Tis the season of overindulgence and rich foods, which will leave many people’s tummies and digestive systems feeling bloated and painful.
Melissa Dooley from GastroLife catches up with the readers of RSVP magazine to share how to have a gut friendly Christmas.
RSVP Magazine Dec 2023 – 2 page GastroLife Feature
The Christmas foods you should avoid if you suffer from bloating, according to gut health expert
’Tis the season of overindulgence and rich foods, which will leave many people’s tummies and digestive systems feeling bloated and painful. Melissa Dooley shares how to have a gut-friendly Christmas
One of the best things about Christmas is the food – juicy turkey, flavourful ham, rich gravy, along with copious amounts of alcohol, chocolates and sweets!
However, all this heavy food, combined with larger meals and less exercise around the holidays, can lead to a range of gut issues, such as bloating, discomfort and reflux.
We spoke to Melissa Dooley, a gastrointestinal physiologist from GastroLife, to see how we can look after our gut health this festive season.
Bloating is one of the most common symptoms people experience around the holiday season. “There’s lots of different reasons why people get bloating,” Melissa says. “They may have constipation, irritable bowel syndrome (IBS), small intestinal bacterial overgrowth or a hormonal influence as well.
“However, when it comes to Christmas time, bloating can be associated with our behaviour and the food we are eating.”
One thing that can cause bloating is chewing with our mouths open. While this is considered bad manners, many of us are guilty of it! “A lot of us will be out with friends and family over Christmas, you may be trying to talk with them and catch up while eating a meal. Talking while chewing can lead to us swallowing air, which also leads to bloating and distention. You should always chew with your mouth closed,” Melissa adds.
The gut prefers smaller, frequent meals as opposed to one large meal, which is what we tend to have over Christmas. It’s also true that many people eat their dinner late at night after cooking all day, meaning they go to bed on a full stomach.
“If you eat a large meal and then lie down, it tends to affect your digestion. It leads to bloating, discomfort, heartburn and reflux,” Melissa continues.
Heartburn and reflux is a common annoyance people experience at Christmas time. “There is a little valve at the top of your stomach which connects to your food pipe, it’s called the lower oesophageal sphincter,” Melissa tells RSVP. “Rich, heavy, and fatty foods decrease pressure on this area which can increase regurgitation, acid reflux and heartburn. Alcohol has the same effect.” Another tummy issue people can experience at yuletide is diarrhoea or loose stools, which can be caused by having foods we are not used to, or more lactose than normal. “Lactose tends to draw water into the intestine and can increase bowel motions,” Melissa says.
Food that aggravates
Spicy and fatty foods, along with alcohol and bacon can aggravate gut issues as well, so Melissa advises watching our intake of these foods to see how our gut reacts to them.
A lot of people also drink more carbonated drinks during the festivities. “These can be soft drinks, or prosecco and other fizzy wines. These drinks contain a mix of gases, including carbon dioxide, and they often contain sweeteners. Some of these sweeteners can lead to abdominal discomfort.”
People with food intolerances such as coeliac disease or lactose intolerance should let the person who is cooking know about their condition. “Chat with the host – gravy and sauces can contain a lot of lactose or gluten which we may not realise. There’s lot of alternatives so people can substitute. Don’t feel awkward,” says Melissa.
Those with diagnosed IBS and a hypersensitive gut may struggle more around Christmas due to the presence of high FODMAP foods in Christmas dinners and desserts.
FODMAP stands for fermentable oligosaccharides, disaccharides, monosaccharides and polyols. “These are a group of carbohydrates that
the small intestine absorbs poorly. Foods are classified as either high FODMAP or low FODMAP,” Melissa explains.
“The small intestine does not produce enzymes that can break down high FODMAP foods, so they have to travel to the colon. Here, bacteria ferments the foods and breaks them up. This results in gases being released which can cause bloating and discomfort for people with a hypersensitive gut.”
High FODMAP foods
Quite a lot of foods are considered high FODMAP, but they are not inherently bad for your gut, in fact, they are essential, Melissa stresses, adding it is important to work with a registered dietician or professional when it comes to FODMAPs.
“They will set out a plan which will see you reintroduce high FODMAP foods into your diet,” she says. “Any symptoms or issues these foods may cause are noted, and then you will understand which FODMAPs trigger your issues. You don’t want to go too strict and end up with deficiencies. High FODMAP foods are important because they do have good bacteria. People with a hypersensitive gut just need to be a bit more mindful of them.”
Lactose, milk, soft cheeses and ice-creams are classified as high FODMAP foods – many of which are essential in Christmas meals! These can be substituted with lactose-free milk and hard cheeses. Fructose, the sugar found in fruit, is also a high FODMAP food, especially in dried fruits and honey.
Onions, garlic, lentils and wheat can also be a high FODMAP trigger for people with IBS and a hypersensitive gut, as can the sweeteners present in many fizzy drinks.
However, you can swap out high FODMAP foods with low FODMAP alternatives such as carrots, celery, ginger, green beans, tomatoes and potatoes. Low FODMAP fruits include strawberries, raspberries, kiwis and mandarins. “Instead of using butter on your bread, try olive oil,” Melissa adds.
Tips to avoid gut issues
People usually don’t drink as much water during the holidays and as a result they can become dehydrated, so try to drink plenty of still water.
We also tend to get out of our usual routines, so we may not be exercising as much or at all. Melissa suggests going for a little walk each day, as exercise can help improve digestion.
“Eat your meals slowly and try not to eat very big portions, and avoid sitting or lying down afterwards,” she says.
For those who are suffering, Melissa suggests propping yourself up with some pillows to sleep, rather than lying down completely flat. “This will help with the reflux and ease the sore throat and burning sensation.”
Many people swear by probiotics, but these are still a grey area, according to Melissa. “For some people, probiotics work very well, while other people find they don’t work at all or make their symptoms worse, as they don’t agree with their unique gut microbiome.
“The current guidelines from the professional bodies is to essentially use probiotics through trial and error. You can try them for three months and see if there’s a difference, but they may not be suitable for everyone.”
We now know that our gut health plays such an important role in our overall health, be it mental or physical. Many people find themselves coming out of the festive period feeling run down, tired and more prone to illness. Is there a link between having poor health in January and the stress we put on our gut over Christmas?
Melissa says this could be possible. “The gut plays a really important role in our overall bodily functions, not just in the digestive system,” she adds. “The gut is often called the second brain, the nerves in the gut are linked to neurotransmitters in the brain. Poor gut health can also present in skin issues and inflammatory disorders.” So, it pays to be kind to our gut over Christmas!