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Is Christmas bad for you?

Kamal Mahtani
Last edited 20th December 2011

Ah, the festive season. One of my favourite times of year: all the family around, food, a bit of time off work, food, the presents, food, The Queen’s speech, food etc. A wave of emotion floods all my senses at the mere thought.

But can Christmas be bad for your health?

First guilty thoughts go to the waist line. So how much weight do we put on during the festive period? In answering that question I came across an observational study in the British Medical Journal from 1985. In it 22 healthy adults and 13 Type 2 diabetics were weighed one month before and one month after Christmas. All participants had an increase in weight which was on average 1.7lbs (0.8kg). The authors suggested that this came from an additional 6000 kcal they ingested over that period. They also found a slight but significant increase in fasting triglyceride and cholesterol concentrations. Although they reassuringly conclude that the results from their study were unlikely to affect any future Christmas.

Slightly more recently, a prospective cohort study published in the New England Journal of Medicine in 2000 suggested we probably don’t put on as much weight as we think we do over the festive period. In the study 195 adult volunteers were weighed at intervals before and after the holiday season, which included the Thanksgiving weekend. The volunteers gained an average of 0.8lb (0.4kg) during the six weeks between Thanksgiving and New Year's Day, which was far less than what they thought they had put on, which was nearer 5lbs (2.3kg).

So perhaps things aren’t so bad then? Not quite. It’s also about what we eat. There is now little doubt of the role that high salt consumption has in raising blood pressure and therefore increasing the chances of having a heart attack or stroke. The Government had set a target to reduce the salt intake of the population to 6g per person per day by 2010. In reality we probably consume more like 9g per day. Apparently it’s worse at Christmas! A survey this month from the Consensus Action on Salt&Health (CASH) found that an average Christmas day of pre-lunch snacks, canapés and a three course Christmas dinner could contain as much as 15.7g of salt. Admittedly the main culprits are processed foods. The survey makes reference to the fact that a significant proportion of salt consumed could be reduced by simply preparing your own vegetables and avoiding adding salt during the cooking. Likewise choosing the low salt equivalents, such as with crisps, may halve your salt consumption. Or how about a Yorkshire Wensleydale with apricot instead of a Creamy Blue Stilton this year? Again half the salt level.

So am I suffering from “Bah! Humbug syndrome”? Far from it! I fully intend to enjoy the holiday season with all of the above. I’ll just keep one eye on how tight my belt feels and perhaps think a little before that second portion.

Happy Christmas.


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