‘TIS THE SEASON: Christmas Nutrition

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Article from Dec/Jan 2017 Issue of OnTrack Magazine 

Words by Colette Carr/ 2A Publishing Ltd ©

If there was ever a time of the year that screamed food and indulgence, it’s Christmas. The Yuletide period is full of beautifully roasted foods, mulled alcohol and sugary treats – a beautiful dream for mere mortals, but a dangerous nightmare for committed athletes.  But it is the season to jolly, so we sat down at the proverbial Christmas dinner table with English Institute of Sport Head of Performance Nutrition Mike Naylor, to find out how athletes can avoid the dreaded temptation, how they can structure their festive period and ultimately, cheat Christmas.

Heading into the Christmas period, how important is it to factor your diet plan into things like Christmas dinner, work nights out etc?

There are a few different takes but mine is that the more we look at an athlete’s schedule and see how busy they are, we need to make sure that they take the time to plan, rest and recover and if they’re having one or two ‘bad days’ eating then that won’t undo all the great work they’ve done every other day of the year.

So as nutritionists, we need to be real in the occasions and on Christmas day we don’t expect them to eat 100% perfectly – it’s about giving them some time off. The problem comes when the Christmas period all of a sudden becomes 10, fifteen days of not eating well and that’s where you’ll see more of a negative effect on body composition and other factors linked to performance.

We need to be realistic and strike that right balance to support them, so little tips we provide are making sure they keep structure over the Christmas period and that they don’t end up missing meals because of going out to parties or end up having one massive meal. It’s about keeping a general structure but having that balance of a couple of days off to enjoy with their family.

On Christmas day, what would be your top tips for athletes on a strict program who still want to enjoy their Christmas dinner?

Again, it’s finding balance. It is one day of optimal eating so it won’t really have a negative effect. It may be slightly different for a football team playing on boxing day though – they might need to be more structured and prepare properly for the next day and in that situation, they might, instead of overloading on beef, keep to leaner servings of turkey.

If people want reduce the amount of calories they consume, they may go for new potatoes instead of roasted and it’s the same with veg – they wouldn’t have it cooked in a lot of goose fat for a less calorific option.

Is alcohol a big no-no?

We as nutritionists see no real benefit of alcohol on performance for athletes throughout the year and Christmas is the exact same. We don’t encourage it, but if they are having a night with a drink to celebrate and enjoy time with their friends and families, we want them to make sure they maintain appropriate hydration and have water and plenty electrolytes to restore their hydration levels. So I know we don’t recommend it, but we understand that there are events at Christmas where they will have a bit of a drink and celebrate with their family and friends so our message is that they do so responsibly.

It’s the season of indulgence – are there things athletes can treat themselves to or is it all about substitutes and moderation?

I’m happy to tell my athletes to have a treat, but have one properly that you’ll actually enjoy and if you are going to have a bit of chocolate cake or Christmas pudding twice a year it won’t undo great work.

But if there is still a training schedule you are on you want to stricter, but you can make healthier versions of these cakes and you can get reduced sugar versions which may be an option. Athletes’ desert may consist of Greek yoghurt and berries through most the year so the chance to have a bit of cake might be a nice treat for them, but there’s still the option to find healthier ways.

If an athlete slipped up over the festive period, is the most important thing that they then don’t beat themselves up about it?

I think athletes put so much work into what they do, that they need to find ways to relax and Christmas is a great time to do it.  But you can’t get caught up or hung up on it if you make mistakes, you need to get back into performance mode when it matters and eat food that’s optimal for performance to support your training.

So it’s important that they are able to switch back on quickly with their nutritional practice to get the most out of their training going forward.

It’s important to remember they won’t have undone all that hard work just with a couple of days of eating that may not benefit their performance.

Obviously straight after Christmas comes the New Year. We hear a lot about how New Years’ resolutions aren’t the best way to look at things, would you agree that it’s better to see your programme as a lifestyle choice rather than a pressured resolution?

I would. There’s many people who may not have eaten perfectly for a long time and know that at some point they’ll need to make that choice and act to change it, but it’s about finding a way that’s got continuity and can be adhered to long term.

Nutrition isn’t just something to think about in the lead to or days after Christmas. We eat food everyday so we need to be mindful in the way we eat and that’s the big thing for us. It’s not having a diet that works for six weeks, its finding a way of eating and living that you can do for life or a long period of time. To do that you need to find something that fits your lifestyle and if you’re an athlete, your performance goals and training programme, and its actually taking from that plan properly and having something in place that can be stuck to.

Lastly, do you have any advice for athletes who struggle with the temptation?

I think you’ve got to set some sort of boundaries so to speak and set some days aside to have off and have treats and to actually say, “Over Christmas I’m going to enjoy my food,” and then try not to stray from that. Reduce the temptation before you go into events or work parties because if you go to them in a hungry state where you know you may be more tempted by less healthier options, little tips like that may be of use, but the best way, I think, is to set some time aside and know that for the rest of the time over the Christmas period you will make up for it.

ABOUT THE EIS

The EIS are the team behind many of Great Britain’s most successful sports. In the Rio cycle we worked with 93% of the athletes and 31 of the 34 sports that won a medal for Team GB and Paralympics GB at the Rio 2016 Olympic & Paralympic Games.

More information can be found at www.eis2win.co.uk