plus, if your plate is full of veggies, there’s less space for more indulgent foods.

Most snacks are kilojoule-laden. If you’re the host, serve raw nuts, vegetable crisps or a crudité platter with a low-fat cheese dip, avo dip or hummus. Biltong without the fat is an acceptable snack, but not if you’re having a lot of meat at the main meal.

Stay hydrated in the heat – especially if you’re drinking alcohol too. Continue to drink the six to eight recommended glasses of water a day. Drinking water helps to keep you healthy.

Eating out

Small decisions and swops can make all the difference when you’re having dinner in a restaurant. For instance, swop chips for a salad, ask for a wholewheat pizza base rather than the regular one, and order a half portion of pasta. It’s best to avoid anything deep-fried as well as rich, creamy sauces.

When you’re full, ask for a doggie bag immediately – there’s no easier way to overeat than when your unfinished meal is still sitting in front of you. Skip the bread basket. Bread contains about 250kJ a slice, and it’s even more when combined with butter, dietician Ashleigh Caradas says. But you can treat yourself to a roll if you’re having no starch with your main meal. Choices, choices!

Going on holiday 

A self-catering option is best because you have more control over what you eat. “Nobody expects you to be a saint while you’re away, just try to eat as normally as possible,” registered dietician Wendy Lord advises. The biggest problems are the “extras” that slip in when you let your guard down, and larger portion sizes when you eat in restaurants, she warns.

Stock up on salad and fresh veggies for the first few days as staples for a self-catering holiday, registered dietician Ashleigh Caradas suggests. Canned veggies, legumes, tuna, sardines and the like are also good for salads.

Choose fresh meats for braais (lean steak, lean chicken or white fish). Take along potatoes to bake and brown rice for side dishes. Eggs, wholegrain muesli, bran cereal and wholegrain bread are great for breakfast or lunch. For snacks, pack dried and fresh fruit, yoghurt, nuts, fruit and nut bars, protein bars, low-fat chips and kilojoule-free flavoured water.

A night on the town

If you’re having a few drinks, have two glasses of water for every alcoholic beverage, our experts say. Alcohol causes dehydration – you’ll wake up with a day-ruining hangover if you don’t keep up your water intake.

To reduce the kilojoules, add sparkling water to your wine to make a spritzer, and use diet mixers. Limit high-sugar beverages. Don’t drink sparkling or white wine every night. Rather have a whisky and soda or vodka and soda – you’ll drink less that way, too.

Stay away from sugary soft drinks and fruit juice – although, at a push, you can dilute juice with water. Alternatively, try to stick to water flavoured with cucumber, orange, lemon or mint. It’s the best way to stay hydrated, says nutritional therapist Hannah Kaye.