Eat, drink and be merry

Over-indulgence at Christmas can play havoc with your health. But just how much eating, drinking and late night partying can we get away with before feeling less than 'merry' over the festive season? Lisa Salmon discovers how unhealthy Christmas can really be.

Over-indulgence at Christmas can play havoc with your health. But just how much eating, drinking and late night partying can we get away with before feeling less than 'merry' over the festive season? Lisa Salmon discovers how unhealthy Christmas can really be.

Christmas is the time to stuff yourself silly and drink too much booze.

Nearly all of us (94%) admit to eating more than usual during Christmas week, according to research by Buscopan Cramps. And a study by the British Nutrition Foundation suggests that, on average, we gain five pounds in weight during the festivities.

While lots of people intend to lose any extra weight through a New Year diet, the reality is that for many, a moment on the lips at Christmas, is a lifetime on the hips. And that can bring long-term health problems.

But there's no need to panic - just remember to take everything in moderation. Change4Life, the Department of Health's anti-obesity campaign, has produced a series of tips to avoid festive weight gain.

The campaign's spokesperson, Dr Susan Jebb, says: "It's easy to overindulge with all the rich food and hectic socialising, often meaning heavy drinking. But approaching Christmas as a chance for a big blow-out only makes it more difficult to get back on track in January."

"The fact is, despite our best intentions, it can be difficult to lose the pounds gained over the festive season. This means overindulging can increase our chances of getting heart disease, type 2 diabetes and some cancers."

Jebb, who is also head of nutrition and health at the Medical Research Council, suggests eating smaller portions and ensuring activity is still a top priority over Christmas.

She adds: "If you build healthier habits into your routine for the long-term, you can avoid the weight gain and give yourself a happy and healthy start to 2011."

Piling on the pounds, however, is by no means our only worry.

Research by Wind Setlers, for example, found that 37% of people suffer from indigestion after eating their Christmas dinner.

Another study by Buscopan Cramps revealed that over a third of people in the UK suffer from bloating, constipation, diarrhoea, wind and abdominal cramps due to festive overindulgence.

GP Dr Paul Stillman says it's normal to see patients after Christmas suffering from digestive problems caused by too much food and alcohol, with the most common problem tending to be indigestion brought on by eating too much rich food.

"People have usually tried an over-the-counter antacid and if that doesn't work, they think it's something more serious.

Indigestion can be caused by people eating too quickly, and the Wind Setlers research found that three quarters of people rush their food at Christmas, with four in 10 suffering from stomach complaints as a result.

"A major problem seems to be that, as it takes time for the feeling of satiety to come through, people just keep on eating," says Stillman. "If you eat slower, you'll eat less because you'll stop earlier."

"But if you eat more than you need, you may get a penalty in the shape of indigestion."

Add the stress of Christmas to the overindulgence, and you have a recipe for potential festive health woes.

The prospect of sharing the big day with relatives you never see - and might not particularly like - may crank up your stress levels, and Stillman advises: "Make sure you don't drink enough to loosen your tongue, and plan how you're going to spend your time."

"Perhaps include some healthy walks so you're not cooped up together all the time - try to anticipate problems."

But if the weather's bad, being stuck inside may be the only option - and overeating and drinking in front of the TV may be the result. Stomach upsets, however, can seem minimal compared to the worst-case scenario.

Gastroenterologist Dr John de Caestecker, a consultant at University Hospitals of Leicester, explains: "If you have a very big meal and lace it with liberal amounts of alcohol, you can end up vomiting and damaging the lower end of your gullet. You can even rupture it."

"Classically, this can be done by eating a big meal and having about five or six pints of beer."

He says that being drunk can mean the gullet doesn't brace itself for any vomiting, which is when it can rupture.

"If it's a big meal containing lots of fat, your stomach empties much more slowly, and that provokes the bowel at the lower end of the gullet to relax more frequently," says de Caestecker. "It's during those relaxations that there's the opportunity for acid to come up and irritate, which gives you heartburn."

He points out that for people who are prone to heartburn-type indigestion, putting on weight - particularly around the tummy - can intensify it.

Christmas overindulgence can lead to very severe inflammation in the gullet from all the acid that comes up, and that may lead to a long-term problem.

In addition, stress can provoke heartburn in people who are prone to the condition - and for many, stress is as much a part of Christmas as Jingle Bells and tinsel.

De Caestecker advises: "Try to reduce the other factors that may provoke problems like indigestion and heartburn, and try taking something bought over-the-counter to reduce the amount of stomach acid that's produced, like Zantac. That will reduce the amount of acid enough to make a difference."

Smaller meals which are spaced apart, rather than one huge meal, and cutting down on fatty foods, will help reduce the risk for people who are prone to digestive problems, he says, adding: "I'm not saying you shouldn't eat Christmas dinner - just don't overdo it."