Christmas dinner: What would you eat?

BBC Food Christmas calories graphic

Christmas is a time for feasting, but how much is too much?

It's no wonder waistlines expand at Christmas if past years are anything to go by.

In the 13th Century, the medieval occasion ran for 12 days, with lavish spreads every day.

Christmas excess today means that the average person consumes 6,000 calories on Christmas day.

This is equivalent to eating 4.8kg of egg-fried rice, or 42 bananas, or 23 and a half hamburgers.

Other options

Whole poached salmon

Create a whole poached salmon centrepiece

Try Nigella's baby aubergines with red onions

Stir up a delicious fish soup starter

Roast your veg Mediterranean-style

Or you could think of it as eating three 300g chicken korma curries, three 300g chicken tikka curries, three naan breads and 24 onion bhajis.

That is also the same amount that a Tour de France cyclist needs to sustain a day's racing, professional athletes consume to propel them through a day's training, Royal Marines need to fuel their missions, and Arctic explorers demand to endure a day on the ice.

For those of us less inclined to extreme endurance and more comfortable with staying indoors, there is little chance we will be burning 6,000 calories on Christmas day.

But there are ways to do things a little bit more healthily.

Christmas dinner itself easily fits in to the recommended calorific intake for a day, says Sian Porter, consultant dietician and spokesperson for the British Dietetic Association.

In fact it contains 956 calories, and 48g fat, she says. The guideline daily calorie count is 2,500 for men and 2,000 for women.

But it's not just Christmas dinner that we indulge in.

"Six thousand calories over the day includes smoked salmon and eggs for breakfast, buck's fizz and wine and other drinks, liqueurs, also Christmas cake, mince pies, cheese and biscuits, cold nibbles, snacks, crisps, nuts and an open box of chocolates," she says.

Tape measure You know what will happen if you eat an extra 500 calories a day in December...

Is that so bad?

"Some people can rebalance that quickly and easily," she says.

"But some people have already kicked off indulging in early December and go through until 2nd January, which can mean they gain around 5lb," she says.

This is by eating an average extra 500 calories per day.

To burn off Christmas day's calories alone you might need to do at least seven hours of hard exercise such as cycling. But keeping moderate exercise up before and after Christmas can help stop you putting on weight.

How to burn off 6,000 calories

It takes a lot of work to burn off 6,000 calories.

Here's how you can do it:

Average man:

Sport Time needed

Jogging

10 hours 20 min

Medium walking

14 hours 30 min

Hard cycling

7 hours 15 min

Basketball

8 hours 5 min

Fast swimming

7 hours 15 min

Average woman:

Sport Time needed

Samba or Tango

28 hours 40 min

Hatha yoga

34 hours 20 min

Fast swimming

8 hours 40 min

Jogging

12 hours 20 min

Hard cycling

7 hours 10 min

Sources: ONS statistics and British Heart Foundation calculator

So how to avoid an unhealthy binge?

Do not skip meals and try to eat regularly to avoid overeating in one big meal, says the English Institute of Sport's performance nutritionist Emma Gardner.

It can lead to excessive hunger and poor choices, she says.

"Ensure you have a good breakfast before going to Christmas dinners/buffets so you don't arrive hungry - Christmas gatherings are filled with tempting treats, which you are likely to snack on if you arrive hungry.

"Add a protein source at breakfast, which will also help to fill you."

Sian Porter says adapting old favourites also works a treat.

"If you flip the lid off a mince pie, which is 250 calories before adding cream or brandy butter, you can save calories there, or swap unhealthy snacks for satsumas, nuts, dates or other fruit," she says.

"Pile up your plate with fruit and veg, and do things a bit smarter - on the day make gravy from vegetable water and only open one box of chocolates at a time."

Emma says: "Whether at a buffet or a Christmas dinner base your meals around lean protein options and vegetables or salad.

"If you want to go that extra step, try dry-roasting potatoes on a non-stick baking sheet or use an oil spray instead of smothering them in goose fat."

There are plenty of easy calorie-savers, such as not eating turkey skin or avoiding putting butter on vegetables.

Eat vegetable crudites or popcorn, provided it's without butter or sugar, for low-calorie alternatives to crisps.

Satsuma Swap calorific nibbles for satsumas to have a healthier day

Chef Laura Santtini's cooking style is flash cooking - a healthy, quick alternative where the emphasis is on "fit fast flavours for busy people".

Most importantly, "having a flavour arsenal" next to her cooker means she can make delicious dishes that are low on fat.

Laura says she adheres to an 80:20 principle of eating, where 80% of her diet is healthy and 20% is more indulgent.

She says Christmas is "a one-meal day, not a day for thinking about being healthy".

Simple calorie-savers

Parsnips
  • Swap turkey legs/thighs and skin for turkey breast
  • Swap roast potatoes for new potatoes
  • Swap cauliflower cheese for boiled or steamed vegetables
  • Swap small roast potatoes/parsnips for large ones as they absorb less fat
  • Swap gravy for bread sauce of fruit sauces
  • Swap meat stuffing for chestnut or fruit-based stuffing, which are low in fat and a good source of potassium
  • Swap brandy butter sauce for low-fat custard

Source: English Institute of Sport

"If you do 80:20 then it flips and Christmas is an 80% naughty day. But on Boxing Day you have stopped grazing," she explains.

She suggests that you can boil or steam sprouts or bake them in the oven, or instead of doing roast potatoes, do Persian jewelled rice in a slow cooker.

However for some there is no avoiding a big calorie counter of the day - booze.

"Be aware of consuming too many empty calories, such as those in alcohol," says Emma Gardner.

Sian Porter says alcohol is "7kcal per gram versus 4kcal/g for protein or carbs and 9kcal/g for fat".

"Alcohol is calorie-dense and, when drunk in excess, reduces will power meaning you are more likely to succumb to eating tempting foods," nutritionist Emma explains.

It's recommended to avoid sweet cocktails and creamy liqueurs. Or alternate alcohol with water, or drink small short spirits with diet fizzy drinks.

But if you are planning on over-indulging during Christmas, do not despair.

Chef Allegra McEvedy says: "Unless you have serious dietary issues, you should lay back and indulge. It's not a day to count calories."

So one day of indulgence is OK?

"It's all about not making people feel guilty and taking it easy," says Sian Porter.

"You can be bad and then be good over other days - it's over in a short space of time, and you can rebalance those extra calories by cutting back elsewhere."

On Boxing Day you'll be eating salad and getting on your bike then?

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