Christmas dinner: facing up to the uncomfortable facts

It really is possible to enjoy all the trimmings without succumbing to unhealthy overindulgence. Sarah Edghill explains what not to eat. Right: expert advice on how to deal with a hangover

What is it about Christmas dinner that makes us overindulge to the point where indigestion torments and wind rages? Well, few people prepare and cook the meal properly, combine foods properly or give nutrition a passing thought. Common mistakes include vegetables boiled so long that they lose all goodness, stuffing that is solid enough to break windows and turkey so dry you could choke on it. And all in amounts that would test an elephant's stomach. Result: stress and physical discomfort.

The secret of stress-free and healthy Christmas dining begins with good time-keeping. Plan the meal meticulously. All vegetables should be cooked immediately prior to serving; either boiled until just tender in very little water or steamed. The turkey doesn't need to roast for ever, either. Current culinary creed favours cooking it on a higher heat for a shorter time, rather than the 10-hour slow-cook marathon that usually means some poor soul - invariably Mum - has to stagger out of bed at 5am.

Good preparation is also vital nutritionally. "Don't buy vegetables too early; they lose their goodness," warns Penny Hunking, a nutritionist. "Some greens can lose a third of their vitamin C 24 hours after being picked, which is why frozen vegetables are often healthier than fresh.

"Any water you use for vegetables should also be used for making gravy; it's full of nutrients. Nevercut greens as you would salad vegetables or cabbage - shred them with your fingers instead. A jagged edge retains more vitamins."

Reducing the fat content of your Christmas meal is simple. Turkey itself is a relatively healthy meat, though the white meat is less fatty than dark. Never eat the skin - it contains a lot of fat. Vegetables don't need butter, but if you want extra taste or texture, try herbs, poppy or sesame seeds, or rock salt. Potatoes and parsnips can be dry roasted. Parboil them, shake in a colander to break them up, sprinkle with sea salt and cook in a lightly oiled, non-stick roasting dish. You won't notice the difference.

Recipes likewise abound for "healthier" versions of the Christmas pudding using reduced fat and fruit - and you don't need to have soaked the thing in brandy for six months for a rich flavour, either. A suitable alternative to double cream or brandy butter is Smetana, a medium-thick soured cream which contains only about 12 per cent butter fat. Recent research shows that stress can trigger significant increases in consumption of fat and saturated fat as well as raise cholesterol levels in women using oral contraceptives.

If you're planning a vegetarian Christmas dinner, be imaginative, otherwise you'll end up eating a meal just as fattening as the traditional turkey. "As well as being predictable, something like a nut roast is heavy and high in fat," says Ms Hunking. "The same applies to anything with pastry or sauces."

Whatever you serve, portions shouldn't be massive. You're stocking up for winter, not nuclear winter. Your guests aren't going to go down with malnutrition if they have two slices of turkey instead of six or if they aren't offered stilton at the end of the meal.

Finally, booze. If you're shooting the works, your Christmas dinner will be very rich, so there's no need to open a full-bodied claret as well. Try a light dry white. And don't eat too late. "Stick to the old adage: breakfast like a king, lunch like a prince and dine like a pauper," says Ms Hunking. "The earlier you eat your main meal, the longer your body has to digest it, and the better you will feel afterwards."

Below: we show how a traditional meal compares in terms of calories and fat content with a tasty, healthier alternative and a vegetarian option.

Food for thought: how harmful is your menu?

TRADITIONAL TURKEY DINNER

Starter: 56g smoked salmon, 1.5 slices white bread and butter (15g)

Main course: turkey, basted and roasted in a slow oven (180g)

3 roast potatoes in oil (150g)

buttered boiled carrots (60g)

buttered Brussels sprouts (90g)

roast parsnips in oil (60g)

bread sauce made with full-fat milk (45g)

cranberry sauce (20g)

ready-made stuffing mix (50g)

2 pork chipolatas (40g)

gravy made from granules with cream (50g)

1 bacon roll (20g)

half a bottle of red wine

Dessert:

extra-rich Christmas pudding (120g)

full-milk custard (150g)

luxury brandy butter

real coffee, cream

1 mince pie (55g)

small chunk of stilton (25g)

2 oatcakes (45g)

Nutritional value per person:

3,300 calories / 46% fat / 32% carbohydrate

Worst offender: butter (on bread in starter, on vegetables and in brandy butter), followed by stilton and then Christmas pudding.

