Planning for a Paleo & AIP Christmas: The Parties (and the People)
Someone said to us this week, “the silly season has begun”. They mean, of course, that we’re now fully into those weeks prior to Christmas during which there is a never-ending succession of parties, dinners, celebrations and social occasions. At each of these there is a bountiful array of food and a seemingly limitless supply of alcoholic, calorific beverages.
How very Un-Paleo…
So what do you do if you’re following a Paleo template? How on earth can you be social and enter into the party season when you’re not planning to partake in the party fayre?
Should You Abstain?
Unlike the Christmas Dinner, which we wrote about last week, the typical Christmas Party season is not a very Paleo-style situation. Whilst we’re not fans of the “un-Paleo” label here at Paleo In The UK, there is no doubt that evaluating the health impacts of the relatively relentless continuum of parties will always end with the conclusion that – Paleo or not – assaulting your digestion (and your liver) with an overload of sugar, alcohol and sheer volume of food, without adequate sleep, exercise or positive health practices to repair, will come with consequences. And not just the shameful post-party hangover / drunken remorse…
Understanding social dynamics is complicated. Parties, and the “Fear Of Missing Out” (FOMO) that comes with swerving them, is not just a Christmas-time thing. However, at no other time of the year is there the same kind of pressure to “have fun” and show up to these gatherings. Christmas is seen as a universal time of celebration, an end-of-year, communal letting down of hair – and at no other time do we feel as if our careers, familial relationships and social statuses depend so much on us being… well… sociable.
The truth is that you can just say no and you can just not go. And yet the reality is that this is not a realistic approach, nor even a necessary one, to this time of year.
There are many US websites out there which will counsel you about saying no to the alcohol, the mince pies, the chocolates and the eggnog. But these are sites which don’t quite translate to a UK audience… because we tend to have a rather British sense of politeness. We feel it rude and offensive to say no and to reject the hospitality of our hosts. It’s not just about the FOMO. In the UK we are often unfailingly conscientious and sometimes find it easier to merely comply and surrender our dietary specificity just to keep the peace.
And also, if we just go with the flow we don’t have to bother explaining our choices.
Clearly, this is not the approach that you should take if you have an illness or autoimmune condition where eating “off-plan” has noticeable and direct consequences. In these cases, saying no is easier – both to do and to explain.
And yet what about the people for whom the Paleo-style nutrition and life is a preference and a choice? How do you inform your host, politely, that you’re Paleo… or avoiding x, y or z?
There are the obvious, “I just feel better without x, y or z” statements. But sometimes that’s just not enough of an explanation – and this is where you need to understand one thing about your dietary choices: they are your choices. Whilst you never need to force them on others (don’t become a Paleo missionary intent on ‘converting’ your friends as that never works!) you also have to be aware that it is not the privilege of others to force their dietary choices on you.
So if you don’t want to drink and you don’t want to eat the gluten-laden, sugar-filled foods then it is absolutely your right to say that. And, whilst there are many websites out there who will tell you what to say about why you’re not eating and drinking along with everyone else, our recommendation is that you actually do not need to explain. Unless you’re really certain people want to hear it, your drunken work Christmas party is not the time to start proselytising about Paleo and your virtuous lifestyle.
The key to being Paleo in public is confidence. You don’t need to carry a textbook of reasons behind your choices in your head – you just need to be certain when you refuse the food or drink that is being offered. We are also of the opinion that times are changing. Almost everyone knows about dietary restrictions and food intolerances these days, whether they think it is just a vanity or believe in their legitimacy. It means that people will tend to acquiesce to your requests, even if they think your food preferences are ill informed. And again, it’s not your job to fill them in on their misunderstandings – you simply have to make it through the party season with ease… and hopefully having some fun along the way!
So how do you do that?
If you’ve read our All About Alcohol page you will know that we at Paleo In The UK are not against alcohol at all – particularly when drunk in the context of social situations and in moderation. The challenge at Christmas is the quantity and the regularity.
