Christmas is typically a time of indulgence. From Baileys-fuelled nightcaps, to festive platters of cheese, meats, and the formal feast on the big day itself, there’s a lot to love – but not all of it is good for your gut health.
Gut health has become a buzz term of late but it refers to how well you digest food and the balance of good and bad bacteria in your gut.
Overindulgence during the Christmas period can throw off this balance, which can lead many of us feeling sluggish as January approaches. This is likely one of the reasons why Dry January continues to grow in popularity year after year.
However, all hope is not lost as there are some Christmas foods that are actually pretty good for your gut health.
To find out which foods to be reaching for at the festive gatherings and what platters to avoid, we spoke to experts to give us the rundown.
Best Christmas foods for gut health
In general, the vegetables found at Christmas dinner are excellent for your gut health.
"Brussels sprouts and cabbage are great options, as well as roasted parsnips, carrots and potatoes," Reema Patel, registered dietitian at Dietitian Fit, says. "[This is because] these contain sources of prebiotics, which feed the beneficial gut bacteria."
Daniel Herman, NASM nutritionist and founder of Bio-Synergy, adds that other food such as turkey is excellent for gut health as it is a lean protein that is easier to digest.
He also recommends spices such as ginger and turmeric as these contain anti-inflammatory properties, along with plenty of vegetables and fruit as these can support your blood sugar levels and "provide a substrate for beneficial gut bacteria".
Worst Christmas foods for gut health
If you start your Christmas morning with some pigs in blankets and then move onto ham for the main event, you might want to think again.
"Foods such as ham or bacon and sausage products are not so great for our gut health, as these are highly processed, which can alter the gut microbiome and lead to inflammation in the long term, with high consumption," Patel says.
"Salty snacks such as crisps, breadsticks and salted nuts should try to be limited. Due to the salt levels, these can make us drink more (usually alcohol!), which can further disrupt gut bacteria and digestion."
She adds that alcohol itself is the ‘biggest disruptor’ of gut health during the Christmas period as it can have a role in how our food is digested.
"Alcohol can also influence the diversity of gut bacteria and impact bowel movements," she adds. "We may also end up eating more when we drink, which can make us feel overly full and sluggish. Remember that you can still enjoy these foods and drinks, but practicing moderation is important."
Herman says some other party foods to avoid include high sugar treats like chocolate or cake as this can lead to inflammation, as well as fried fatty foods such as the cheese-filled appetisers we like to munch on as the excessive fat content found in these can ‘compromise’ gut health.
Signs your gut health is off balance
Herman says some key signs that your gut health is off balance is if you notice any digestive symptoms such as bloating, gas, constipation or diarrhoea. Mood changes such as irritability, anxiety and mood swings can also be impacted by your gut health.
He adds that feeling tired or sluggish after meals is also a sign that something is off.
"If you experience any unusual gas or bloating, this can be a sign that your gut isn’t happy," Patel says.
"Or if you have loose stools or even struggle with constipation over the festive season, this can mean that the diet you are eating is not supporting our gut health."
She adds that heartburn, the feeling of indigestion, or reflux can also happen when the body does not agree with something we’ve eaten.
"You may notice a dip in energy after certain snacks or meals, often called a slump, which can refer to how quickly food is broken down in the gut," Patel adds.
"We want to eat foods that provide a slow and steady energy release, which will keep us feeling satisfied for longer."
How to look after your gut health this Christmas
Patel says the best approach for Christmas eating is to eat a variety of foods and pile your plate with fruits and vegetables first.
"All vegetables are rich in fibre and can help support our gut microbiome, so be sure to include vegetables as much as possible into the diet," she explains.
Incorporating fermented food such as kombucha, kefir and kimchi can also help support the microbial community in the gut, she adds.
"Be mindful around alcohol intake, as it can negatively impact the diversity and balance of the gut microbiome, and lead to gas, bloating and other unwanted digestive issues," Patel continues. "Choose lower alcohol options and alternate alcoholic drinks with non-alcoholic versions, ideally water for hydration."
Another tip is to eat slowly where possible. "It’s important to be able to recognise when we are starting to feel satisfied," she says.
"It’s all too common to pile up the plate at this time of the year due to the abundance of foods, but overeating will stress the digestive system and can lead to unpleasant side effects. Indulge in what you fancy, but remember that it is perfectly OK to say ‘no’ sometimes."
Patel also recommends trying to keep your stress levels low as it can put a strain on the digestive system.
"Try to relax and take a step back where you can," she says."Keeping active can not only help with the above, but also staying mobile and moving around the festive season can aid digestion too. Even going for a post-meal walk or joining in some family dancing is a great idea to help prevent that sluggish feeling."
Gut health: Read more
How coffee can positively impact your gut health (Yahoo Life UK, 3-min read)
How alcohol impacts your gut health as a third of Brits plan for a sober Christmas (Yahoo Life UK, 4-min read)
Overindulging at Christmas: The link between sweet treats and gut health (Yahoo Life UK, 5-min read)
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