HEALTH / A Christmas complaint: Overeating

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ACCOUNTS of Christmasses past leave us in no doubt that people ate more in the old days, before central heating and television. The wealthy and the middle classes ate vast amounts on even routine occasions: it was commonplace for the main meal of the day to start with soup and go on to fish, poultry, meat, puddings and - before the dessert - a savoury such as fried bacon and oysters. Christmas was a prolonged orgy of food and alcohol. So what happens nowadays if a family attempts to match the standards of previous generations and do some serious overindulging on Christmas Day? Do killjoy doctors warn of rocketing rises in the blood cholesterol, heart attacks, and strokes?

Fortunately they need not be too gloomy. Dying of a surfeit is an old-fashioned concept, and overeating on a single occasion is not going to do anyone any real harm. Most of us can't eat a really large amount. Our ancestors could eat their vast meals because they did it all the time. They ate a lot because they used up large amounts of energy keeping up their body heat in chilly houses and taking exercise (riding a horse is by no means a sedentary occupation). When they reached an age when they stopped being energetic, they simply became fat - because they retained the habit of eating large quantities.

The urban human transported to a warm office in a warm car burns up far less energy. He or she may hardly ever eat a meal of more than three courses; indeed many people graze their way through the day, nibbling a succession of snacks while continuing to work or, in the evening, watch television. Expecting people with stomachs conditioned to this way of life to be able to eat four or five platefuls of rich food, ending with a plum pudding, is unrealistic. A full stomach sends out very clear signals; and the sensible course of action once it is full is for its owner to go to sleep. The tradition of the postprandial doze is one which we can and should continue. The danger of a heart attack comes less from the meal than from foolhardy enthusiasts who suggest that people who have overeaten should 'work it off' by taking violent exercise. The heart cannot pump maximum volumes of blood into the muscles and the intestines at the same time, and if asked to do so is likely to rebel .

Anyone determined to have a good blow- out at Christmas should plan for it some weeks ahead. Eating like a lion - large amounts at two-day intervals - will train the stomach but have no permanent effect on the waistband. Plenty of exercise before the meal will put an edge on the appetite; the actual eating should be taken at a slow, steady pace. Feasts at Oxbridge colleges last five or six hours with a pause halfway through. A Christmas dinner deserves serious attention and should not be blighted by people hurrying to meet some self-imposed deadline to watch a television programme.

The real health danger at Christmas is too much alcohol. Most people who drink too much too quickly irritate their stomachs and vomit long before they pass out; a few do not, and someone who is unused to alcohol and who quickly drinks a bottle of whisky or its equivalent may die within an hour or so. Excess alcohol triggers violence and aggression. The boring but sound advice is: don't try to consume much more than you are used to.