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O’Neill Institute Holiday Special: A public health defense of Christmas

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Keep calm and enjoy christmas

Christmas might seem like the natural enemy of public health. There’s the traditional Christmas lunch of roast turkey, ham, potatoes, stuffing, pudding, and if you’re lucky, a Christmas cake made by Mom. And that’s just the day itself. In the lead up there’s the office party with 1000kj canapés, catch-up meals with friends and end-of-year networking lunches. With all this socializing you’re probably running out of time to go jogging, and who wants to get out of bed in this weather anyway? We shouldn’t be surprised that the average American gains ten pounds over the holiday season. Okay, it’s more like a pound, but that one pound sure is hard to shift. 

For many people, all this over-eating is accompanied by drinks – lots of drinks. It’s hard to have alcohol-free days when you’re at a party every night of the week. But alcohol not only adds calories to the diet; excess drinking is associated with unintentional injuries, risky sexual behaviors, alcohol poisoning, and in the long-term, neurological damage, poor cardiovascular health, liver disease and an increased risk of cancer. Sorry to rain on your Santa parade.

Then there’s rushing around the shops to buy presents for family, friends, work colleagues, the yoga instructor and your landlady. More bad news here: research shows that consumerism is linked to poorer mental health. According to George Monbiot at The Guardian, materialism ‘smashes the happiness and peace of mind of those who succumb to it. It’s associated with anxiety, depression and broken relationships.’ And then there’s the annoying relatives who come to visit during the holidays. Uncle Tim’s ‘hilarious’ comments about your weight/how much you eat/when you’re going to get a boyfriend probably aren’t helping your self-esteem either.



 A rather tedious series of blog posts and news articles talk about how to combat these Christmas ills. Allow me summarize hours of painstaking research for you: try smoothies, drink sensibly, go for a walk, skin your turkey, eat mindfully, use contraception, and open your presents carefully.

 But public health doesn’t have to be the Grinch that stole Christmas. Many Christmas traditions can actually be good for you. In everyday life, most people are eating an increasing number of meals outside the home, picking up pre-prepared meals and high-calorie fast food that contributes to America’s weight gain. In practice, we’d benefit if more of our meals were like those at Christmas – made at home, eaten in a leisurely fashion and in the company of loved ones (but minus five different kinds of dessert).

If we stop thinking with our stomachs for a second, then Christmas is about gathering together with family and friends. For some people, the festive season also means reaching out to the wider community, whether that’s by donating food or gifts, serving in soup kitchens, singing Christmas carols or going to Midnight Mass. Christmas offers the opportunity to strengthen social ties, which provide us with the emotional and practical resources we need to withstand life’s daily stresses. Celebrations of all shapes and sizes are important to the basic fabric of our society, and the social cohesion that is fundamental to public health.

While I’ve got your attention, here’s my gripe with Christmas eating advice: it embodies exactly the kind of ‘victim blaming’ approach that public health tries to whack over the head with its big science stick. There’s nothing wrong with encouraging a little self-restraint, particularly if you realize – as the author (sometimes) does – that eating three pieces of cake is going to make you feel pretty sick. But eating one less piece of pie over Christmas won’t fix the global obesity epidemic. That requires sustainable, long-term changes in eating patterns and physical activity across the entire population.

Here’s another problem with all of those lecturing blog posts: they frame obesity as a problem of having too much – a problem of affluence, excess and over-consumption, when in fact obesity’s more common among those with fewer presents under their tree. Sure, we’re all getting bigger, but weight gain is a much greater problem for America’s poor than for the hipsters shopping at Whole Foods.

And the nation’s poor aren’t getting fatter because they’re gorging themselves on turkey at Christmas; they’re gaining weight because they’re working two jobs and don’t have time to cook meals at home for their family; because in some areas healthy food is more expensive than junk food, and because many of the poorest regions lack good public transport, safe environments for physical activity and accessible supermarkets

There answer here is not more advice on healthy eating or telling people to go outside and play ball. It means legislation and policies that support healthier choices for everyone – and especially those who are less well-off. The government can help out by providing better public transport, designing cities that are safe to walk and cycle in, transforming the food supply and weakening corporate influence over our eating patterns. Reducing obesity also requires strategies that move beyond food and exercise and address the social factors that shape our life chances: access to affordable housing, good quality education and other forms of social support.

So my holiday advice is this: embrace the Christmas spirit, don’t worry about how much cake you’re eating and be grateful for the people in your life, even the annoying ones. And in the New Year, let’s come up with some fresh ideas for building a more sustainable and inclusive society, and one which generates lasting improvements in everyone’s health.



I’d like to dedicate this post to my family, (who I’ll miss during my first Christmas away), to the Redfern family (for lending me Sam Redfern for Christmas – again), to Ilana Sinkin (for providing substitute family to cook for on Christmas day), and to the wonderful Australian and American friends I’ve made during my short time in DC, and especially those at the O’Neill Institute. Merry Christmas!

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The views reflected in this expert column are those of the individual authors and do not necessarily represent those of the O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law or Georgetown University. This blog is solely informational in nature, and not intended as a substitute for competent legal advice from a licensed and retained attorney in your state or country.

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