Have a happy - and healthy - Christmas

Christmas dinner: Moderation rather than abstinence from 'naughty' treats is recommended by Kath Sharman and MEND.
Christmas dinner: Moderation rather than abstinence from 'naughty' treats is recommended by Kath Sharman and MEND.
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Mince pies, chocolates and hours on the sofa - Christmas is a time to relax. But a few pounds gained on one day can take months to shed, especially for children, as Rachael Clegg discovers.

CHRISTMAS is a time during which most of us relax, socialise and gorge ourselves on chocolates and old films.

But it takes its toll on people’s health, especially for people who are overweight.

Sheffield child obesity expert Kath Sharman warns that pounds we pile on over just a few days during the festive season can take months to shed.

Kath says: “We consume between 3000 and 10,000 calories over Christmas Day as adults because of all the alcohol and chocolates. We are very overburdened with calories but are doing virtually nothing to burn them off. We gain about seven to ten pounds over Christmas and this can take around six months to get rid of.”

In the post Christmas weight-panic, gym memberships across the country soar. But while we adults can pump iron in adult-only gyms, there are few places where children can target their weight in such a way.

“There aren’t many gyms that accept children but they’re the ones who will suffer. A selection box is about 879 calories - that’s half the daily amount of calories recommended for a child.”

Kath has been working with overweight children and helping them lose weight for more than nine years at the Shine Health Academy and says the number of obese children in South Yorkshire has risen since the academy started.

“We started with about three courses, each with 15 children aged 7 - 10 in and now we run nine and are considering putting more on.”

The key, Kath says, is to snack throughout the day and serving small portions. “Often there’s nothing wrong with what we eat over Christmas - it’s the size of the portions.”

And while the cold dreary weather hardly entices us to go outdoors, Kath recommends lively indoor activities such as musical chairs or Twister.

Thoughts of Christmas don’t exactly conjure up images of exercising, watching what you eat and looking after the family’s health.

Organisations like Shine Health Academy and national organisations such as MEND (Mind, Exercise, Nutrition... Do it!), have produced a series of tips to help families keep active over the festive season, and avoid putting on at least some of the average 5lbs that Britons gain over the four-week Christmas period.

Jenny Rosborough, senior programme developer and trainer at MEND, says: “It can be really hard to stay healthy around Christmas, because there are lots of unhealthy triggers around, and you get into a routine of watching TV, eating chocolate etc.

“We want to encourage families to get up and get active, and eat in a healthy way as well. Only small changes need to be made to make a big difference, and families will be a lot healthier going into the new year.”

As far as eating’s concerned, like Kath, MEND too advises moderation rather than abstinence from ‘naughty’ treats.

“We definitely don’t forbid any treats - we want families to enjoy food over Christmas, but only eat the unhealthy foods in moderation,” says Jenny.

This means making sure Christmas dinner isn’t too big, and includes plenty of vegetables and not eating the skin off the turkey.

In addition, keep healthy snacks such as unsalted nuts, low-fat dips and vegetable sticks on offer, so children and adults aren’t reaching for selection box treats all the time.

To keep active, parents might start by buying a few activity-based presents, such as skipping ropes, footballs or bikes, suggests Rosborough.

The consequences of children becoming overweight can be dire. Already in South Yorkshire it has been proven that the high rate of type two diabetes is caused by obesity. Other problems include sleep apnoea, depression and anxiety.

But while the side-effects of obesity are clear-cut, its causes are not, as Kath explains.

“The reasons people become obese are very complex. So many things contribute to people being obese, including their environment, genetics and bad habits. There are psychological reasons behind children’s eating problems too.”

Shine Health Academy’s top festive tips

ACCORDING to research, one in 10 people put on an average of 7-10lbs during the festive period. This is hardly surprising when the average Christmas dinner contains 1,700 calories. What makes this even worse is that, according to studies, people who gain weight at this time of year tend not to lose it.

Don’t overload the plate. It’s very easy at this time of year to overeat and so it’s more important than ever at Christmas to eat the right-sized portions of food.

Keep in the veggies. Vegetables are high in fibre, and other important nutrients such as vitamins and minerals. This means they help your body to function properly, and fibre is particularly good as it helps your body to get rid of the waste that it doesn’t need. So if you’re feeling hungry, have a few more veggies.

Keep sugar to a minimum. Selection boxes always go down well at this time of year and as they’re so tempting it’s easy to eat one chocolate after another. An average selection box contains 876 calories. That is over half of the daily recommended calories for children.

Keep salt to a minimum. Salt is an important nutrient, which our body needs to work properly. However, high amounts of it can cause us to retain fluid in our body, which can raise our blood pressure, increasing our risk of heart disease, as well as causing weight gain. Therefore, it’s really important that we have enough but not too much. Recommended amounts of salt are 4-5g a day for 7-10-year-olds and 6g a day if you’re 11 or over. This includes salt added to cooking and salt contained in foods.

Stop eating when you’re full. If you keep eating, it puts stress on your body, as it has to work harder to digest and absorb the food. Therefore, when your body is telling you that you have eaten enough, before you get to that uncomfortable stage, listen.