Christmas is undoubtedly a time of great ceremony. Across the country, every household has its own rituals when it comes to the big day; but I’m sure I speak for most of us when I say that the true main event of festivities is Christmas lunch.
Here in the UK, this is a meal we take incredibly seriously. Preparation customarily begins very early on Christmas morning, but the process of ordering and buying ingredients may start days or even weeks earlier.
Everyone has their own interpretation of what should make it to the table and what shouldn’t, and it’s a subject over which I’ve seen many a heated debate erupt.
However, whatever their constituents, one aspect nearly all British Christmas lunches have in common is their high calorie content. Christmas is the one time above all others throughout the year that we like to overindulge; and this is reflected in our volume of consumption.
So much so, that a survey published last year reportedly found that the average Briton consumes in excess of 7,000 calories on Christmas Day, which, if accurate, is a frightening statistic.
But are we alone in our festive calorific habits? Are our culinary Christmas traditions here in Britain that much worse than those of our European neighbours?
It may not surprise you to learn that interpretations of Christmas food vary strikingly across Europe, and the world.
Some interpretations do contain dishes which are high in saturates and guaranteed to drive up cholesterol levels, but a select few do make room for healthier alternatives.
With this in mind, we thought it might be interesting to take one serving of the traditional Christmas lunch (or supper, where appropriate) from several countries across the continent, and see how these stack up against the UK’s classic festive spread in terms of calories.
To add a global perspective, we also included the traditional meal from a handful of other non-European nations who celebrate the holiday too.
Here’s what we found:
(click to enlarge)
- The US tops the list narrowly, with the most calorific Christmas spread.
- The UK trails by just two calories, taking the European title of most calorific.
- France is a close third.
- Lithuania, where the Christmas Eve supper is a traditionally modest affair, wins the title of healthiest of those European countries observed.
- The Czech Republic isn’t far behind as second healthiest In Europe.
- A KFC box meal has been the Christmas custom for many in Japan since the 1970s. A meal rather than a feast, this fast food staple ironically places Japan’s meal as the least calorific of the countries observed.
Scroll down to our appendix to find a detailed breakdown of what went into each spread.
Public Holidays vs Calorie Consumption
Interestingly, a slight inverse correlation can be identified between the calorific value of the Christmas meals and the number of public holidays for Christmas observed in each country.
- In the US, the country with the highest calorie count, only two days off are observed over the late December period (Christmas Day and New Year’s Day). This is also the case in France.
- In the UK we traditionally receive three days off work (Christmas Day, Boxing Day Bank Holiday and New Year’s Day).
- In Lithuania, four public holidays are observed (24-26 December, and New Year’s Day); in Finland, epiphany is observed on the 6th January in addition to these four days, effectively bringing the total up to five; and in Iceland too there are a total of five days’ holiday (24-26 December, New Year’s Eve and New Year’s Day).
- In each of these three countries, the Christmas meal calorie count was below 2500.
In theory then, while the US and France cram a lot of calories into the Christmas Day meal, they’re back at work and burning it off by the following day.
However, this hasn’t traditionally been the case for many in the UK. For those not rushing around the sales in the hope of grabbing a bargain, Boxing Day might be another simple (and sedentary) day of leisurely dining.
So if we were to take total calorie consumption over the Christmas week, it’s possible that the UK would have had a higher total than that of the US.
Lithuania’s Modest Traditions
In terms of calorie count, Lithuania’s rather solemn Christmas traditions work in its favour.
The 12-dish Christmas Eve supper is a religious custom observed by many households in the Ukraine and Poland as well as Lithuania, but interpretations vary according to different regions.
Traditionally, the meal contains no meat, no dairy and no alcohol, tending instead towards fish and vegetables. In Lithuania, sweet dishes are also uncommon; which all contributes towards a meal significantly lower in calories.
- Italy, a nation famous for serving up multiple courses at the dinner table, comes in with a comparatively low total of 2721 calories. This is perhaps helped by the fact that we considered the widely accepted ‘main Christmas meal’ from each nation; which in Italy falls on Christmas Eve, and consists mostly of fish.
- Portugal sits just off the winners (or rather, the losers) podium in fourth. While the Christmas Eve meal itself, mostly consisting of fish, isn’t too calorific; the custom of serving a host of extravagant pastries and cakes for dessert significantly bumps up the total.
As we know, consuming large amounts of fatty, sugary food in short order is a recipe for poor health. High blood pressure, high cholesterol, type 2 diabetes and of course obesity are all likely outcomes of persistent bad dietary habits.
In the UK, one in four adults is obese, and around two thirds are overweight. Obesity growth rates in the UK are also among the highest in Europe.
Consequently, these findings haven’t done the UK’s reputation as the sick man of Europe any favours.
The spread we’ve laid on contains a decent helping and does come in at less than half of the aforementioned 7,000 calorie figure; however, what we haven’t taken into account is the alcohol and Christmas snacks that might also be consumed throughout the day.
Even without this factored in, when you consider that the recommended calorie intake for women and men is 2,000 and 2,500 respectively, 3,289 in a single meal is still a hefty number.
The argument can of course be made that Christmas only comes once a year; what one person consumes at the Christmas table is not necessarily an indication of what they will eat on a habitual basis.
But this amount of calories even as a one-off meal does still take some shifting, and this is undoubtedly something to keep in mind:
- The Christmas meal listed above would take an 11 stone person over 14 hours to burn off walking, and around four and a half hours to burn off jogging.
Let’s put that into perspective:
- When factored into a person’s regular routine, walking for an extra hour each day or jogging for an extra half an hour each day could amount to two week’s worth of extra January exercise.
That’s two week’s worth of exercise, just to burn off the calories from one meal.
Calorie-busting Christmas dinner tactics
There are a few ways you can reduce the calorie count of your Christmas lunch.
- One is to make some simple switches to the cooking process. Using olive oil instead of goose or duck fat is a healthier option.
- Choosing lean white meat instead of red meat, and skipping processed trimmings like sausage meat and pigs in blankets can bring the calorie dramatically down too.
- Another smart technique when faced with a huge spread is to fill your plate with vegetables first, then move around to the protein, carbs and condiments. This way you’ll get more of the fibrous elements and less of the fatty, calorific items.
- Perhaps one lesson we can learn from our Scandinavian and Mediterranean neighbours is to swap traditional Christmas meat for fish. This may amount to blasphemy for some, but in truth, fish is a much less calorific option, and can be just as tasty.
Unfortunately here in the UK, our liberal attitude to food during Christmas isn’t limited to just one meal, or even just one day.
Many might begin the culinary festivities on their annual Christmas meal with work, enjoy a few night’s worth of dining out in the run-up to the big day, and continue to overindulge during the days that follow the 25th, up into the new year.
For most, consuming excess calories on Christmas Day is a given, but the more this becomes a habit, the harder it is going to be to switch to a healthier lifestyle come January.
This is something to take into consideration on the days either side of Christmas.
It may seem obvious, but the best way to keep your calorie intake under control is to simply be aware of it. The more effort you put into keeping track of the calories you eat, the more care you’ll take when visiting the Christmas party buffet, or ordering dessert on a night out in a restaurant.
Exercising a level of restraint in the days running up to (and following) Christmas Day also comes with the added psychological benefit that you’ll appreciate the big meal itself even more.
We’ll have more on healthy Christmas eating habits in our next post, where we'll be talking to expert Sarah Coe of the British Nutrition Foundation, and internationally-renowned chef Michel Roux Jr.
Here's a breakdown of our Christmas spreads by country. Click on the graphic to enlarge.