THE HEALTHIER ALTERNATIVE

Starter: minestrone soup (220g)

hot crusty sesame seed mini-baguette (48g)

Main course:

roast turkey, minus skin (120g)

4 dry roasted potatoes (175g)

steamed Brussels sprouts (90g)

steamed winter cabbage and curly kale with sesame seeds (185g)

carrot, apple and coriander puree (60g)

steamed leeks with white sauce (60g)

baked onion with cloves (60g)

dry-roasted chestnuts (25g)

cranberry sauce (20g)

homemade stuffing with breadcrumbs, walnuts and apricots (30g)

half a bottle of dry white wine

Dessert:

hot poached clementines (2) with hefty dash Drambuie

single cream

coffee with milk

2 satsumas

Nutritional value per person:

1,495 calories / 23% fat / 52% carbohydrate

VEGETARIAN CHRISTMAS DINNER

Starter: leek and mushroom-stuffed pancakes (55g pancake)

Main course:

vegetarian couscous with chestnuts:

couscous with chick peas, courgette, aubergine, carrots, potatoes, pumpkin, tomatoes, green beans, chestnuts and onion, flavoured with

cinnamon, parsley, coriander and cooked in

olive oil (150g serving)

hot chilli sauce (50g)

green salad of oak lettuce leaves, endive, spinach, watercress, chicory, chervil,

pine nuts (40g)

olive oil, balsamic vinegar and herb dressing

half a bottle of white wine

Dessert: festive fruit salad with kiwi, melon, black and white grapes, physalis, grapefruit, apple and pear, passion fruit, served in lemon juice, apple juice, grape juice, sprinkled with poppy seeds (280g)

coffee with milk or spiced tea

(good for digestion)

dried dates and figs (4oz)

Nutritional value per person:

1,723 calories / 20% fat / 67% carbohydrate

Jilly Cooper, novelist

I've heard of a practice popular among Russian musicians and conductors of eating half a pound of butter before going out on a post-concert binge. In my experience, prevention is better than cure, and so I suppose it's best to have water or dry food in between drinks if you're to avoid a hangover altogether. Otherwise, the main thing is to get rid of the pain, for which Resolve and, less pleasantly, Alka Seltzer, are about the best. A dose of vitamin C tablets on the morning after also helps, as does getting some food down you.

Maggi Hambling, artist

I've had too many hangovers to remember, and curing them is all a matter of age. I was taught in my youth by my brother that all would be well if you drank an equal amount of water to alcohol, or if you had a port and brandy at lunchtime the next day. As I get older, though, I tend to drink Diet Coke, and go for transport cafe breakfasts which do you no good at all - you just end up feeling fat as well as lousy. I'm told, though, that all will be well if you take a homeopathic remedy called Nuxvon, which cleans the liver and involves pressing a spot at the bottom of your left thumb for five minutes.

Alex Higgins, snooker player

I don't really get hangovers, and I have to say that I don't drink as much as some of the tabloids would have you believe. If I felt bad, though, I suppose the arrival of a wagon-load of krugerrands might snap me out of it. I've been out with some of the most notorious drunkards, though: I remember being in Jersey with Oliver Reed and drinking a cocktail out of shell-casings found on the beach. It was mixed by a man called Len Brierley, and it took us three days to get through, but we felt great after that.

Keith Floyd, TV chef, and author of 'Floyd on Hangovers' (Cygnet Penguin)

May I suggest a reviver called the Sydney Sunrise? Into a blender squeeze the juice from one lime and add a dessertspoonful of runny honey. Add the yolk of a free-range egg and top up with fresh orange juice. Whirr away for a few seconds, then pour into a glass over crushed ice and sprinkle with freshly grated nutmeg.

Interviews by Scott Hughes

The best cure? Sleep it off

There are almost as many hangover "cures" as there are vineyards, and more seasoned drinkers are only too happy to push their favourites. Many claim they have the ultimate cure. Don't believe it. And avoid the "hair of the dog" - it's a bit like trying to put out a fire by pouring petrol over it and will only "top up" the alcohol in the bloodstream. Sleeping off a hangover is the ideal cure.

Alcohol is a diuretic and it's important to drink plenty of water, especially before bed, to reduce dehydration and replenish lost properties. I remember a medical student friend who would lay out an array of bottles and blister packs of painkillers and vitamins to be consumed the morning after the night before. They didn't make him any better, but at least he felt that he was doing something to assist in his survival.

There are fluid and electrolyte replacement sachets or tablets that help the badly dehydrated. Vitamins B and C are also lost, so it makes sense to stock up on these (available as a fizzy drink) before, during and after a hangover. Apparently, cabbage does a power of good, too. Pharmacies dispense a variety of "pick-me-ups" which may come in the form of tonics, normally used to stimulate appetite, and vitamin supplements. Some preparations have antacid ingredients which help to neutralise your post-binge acid stomach. Take paracetamol for hangover headache - it irritates the stomach less than aspirin. Alcohol stimulates insulin secretion, which causes blood-sugar levels to fall. This can be counteracted by drinking large quantities of fruit juice.

Some hard cases swear by bananas. This undervalued fruit does of course contain all sorts of nutrients, minerals and fruit-sugar (fructose). Hangovers depend not only on the amount of alcohol but also on the by- products of fermentation and distillation, known as congeners, which are mopped up by doses of Vitamin C. Brandy and bourbon are pretty high in these, while vodka and gin are quite low. White wine contains fewer congeners than red.

Finally, as well as being a remedy or act of healing, the dictionary defines "cure" as "a method of arresting decomposition". You have been warned.

DR HENRY PURCELL

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