Overeating, binge-drinking and the excessive intake of red meat affect everything from sleep to heart function.
As you read this, you may be thinking of airing out the trusty old family braai stand – if you haven’t already done so. Or, you may be planning to stock up your fridge with alcoholic beverages in preparation for the long-awaited festive season. Or both.
And, when it comes to food, you may have decided to throw all caution to the wind and forget about all the progress you have made as far as portion control goes. You may even be easing up on your kids regarding the sugary drinks and snacks they are allowed to consume.
Well, here is a cautionary: The festive season, and its associated excesses of food and drink, could do lasting damage to your health.
As is always the case at this time of year, health experts are once again sounding the alarm bells against bingeing on alcohol and overeating, warning of the dangers that doing so poses to the proper functioning of our bodies.
“Research shows that when we consume alcohol, the body tends to give priority to metabolising and detoxifying the alcohol consumed. Essentially, the alcohol you have imbibed is slowing down the metabolism of other nutrients,” dietician Rosanne Lombard told City Press this week.
“With alcohol intake comes a rise in insulin production – if you are drinking excessively, then insulin is also in excess. This can contribute to weight gain. The excess alcohol, paired with unhealthy food choices, puts the liver and other detoxification systems under strain.”
Binge-drinking is known to cause arrhythmia, an acute cardiac rhythm disturbance causing sudden atrial fibrillation.
But it is not just alcohol that puts our bodies at increased health risk. According to Lombard, the increased amounts of red meat we consume at braais contain saturated fats, which increase our risk for cardiovascular disease.
In addition, the refined carbohydrates in the braai breads, garlic breads, baked goods and sweets we consume contain refined sugar – and absolutely no healthy fibre – resulting in spikes in blood-sugar levels as well as sugar loading of the liver.
“Developing a chronic disease in two weeks or so (as a result of food bingeing) is unlikely, though,” added Lombard.
“However, if you are already at an increased risk of being overweight, obese, hypertensive, diabetic or having high cholesterol, then you should be careful not to overindulge during this period.”
A 2016 local study, focusing on the seasonal cycles in food purchases by South Africans and on changes in their body mass index (BMI), showed that annual weight gain typically happened during the holiday season – between November and January – and that the peak for locals typically buying “nutritionally undesirable” foods was in December.
For clinical psychologist Senathi Fisha, our eating and drinking patterns and behaviours over the festive period could also signal a niggling instability in the brain.
“For example, chronic stress can increase your body’s release of the hormone, cortisol, which increases appetite and causes you to crave high-fat, sugary foods. If cortisol is left to build up, you may not only eat too much but also face other health concerns, ranging from headaches to poor sleep and more,” said Fisha.
“On the other hand, you may find yourself eating once a day, or not eating at all, once the brain becomes impaired to send hunger signals to your body. This is a major disservice to the body as the brain needs adequate supplies of glucose to function optimally.”
Meanwhile, further afield, a study published in the British Medical Journal this week found that Christmas Eve was the most common day of the year for people to suffer a heart attack.
After comparing the dates and times of 280 000 heart attacks suffered over 16 years, researchers from Sweden found a peak at 10pm on December 24.
They believe that added emotional stress and anxiety on Christmas Eve increase the risk of a heart attack, especially among people over the age of 75 or among those already suffering from diabetes or heart disease.
Fisha said nutrition played an important role in helping people to deal with mental illness.
“For example, when you are depressed, you process a lot of stressful thoughts, which may lead to increased blood pressure. Good nutrition will help to stabilise your blood pressure and bring the body back into the safe zone,” she said.
Lombard stressed the importance of maintaining healthy routines during the festive season.
“You can relax on the strictness, but it is not necessary to overindulge on a daily basis. Try not to restrict yourself completely as this will lead to bingeing, which is not beneficial. For people with pre-existing chronic conditions, as well as everyone else, managing your portions, eating regular meals and limiting treats to two or three times a week instead of indulging in them daily will help.”
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