Life

How to give yourself the gift of a healthier gut this December

The waist-expanding festivities kick off in the coming weeks, making now a good time to reflect on the effects on your gut. Liz Connor speaks to nutritionist Lily Soutter about ways to be kind to your intestines at Christmas

There tends to be a lot of pressure on our digestive systems during the month of December

WITH office parties in the offing, festive lunches already diaried and the big day itself fast approaching – with all the feasting that implies, not to mention the days' worth of leftovers to be eaten in its aftermath – December inevitably means over-indulgence.

It's the one time of year where dieting rules go out of the window as we pop an extra mince pie or two, opt for Christmas pudding and custard for afters and drink a few too many glasses of wine.

While you might think it's just your waistline taking the brunt of this month's excess, your industrious gut is also working overtime to break down all of those rich, fatty foods. The complex community of microbes that live in your intestine can suffer during an intense binging period, and a disruption to gut harmony can spell calamity for people with chronic digestive issues like irritable bowel syndrome and Crohn's disease.

To keep the peace, what you really need to do is put your gut first this month. That's the idea behind Bowel & Cancer Research's latest campaign, which is aiming to teach people the importance of loading up on gut-healthy foods during the festive season.

So how exactly does "gut gifting" work? We asked nutritionist Lily Soutter for some expert advice on treating your microbes to a little TLC.

1. Start your day right

"Over-eating, especially with high fat meals, can be a common trigger for digestive complaints," says Lily. "Set yourself up for success by having a healthy and hearty breakfast that includes protein, like scrambled eggs with tomatoes, or porridge topped with seeds. This will keep you satisfied for the whole day and make you less likely to snack."

2. Learn the art of mindful eating

Digestive relief might not come from what you're eating, but the way you eat it. "Meals shouldn't be a race to the finish line, so take your time to sit down and really concentrate on your food," advises Lily. "Chew slowly and even try to put your fork down between each bite."

3. Enjoy a drink... but don't go overboard

"Most people like to indulge in an alcoholic drink at Christmas, and why not?" says Lily. "Although it's clear that alcohol can be a digestive irritant, research suggests light drinking [such as one glass of wine a day] shouldn't affect your digestive health. Binge drinking] four or more drinks per day] however, may lead to digestive upset and isn't advised for your health."

4. Line your stomach with inventive canapes

"Lots of people have learnt this the hard way, but it's wise not to drink alcohol on an empty stomach," Lily adds. "Try consuming a small meal or snack before Christmas parties to line your stomach. Experiment with homemade healthy canapes such as hummus with crudites, unsalted spiced nuts, spiced chickpeas and stuffed mini mushrooms."

5. Feed your gut with festive veg

Pass on the veg this Christmas and you'll be doing your gut a disservice. "We have trillions of bacteria within our gut," says Lily. "Our friendly bacteria thrive on prebiotic fibre for fuel, and since many traditional Christmas foods tend to be low-fibre and high-fat, they're not always very gut-friendly. Interestingly, festive Brussel sprouts, cabbage and even parsnips are especially rich in this special prebiotic fibre, making them the perfect fuel to help our gut bacteria flourish and grow."

6. Impress your guests with quirky festive foods

Research suggests regular consumption of fermented foods, which are rich in 'good bacteria', may help support digestive health. "Get fermenting and you'll bring a whole new talking point to the table," advises Lily. "Try switching your usual boiled red cabbage for sauerkraut, or serving up a glass of kefir [a fermented milk drink] with a hint of nutmeg for a festive twist."

7. Comfort eat the healthy way

"During the winter months, there is a tendency to gravitate towards carb-heavy, high-calorie meals to make us feel warm and cosy," says Lily. "Don't worry, I'm not asking you to cut carbs completely, but opt for carbs that have added health benefits, such as whole grains, winter vegetables, pulses, beans and fresh fruit."

8. Don't let stress get to you

"There is a strong gut-brain connection and for some, stress and anxiety may lead to digestive symptoms," says Lily. Her top tip? Try to avoid getting bogged down with stress by making time for yourself and enjoying simple pleasures, such as having a relaxing bath with some scented candles. Now that's one we can definitely get on board with.

:: For more information on bowel health see bowelcancerresearch.org

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