Overindulging at Christmas: The link between sweet treats and gut health

Woman enjoying sweet treats at Christmas, but how does it impact gut health? (Getty Images)
The festive treats at Christmas can have an impact on our gut health. (Getty Images)

Tis the season to...totally overindulge. Bring on the selection boxes and all the chocolate baubles!

Studies show the UK consumes over 208 million boxes of chocolate every year at Christmas time.

The trouble is, the festive fallout of cracking open another family-sized tin of Quality Street is a bloated tummy and burning pain in your chest. Grim!

Thankfully there are some ways to enjoy Christmas treats without upsetting your gut, but first, we need to understand the psychology of the season of overindulgence.

Why do we feel the need to overindulge at this time of year?

Sure we know certain festive foods aren't great for our gut, so why can't we seem to step away from the stuffing (pun totally intended)?

According to neuroscientist, Dr Sabina Brennan, working on behalf of Rennie, there are several reasons why we choose to eat foods we know are bad for us, particularly during the festive season.

"In today's fast-paced world, we often have less time to shop and cook, leading to increased consumption of pre-packaged and processed foods," she explains. "We're drawn to sweet and high-fat foods because they are pleasurable – we enjoy their taste, smell, appearance, and texture."

Economic factors also play a role, as access, availability, and price impact our food choices.

"Those with lower incomes often have less balanced diets,” Brennan adds. "Where we spend most of our time matters too; limited access to healthy food at work can lead to unhealthy choices, especially for those with irregular hours or specific dietary needs."

And when we're putting in all the hours at work to be able to take time off over Christmas it's understandable our diets are going to suffer.

Woman enjoying chocolates at Christmas. (Getty Images)
Tis the season for overindulgence. (Getty Images)

Brennan says food can also affect our mood, and our mood influences what we eat.

"In fact, trying to restrict certain foods can actually increase our cravings for them," she explains. "Many people turn to food as a way to cope with stress, boredom, anxiety, or to extend feelings of happiness.

"Emotions like anger, fear, and sadness can disrupt eating patterns, leading to meal-skipping, eating as a distraction or to soothe emotions,” she adds.

"Stress, in particular, can lead to cravings for high-fat and high-carb foods, especially in women, and depressive symptoms can result in increased appetite, excess food intake, and a preference for certain types of foods."

There are some techniques to help ensure we don't overindulge too much this Christmas.

The link between sweet treats and gut health

Some of the foods we like to eat at this time of year, including chocolate, caffeine, and spicy and fatty foods, can worsen symptoms of heartburn and indigestion.

The main symptom to look out for is pain or discomfort in the upper abdomen, but you may also feel bloated, nauseous or partake in excess wind and belching.

Heartburn is a symptom of indigestion and is characterised by a burning sensation in your chest and throat as excess stomach acid makes its way up the oesophagus, also referred to as reflux.

Watch: Six ways to improve gut health

"Sugar and high-glycaemic foods can cause imbalances in the gut microbiome, leading to issues like bloating, gas, and even diarrhoea,” Brennan explains.

"Meanwhile foods with artificial sweeteners also negatively affect the balance of your gut bacteria,” she adds.

The way that we consume our food at Christmas can also bring on heartburn and indigestion for example, eating large meals, eating too fast, eating just before bed and eating even when we're full can all have an impact on our gut health.

How to combat the effects of overindulgence

People enjoying Christmas food and drink. (Getty Images)
The food and drink we eat at Christmas can impact our gut health. (Getty Images)

While we don't want to be a festive food grinch, experts say the best way to combat Christmas indigestion and heartburn is to prevent it occurring in the first place.

Of course, you should go forth and be merry, but it pays to be aware of what these high-risk food and drinks are, and try to make an effort to consume them in moderation to keep your gut happy.

Brennan has some techniques to help you do that...

1. Reframing

Challenge the thoughts that make these foods appealing. "Rather than thinking 'I need chocolate to feel better,' consider 'a walk outside could lift my mood'," Brennan suggests.

2. Eliminating triggers

Remove tempting foods from your home will reduce accessibility. If you don't buy eight Chocolate oranges, you can't eat them!

Suffering from indigestion and heartburn is common during the festive season. (Getty Images)
Suffering from indigestion and heartburn is common during the festive season. (Getty Images)

3. Prep healthy snacks

"Keep healthier alternatives like low-sugar fruits, vegetables, and nuts handy for when cravings strike," Brennan suggests.

4. Substitution

Find healthier alternatives that provide similar sensory experiences. "For example, if you crave the crunch of crisps, opt for air-popped popcorn or vegetable sticks," Brennan says.

5. Habit loop alteration

Identify the cue, routine, and reward that define your food habit loops and deliberately alter them. "If stress (cue) leads you to eat sugary foods (routine) for comfort (reward), change the routine to a healthier stress-relief method, like deep-breathing exercises."

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