A season of festive food and drink can make for an uncomfortable gut, but there are ways to enjoy the best of Christmas without the bloat, writes Anna Bartter.
As a lifelong dairy-avoider (due to lactose intolerance), Christmas is the one time of year I allow myself to eat cheese. It’s a tradition for my family to have a festive cheeseboard and it’s amazing… for about half an hour, when my gut catches up and realises what I’ve done. Cue an evening of bloating, cramping and nausea, and a vow every year not to make the same mistake again.
We’re often less focused on our gut health at this time of year, when the drinks are flowing and the food is rich and delicious. It’s all too easy to throw caution to the wind and forget about the way certain foods or habits make us feel. But there are ways to enjoy your favourite food and drink this season, without suffering the aftereffects. And with 70% of our immune system in our gut, it makes good sense to give it some extra support at this time of year.
What’s happening in our gut when we eat lots of overly rich foods?
“There is a lot of stress on our digestive system over the Christmas period due to the burden we put on it,” explains nutritionist Hannah Hope. “This is down to the amount of food we eat, eating far more than we normally would in one sitting; the alcohol or fizzy drinks we consume; the sweets, the chocolates and the fatty and rich foods.
“Our body struggles to digest all this, and fatty food in particular might be difficult to digest, as it stores the bile produced by the liver that breaks down the fat we consume. Without adequate bile, you can experience stomach pain. nausea and loose, urgent stools.”
But all is not lost, as the experts share their top tips for festive (tummy) comfort and joy.
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Use your senses
“The first step in the digestive process is called the cephalic phase, as it’s what happens in your brain when you see or smell food,” explains registered nutritional therapist Alex Allen. “It’s often overlooked, but it’s an important step as it triggers the body’s digestive processes to begin. When you are aware of your food and start thinking about it, your tummy rumbles and your digestive juices begin. Salivary enzymes start the process of digesting food, so if you take a few beats before you begin eating, your body is prepared and ready for action as soon as you do start to eat.”
While no one is suggesting you spend time overanalysing what you put in your mouth, if you are someone who suffers from regular bloating, just taking your time to enjoy what you eat can make a huge difference. Take a few calm breaths before your meal to calm the nervous system and relax the gut.
Don’t forget to chew
“This is probably something that you heard a lot as a child, but it’s super important and forms the second phase of our digestion,” explains Allen. “If we chew well – and we should be chewing so that if we spat out our food you wouldn’t recognise what it was – then this enables the food to be physically broken down and crushed into smaller pieces, allowing our digestive enzymes to get to work.”
So, your mum was right, you do need to slow down and chew properly. “The action of chewing tells our stomach that food is on its way, getting those digestive processes prepared further down the chain,” says Allen. “If you’re rushing your food and not chewing properly, it’s more than likely that your digestion will be poor and you won’t be getting the benefit of the nutrients you’re taking in. Plus, unchewed food takes far longer to break down, meaning it will start to ferment, giving you symptoms of gas, bloating and general discomfort.”
So, take a few extra minutes to chew your food well. Enjoy and savour your food, and your gut will be happier for it.
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Up your veggies
“Even though it’s party season and we tend to eat and maybe drink more than we would normally, the Christmas dinner can be an opportunity to include more vegetables than we would usually eat,” advises gut health specialist Michelle Flynn. “We’re also more likely to eat different veggies, such as the brussels sprout. Eating a variety of different vegetables is a great way to improve our gut health as it encourages the growth of a diverse range of healthy gut bacteria, as well as increasing our dietary fibre levels. This fibre literally feeds our gut bacteria and ensures our microbiome is filled with varied bacteria,” she advises.
“Balance is key over Christmas,” reassures Flynn. “Try to balance out extra servings of processed foods with some extra veg on your plate or fruit with your dessert.”
Take some time out
“Your digestive system is going to be working hard over Christmas with the additional richer foods you’re enjoying, so make sure you try and leave your gut time to rest and digest,” explains Allen. “This may take a bit of self-awareness, particularly if the bowls of nibbles are out and about. If you can, aim to eat three meals a day,” she suggests, factoring in a three-to-four-hour break between sittings to giveyour digestive system a chance to do its job and have a little break before going again.”
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Walk it out
“Granny was right – having a walk after lunch is the best thing to do,” advises Allen. “The action of a gentle walk can help increase the speed with which food moves through the digestive system, helping to decrease bloating and gas.”
So, a double whammy for that post-prandial stroll, as it gets you out of the house for a bit too. Win-win.
“Alcohol is a known irritant to the gut lining,” says nutritionist Hannah Hope. “It raises the risk of increased intestinal permeability, also known as leaky gut. This can lead to bloating, pain, diarrhoea and risk of food intolerances. Alcohol can also delay gastric emptying, causing abdominal pain.”
Again, it being Christmas, no one in their right mind is going to recommend binning the Baileys or going without the bubbles at breakfast. Hope says that you can protect the gut against the effects of alcohol by upping your consumption of fermented foods.
“To help counteract the negative impact of alcohol on the gut, increase fermented foods in your diet, such as kimchi or kombucha, to aid repopulation of the microbiome. Add in fibre-rich foods to feed the good bacteria, such as those delicious brussels sprouts and colourful berries. To reduce gut inflammation, make sure you are hydrated and include some ginger for its anti-inflammatory properties. You can also ensure that you are drinking water with each alcoholic drink to reduce its effects on the liver and gut.”
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And if you’re still tempted by that cheeseboard (and who isn’t?), a little bit of what you fancy is probably doing more good than bad.
Hope explains: “Depending on what you are intolerant too, you may be able to still include small amounts over Christmas. If you’re lactose intolerant, you could try some sheep, got or aged hard cheese on the festive cheeseboard as well as butter, which has only small amounts of lactose.
“You could also have some probiotics or live dairy-free yoghurt to help with the digestion of lactose. Lactic acid bacteria, such as lactobacillus acidophilus, can help to break down lactose to make it easier to digest. If you have a milk protein intolerance you will probably still have digestive issues, I’m afraid, so stick to the dairy-free options. There are some tasty dairy-free soft ‘cheeses’ available in the supermarket.”
Eating and drinking with your family and friends over this time is one of life’s pleasures, so whatever you do, don’t get bogged down in health admin. You’ll probably find that benefits of enjoying the season fully last longer than a temporary bout of bloating – something that stressing over food will certainly exacerbate.
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