The ABC of eating well during the festive season ... but not gaining weight

Follow our scientifically proven ABC guide and keep the pounds off

PUBLISHED : Monday, 22 December, 2014, 3:43pm
UPDATED : Monday, 22 December, 2014, 4:14pm

It's the season to be jolly and not on a diet. Yet, with all the turkey and trimmings, how can you avoid weight gain over the festive season? Just follow our ABC of smarter feasting.


Changing the way meals are served can help curb over-consumption. Scientists at Cornell University's Food and Brand Lab have conducted a study on how optical illusions can trick the mind - and belly - into eating less.

If you're the host, serve food in smaller bowls and plates, and with smaller serving spoons rather than big ladles or tongs. In one 2012 study, subjects served themselves pasta either from a medium-sized bowl or a larger bowl, nearly double the capacity, both containing the same amount of pasta.

Participants serving from the medium bowl took 177 grams in total, while the larger bowl encouraged participants to take an average of 300 grams each, almost twice the portion size.

Try to use colour-contrasting dinnerware. When there's a high contrast between the colour of the food and the plate people tend to eat less.

Finally, place high-calorie dishes at the side table and healthier options at the main table. As they say, out of sight, out of mind.


With a dinner party scheduled, you may be tempted to save calories by skipping breakfast - but don't. Recent research published in the Nutrition Journal shows that eating a breakfast that's rich in protein may reduce food cravings and overeating.

"Our research showed that people experience a dramatic decline in cravings for sweet foods when they eat breakfast," says Heather Leidy, an assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology at University of Missouri.

"Breakfasts that are high in protein also reduced cravings for savoury - or high-fat - foods. But if breakfast is skipped, these cravings continue to rise throughout the day."

Study participants who ate a protein-rich breakfast had increased levels of dopamine, a brain chemical involved in reward and moderating impulses, including food cravings.

"Dopamine levels are blunted in individuals who are overweight or obese, which means that it takes much more stimulation, or food, to elicit feelings of reward; we saw similar responses within breakfast-skippers," Leidy says.

So, starting your day with some bacon and eggs may be a good idea after all.


It happens subconsciously, but snack nibbling and food picking while cooking adds up. According to research by nutritionist Brian Wansink, director of the Cornell Food and Brand Lab, during Thanksgiving, people eat 11 per cent of total calories grazing on packaged snacks before the main meal.

A handful of mixed nuts has about 170 calories, a mini quiche about 90 calories, and even that unsuspecting cocktail sausage is about 20 calories a pop. So save your appetite for the main show.

Breakfasts that are high in protein reduce cravings for savoury foods
Heather Leidy, assistant professor of nutrition and exercise physiology, University of Missouri

Define a time

When you eat is as important as what you eat, according to researchers at the Salk Institute for Biological Studies in La Jolla, California. Intermittent fasting for 12 to 16 hours each day may help prevent, and even reverse, obesity and type-2 diabetes.

In two new studies published in Cell Metabolism, time-restricted feeding helped prevent the development of metabolic problems in mice which were given a variety of high-fat and high-sugar foods.

The protective effects were maintained even when the mice were allowed "cheat days" where they had free access to food during the weekends.

Time-restricted feeding also helped to control the balance of bacteria in the gut, which is known to affect the body's metabolic processes.

"We found that animals fed within a window of eight to 12 hours had a number of protective and therapeutic health benefits compared with those allowed to eat the same number of calories from the same food source at any time," says researcher Dr Satchidananda Panda. If you can help it, start your festive dinner early so you'll stop eating by about 8pm or 9pm. That way, you'd have fasted about 12 hours before having breakfast the next day.

Exercise daily

Exercise does a lot more than reduce the energy surplus on feasting days. "Our research shows a short period of overconsumption and reduced physical activity leads to very profound negative changes in a variety of physiological systems - but that a daily bout of exercise stops most of these negative changes from taking place," says Dr James Betts, from the University of Bath's department for health.

His research, published last year in The Journal of Physiology, studied 26 healthy young men. Half the group was physically inactive while the other half exercised daily on a treadmill for 45 minutes. Everyone was asked to overeat, so that all participants' net daily energy surplus was the same.

After just one week of overeating, the subjects showed poor blood sugar control and their fat cells were expressing genes that lead to unhealthy metabolic changes and disrupted nutritional balance. But these negative effects were markedly less in those who were exercising.