What to do if you’ve overindulged at Christmas

Advice from a nutritionist on how to keep your gut happy this festive season – and what to do if you’ve overindulged.

We’re all prone to a little overindulgence at Christmas, but rich food and overeating can play havoc with our digestion, often leaving us feeling bloated and a bit uncomfortable.

It’s not surprising because on average we consume 6,000 calories on Christmas Day alone – that’s nearly three times our daily norm.

So, it’s no real surprise that the holidays can create more tummy troubles than the rest of the year – here registered nutritionist Alex Allan tells us how to save our stomachs from the worst of the festive overindulgences this year.

A man dressed as Santa Claus sat in an armchair holding a mug and clutching his head looking tiredCredit: Shutterstock /Stokkete

Christmas can cause digestive upsets

Why festive food can be bad for our gut

Most of us have overindulged at Christmas, but it puts tremendous pressure on the digestive system.

Our festive food is often a lot richer than normal, such as creamy sauces and heavy puddings, which can trigger heartburn, reflux or make IBS symptoms worse.

Many of us are also drinking more alcohol when we eat – whether it’s Prosecco at a party or red wine on Christmas Day – and this dilutes stomach acid, making it harder to properly digest our food.

Though festive food and drink can be tough on the digestive system, it doesn’t have to be this way. I’ve got four tips to help save your gut this season.

Savour your food for a happier gut

1. Take time to whet your appetite before eating

The first step in the digestive process is often overlooked, but it’s a really important one. Known as the cephalic phase of digestion, it’s triggered when we see or smell food. We literally whet our appetite.

When we start thinking about the delicious food we are going to prepare, our digestive juices start to flow. The saliva we generate contains enzymes which help to break down our food more easily, so when the time comes to eat, we are actually ready to start digesting food before we’ve even had the first mouthful!

This may sound easy, but we’re often too busy – particularly over the festive period – to actually take the time to do this. Mindful eating is something I work on with all of my clients.

Slow down and take your time – enjoy this delicious food, and your body will digest it more easily.

Chew your food to avoid bloating and wind

2. Don’t forget to chew

Remember what Gran used to say? Well, she was right.

Chewing your food (the second phase of digestion) is key when it comes to good gut health. With proper chewing, you are breaking down the food into smaller pieces mechanically, giving us a greater surface area for the digestive enzymes to work more easily.

But, if you’re not chewing properly, it’s highly likely that you’re not digesting your food well, which means you won’t be absorbing those vital nutrients either.

Not chewing also means the food you eat takes much longer to break down, and, as it hangs around in your digestive system, it can start to ferment, causing uncomfortable wind, gas, and bloating.

How much should you chew? Well, that depends on what you’re eating. I advise clients to chew the food enough so that if someone asked you to spit it out, they wouldn’t recognise what you had been eating.

Apple cider vinegar can help

3. Celebrate your stomach acid

Sales for heartburn tablets are through the roof because many people wrongly assume that their digestive troubles are down to too much stomach acid. What we often find in clinic, however, is the total opposite.

Ageing, chronic stress, and some over-the-counter medicines can lower your stomach acid levels so that you don’t produce enough to digest food sufficiently.

Why is this important? The stomach acid you produce not only kills any bacteria in the food you are eating, but it also helps to break down the protein in your meal.

If you’re not properly digesting the protein part of the food, it can start to ferment, creating gases that force open the oesophageal sphincter muscle (a type of muscle flap) and what little stomach acid there is can escape. The burning feeling, especially if accompanied by smelly gas, can be a sign your digestion isn’t working as well as it should be, something that often happens when we’ve overindulged at Christmas.

Try some apple cider vinegar

One solution is to have a teaspoon of apple cider vinegar before each main meal. It’s important you choose apple cider vinegar with ‘mother’, rather than one you pop on your chips.

There are people who genuinely produce too much stomach acid and, if you try the apple cider vinegar trick and it seems to make things worse, you can neutralise it by taking a little bicarbonate of soda.

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Step outside to aid digestion

4. Walk it off

When you walk shortly after you’ve eaten, magic starts to happen. To start, a gentle walk lowers your blood sugar levels, so your body makes less insulin. As insulin is the fat-storage hormone, taking a gentle stroll for 15 minutes makes you less likely to store fat and gain weight.

According to research, walking can also help you digest your food better. This is because a gentle walk increases the speed at which the food moves through the digestive system.

Too much booze?

How to recover from holiday hangovers

If you’ve overindulged at Christmas in the alcohol department, and are feeling a bit fragile, here are some tips to help you feel more like you.

  • Hydration, hydration, hydration! Make sure you drink plenty of water, as most of the issues that people have are because they are dehydrated. Don’t mainline coffee, which can be tempting, as this can make you feel worse. Go for plain old water.
  • Potassium can be really helpful to help water actually get back inside your cells (especially if you’ve woken up feeling puffy and bloated). Good potassium-rich foods include coconut water, bananas, sweet potatoes, and leftover Brussels sprouts.
  • We really deplete our B vitamins and zinc when we clear alcohol from our bodies, and this can leave us feeling more tired and sluggish. Having some leftover turkey, or breakfast foods such as smoked salmon, eggs or Greek yoghurt can help replenish your supplies and get you feeling better.
  • Avoid the temptation to fill up on refined carbs – these will not help in the long run, as you’ll have a sugar crash shortly after, making you feel worse. Instead, go for healthy protein and fats paired with veggies – my favourite is scrambled eggs, smoked salmon, avocado, rocket with a light dressing and some capers and sunflower seeds.

Written by Alex Allan she/her