The best way to avoid alcohol is to have a drink that you drink instead. It can certainly be water, but it doesn’t have to be. It can be soda water with a slice of citrus fruit. You can behave like Richard Branson and ask to have this in a wine glass or gin glass – very few people will guess that it isn’t actually a G&T. You will want to avoid all carbonated beverages that are either just sugar-water or contain artificial sweeteners. If you’re going to drink coke, you’d be better having a glass of wine.
The normal ‘sensible drinking’ choices apply here. Have plenty of water with your evening drinking, alternating an alcoholic beverage with a non-alcoholic one if you’re having a long night. If there are cocktails then aim for the dryer, neater spirits and not ones with lots of mixers and fruit juices to top them up. Sugar syrups are used in small amounts, which means that in moderation these are fine.
A common question in the UK is about the wine stories you hear from some of the US Paleo contingent, who complain about ‘toxic’ wines… a lot. In the UK we are better served with our restrictions in the pesticides that can be used in the wine we import and the vines we grow. Most European wines (our French favourites) are not treated with chemicals and are grown in natural soils, rather than homogenised vineyards with nutrient-poor, toxin-filled soils. This basically means that your Champagne (or Prosecco or Cava) is actually likely to be relatively OK.
We do have a couple of caveats about alcohol consumption. Whilst in moderation and in social settings we are, broadly speaking, approving of the consumption of alcohol, there are exceptions.
If you’re someone who does not tolerate alcohol well then you are what we like to call ‘alcohol sensitive’. You’ll know this if you always get hangovers or you have never been able to keep pace with your friends without feeling ropey or if you feel very drunk after just one or two glasses. This isn’t you being a ‘lightweight’, this is your body giving you all the messages it can that you are easily and rapidly affected by the alcohol within whatever you’re drinking. If this is you then this isn’t something you should ignore or ‘put up with’ – it’s a sign from your body that you are extremely susceptible to the effects of alcohol and that your body (your liver, digestion and detoxification systems) are going to struggle to deal with it. This is an indication to you of the amount of stress put on your body by drinking alcohol. Everything about the Paleo and AIP choices you make is about removing and reducing extraneous stress. If you are someone for whom alcohol puts this high level of stress on your body then we would not recommend that you continue to try to drink it – Christmas or not.
Lastly, you are also likely to already know your ‘alcohol personality’ – as in, whether you can stop at just a couple of drinks or whether an occasion when you go out to drink becomes an all-night bender. If you are in the latter camp then this, again, is an indication that your neurology and behaviour is directly affected by the chemicals within the alcohol. There are many potential reasons for this, but the pleasure and reward centre (and the dopamine that stimulates them) is part of why alcohol can alter people’s behaviour. If you are susceptible to these impacts then this is an indication that your brain is wired in such a way to seek or to need this dopamine-dependent pathway stimulated. If you are this type of person then, Christmas or not, using alcohol to push this pathway is not a sensible practice. Alcohol is a toxin in any quantity. If you are the type of person who cannot exercise moderation then it is always wiser to abstain totally, because toxins in high quantities are overt stresses to the body.
And of course, if you are not in either of these two groups… please make sure that along with the alcohol you choose to drink you are also having something to eat…
Party food, by very definition, has to be easy to eat with one hand and snack-y in nature. Unless your Christmas party is a formal dinner affair then you’re likely to be faced with the table of sausage rolls, vol au vents (do they still exist?!), cocktail sausages, cheese-on-a-stick, bowls of crisps type of situations – with mince pies, Christmas cake and chocolates on the side for good measure. Eating from this array of delights is impossible if you want to stay Paleo. It’s also pretty impossible to choose from this selection without consuming vast quantities of oxidised (damaged) fats, refined carbohydrates and sugars and poor-quality meats. So Paleo or otherwise, healthy options are not available.
