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Is Christmas dinner unhealthy? We asked an expert

Michael Donlevy
24 Dec 2021

The real nutritional value of your Christmas dinner, plus some food swaps that might include red wine

Christmas is a time to eat, drink and be merry - however you wish to partake.

In fact there is some good and incredible news. Some of the things you eat at Christmas are already good for you, quite possibly in ways you didn’t expect.

Image: Rasmus Lerdorf, licensed by Creative Commons

'These foods cover all of the macronutrients – protein, carbohydrates and fats – and a lot of micronutrients from vitamins and minerals as well,' says Mayur Ranchirdas, a reader in nutrition and exercise metabolism at Sheffield Hallam University. 

So before you plan your online shop...

Turkey

Although it is of course the traditional Christmas dinner, a lot of people have moved away from turkey in recent years. The reason, it seems, is that people don’t want to be eating the leftovers for days/weeks.

Image: jeffreyw, licensed by Creative Commons

‘Which is a shame, because turkey is high in beta-alanine,’ says Ranchordas. ‘This amino acid is something a lot of athletes take in supplement form because it produces carnosine, which helps to reduce the build-up of lactic acid in the muscles during exercise.’

Lactic acid is converted into lactate, which blocks the muscles’ ability to break down glucose for fuel and reduces their ability to contract. This causes fatigue, so anything that limits lactic acid will enhance performance.

‘Just 85g of turkey contains 2g of beta-alanine, and on top of that it’s probably better known that turkey is also a great source of lean protein,’ says Ranchordas.

Chestnuts

Chestnuts are worth roasting on an open fire regardless of whether Jack Frost is nipping at your nose when you head out for a ride over the festive period.

‘Most nuts are low in carbs and high in fat, but chestnuts are super-high in carbs so make for great ride fuel,’ says Rachordas. ‘One hundred grams of chestnuts contains 20g of carbohydrate, whereas most other nuts are around 2g. That quantity of sugar explains why they’re so sweet, and they’re a great addition to your Christmas Day nibbles if you’re planning to ride on Boxing Day.’

Brussel sprouts

These tiny green footballs of goodness tend to divide opinion. A handful of strange folk enjoy them all year round, but the vast majority of us shun them for 364 days of the year before gorging on them – willingly or otherwise – on 25th December.

Image: krgjumper, licensed under Creative Commons

‘They’re actually really good for you because they contain higher than average amounts of vitamin C and vitamin K, which are good for immune function and bone health respectively,’ says Ranchordas.

‘A strong immune system is particularly important at this time of year, because although the cold won’t give you a cold it can make you more susceptible.’

Strong bones are important on and off the bike for obvious reasons, and vitamin K is also needed for blood clotting, which may come in handy if you either have a scrape on the bike or get a nasty paper cut opening Christmas cards.

Cranberry sauce

The big complaint about turkey is that it can be dry, so two things: firstly, don’t overcook it. Secondly, add plenty of cranberry sauce, the traditional but often overlooked accompaniment to your Christmas bird.

Image: Dennis Sylvester Hurd, licensed under Creative Commons

‘Cranberry is rich in polyphenols, micronutrients packed with antioxidants that help to reduce muscle soreness and inflammation after hard exercise,’ says Ranchordas. ‘As an aside, cranberry sauce is also high in sugar, which as with chestnuts is no bad thing if you’re planning a big ride the following day.’

Broccoli

OK, broccoli is known for being healthy – it’s a vegetable, for starters – but it’s not always served up on Christmas Day.

‘I don’t think people realise how good it is,’ says Ranchordas. ‘Broccoli contains a combination of antioxidants that are important for both cycling and health: caretonoids are good for eye health, kaempferol for reducing inflammation, and chrysene, which along with broccoli’s high vitamin C content boosts the immune system. That’s a pretty good triple whammy.’

The extras

A lot of do-gooders at this time of year like to tell you what not to eat or offer silly food swaps. We’re not going to tell you to exchange your pigs-in-blankets for meat substitutes wrapped in wafer-thin ham, but you can make a few healthy additions to your Christmas menu.

‘Many people serve up three courses these days, and soup can make for a really tasty and nutritious starter,’ says Ranchordas. ‘Fill it with veg and you’re hydrating, topping up your electrolytes and getting at least two of your five-a-day before you’ve even got to the main course.’

And while jelly isn’t exactly a traditional Christmas desert, if you don’t like mince pies and can’t face Christmas pudding it’s ideal for cyclists.

‘Jelly is packed full of collagen, which is good for the ligatures and bones,’ says Ranchordas. It’s best to have it before a ride, so if you don’t fancy heading out on Boxing Day you could always go for a ride during the Eastenders Christmas special.

Finally, red wine is the perfect Christmas tipple if you’re going to indulge in a little booze.

Image: Heather Katsoulis, licensed under Creative Commons

‘A lot of advice around alcohol these days is to switch to spirits for the lower calorie count, but that misses two points,’ says Ranchordas. ‘Firstly spirits usually go with a mixer that may contain more calories than other types of alcohol, and secondly red wine contains more of those polyphenols that reduce muscle soreness.’

Two further points: don’t go for a ride if you’ve been drinking, and bear in mind that red wine is better than port. ‘While a glass of port may be traditional it takes longer to ferment, which means the polyphenol content is reduced while the sugar content goes up,’ says Ranchordas.

And, of course, the sugar from port won’t help you on the bike if you’re snoring in front of the telly on Boxing Day.