School of Sport, Exercise and Health Sciences


4 Dec 2017

Why indulgence is better for you this Christmas

Indulging in a little of what you fancy this festive period is better for your diet in the long term, according to behavioural psychologists at Loughborough University.

This is important reassurance, especially at a time when temptation is everywhere and only the most stoic abstainer is able to navigate December guilt free.

For those with less mental resilience, Dr Gemma Witcomb and PhD researcher Chris McLeod have come with some simple tips to help guide through the minefield of seasonal indulgence.


But, it’s worth noting… what this doesn’t do is give carte blanche to eat or drink everything in sight.

“Christmas is a time where social expectations, particularly around food, are high and our learned behaviours, such as what we eat and when, coupled with our innate preference for sweet foods, can drive a lot of our eating behaviour, some of which can be unhealthy,” said Dr Witcomb.

“But having a healthy Christmas doesn’t have to mean forgoing all of the lovely treats that we associate with this time of year. Indulgence, like anything, doesn’t have to be all or nothing.”

Research has shown that people who are overly rigid in the restriction of their food intake often ‘fall off the wagon’ when faced with situations where food is freely available, or when they are stressed or distracted.

In these circumstances, people tend to eat significantly more than those who do not restrict their intake, or those who do so but to a less rigid degree.

Dr Witcomb said: “When faced with energy-dense foods and frequent social occasions – all of which are part and parcel of Christmas – it is easy to see how the holiday season can prove troublesome for many.

“However, allowing oneself some wiggle room in terms of what is and is not acceptable to eat over the festive period is likely to reduce what has been termed the what-the-hell effect.”

The common phenomenon occurs when a momentary fall-from-the-wagon leads to throwing in the towel completely.

In terms of food intake, this is similar to eating a mince pie and then declaring that the diet is ruined, and eating the whole packet.

Giving yourself a margin of freedom will allow you to enjoy Christmas and prevent catastrophising the situation, said Dr Witcomb.

Chris said: “Relaxing your expectations for health and exercise for a short time – a physical and mental de-load – can help reset your desires to achieve long-term goals whilst allowing a full involvement in, and the sharing of, the holiday celebrations with friends and family.

“After all, the giving and sharing of food and drink between people is strongly linked to improving feelings of belonging which is pivotal to mental health and well-being within a community.

So, the next time you read that you should go for a long run on Christmas morning to offset the oncoming overindulgence or that you should avoid situations where highly-palatable, energy-dense foods will be present, be realistic with where this information sits with your personal health story.

“It may in fact be exactly the right time to give yourself some elbow room, to relax and to get ready for renewed energy going into the new year.”

Top Tips

  • Relax the pressure on yourself. A few days of controlled indulgence is better than succumbing to the “what the hell effect”
  • Eat mindfully. Indulging in something that doesn’t fully tickle your fancy misses the point of why the wiggle room at this time of year can be beneficial and enjoyable
  • Exercise some covert restraint: If your choice of holiday heaven is a few chocolates from an assorted box, pick out a few that you really like, put them on a small plate and then put the chocolate box away. This not only avoids eating mindlessly, but also avoids having to restrict yourself mid-eating