Snacking is actually quite a difficult thing for anyone following a Paleo regimen. You will have noticed if you have been Paleo for a while that the typical way meals are defined in modern culture already evaporate. Breakfast, lunch and dinner can actually be identical – with avocados, eggs, meat, fish and vegetables being eaten at each meal juncture. Snacking too takes on some form of vegetable/protein combination, nuts, nut bars and nut butters, or – if you’re really organised – some kind of jerky.
For the Christmas party, no-one is actually watching what you are eating. This means that you can neatly avoid having to eat any of the food that’s available. However, this doesn’t help when you need to eat something. You could see this as an opportunity to fast – but please don’t do this if you’re drinking.
What we’d recommend is actually something fairly simple and obvious: just eat before you go out. Then if you’re still hungry, eat when you get back in too.
And if you’re hosting? Well then the food is in your control. We would not recommend putting out avocados and beef jerky. Instead, if you’re keen to cook, Eat Drink Paleo has a great Party Food guide – with recipes to make food yummy enough for no-one to notice that it’s Paleo.
One of the biggest complications of Christmas are the social situations which you may ordinarily avoid. Some people love Christmas and some people really struggle. If you are in the latter group, you may fear the parties with work colleagues you don’t relate to, or you may feel reluctant to spend so-called ‘quality time’ with whom family members who you have ideological or emotional conflicts. And Christmas just seems to bring out the drama in relationships, particularly when your family, loved ones, friends and colleagues are not in support of your dietary choices.
Anyone who does anything ‘different’ with their diet, particularly when it excludes you from ‘joining in with festivities’ can feel highly self-conscious about the way they eat, and what they refuse to eat, during these celebrations. Feeling as if you have to explain your choices to those who cannot (and choose not to) understand is incredibly tricky. No matter the reason, Christmas is not the ideal time to choose to create conflict with your family – tensions can run high enough anyway.
If you’ve read our page on Chemicals, Toxins, Pollution and Mould you will know that we actually have a paragraph on the ‘toxicity’ that comes with being overwhelmed by other people. As with chemicals and pollution, being in a personal situation which places demands on your physiology or energy reserves is a stress and a drain. However, life – whether we’re talking about eating or socialising – is never about simply putting a blanket ban on all things that create stress.
Instead, managing your health and your life is about recognising where you feel in a state of compromise and ensuring that you balance the time spent under stress with time where you are nourishing your energy. It is about knowing yourself well enough to understand how you recover once you have been compromised – and how much you can take before you need to retreat and replenish your batteries.
In truth, this ‘self-awareness’ is precisely what we at Paleo In The UK think is the purpose of redesigning our diets and lifestyle within an ancestral framework. Removing the non-Paleo foods from your diet is enough to give you clarity over how foods really feel to your body. The lifestyle elements do the same thing: by removing layers of constant background stress we can become really aware of how certain situations affect us. And you can also become aware of the way you best restore yourself after moments of acute stress. We reiterate, this is nothing to do with avoiding stressors – because that’s unrealistic and unnecessary – but it is about knowing you well enough to comprehend how to manage the stress you go through.
Whether that’s cold weather walks in the icier climate, singing carols for a bit, spending really lovely nights in in front of the fire with ones you actually like spending time with – with those who can love you and laugh about things with together.
And one last thing to mention is that at Paleo In The UK we are firm believers that the biggest impact on our health is our attitude and mindset. This means that when it comes to Christmas and to social situations which you possibly would not choose to be in at any other time of the year, what makes or breaks this (and determines how stressed you and your body become) is the attitude with which you approach it. It’s not about running away from any social situation that you find traumatic. But nor is it about hating every minute of these situations and praying for them to be over.
Instead of feeling overwhelmed and resentful, try to find ways to make the situation lighthearted. Whether you choose to eat the food and drink the drink, you can always choose to enter into the spirit of the season. This is the one time of year where twinkling lights are all around us – and despite the challenges you might face at this time of year, there is always a place for believing a little bit in the spirit of magic, and in the season of goodwill. This alone should carry you through the party season. (Well, this – and the knowledge that it will all be over come January!)