Should Santa be on a diet? UAB nutrition scientist weighs in

Is a pleasantly plump Santa Claus a bad role model in a nation dealing with out-of-control obesity rates? UAB’s Beth Kitchin says: not so much.

In the midst of America’s obesity epidemic, Santa Claus, that right jolly old elf with the twinkle in his eye, just might be a bad role model. He is chubby and plump (says Clement Moore in ’Twas the Night Before Christmas), and in a nation with the highest obesity rates in the world, it could be argued that a rotund St. Nick sends a mixed message.

santa_diet_s“Would the world really be a better place with a thin Santa Claus?” wonders Beth Kitchin, Ph.D., R.D., assistant professor of nutrition sciences at the University of Alabama at Birmingham (UAB). “Studies show that fitness level is an important measure of someone’s health, not just weight, so maybe a few extra pounds on a treasured icon aren’t such a bad thing.”

In her health and wellness blog, the Kitchin Sink, Kitchin has laid out the health markers Santa needs to achieve to maintain good health regardless of weight: appropriate blood pressure and blood sugar levels, low cholesterol and the like.

“There is evidence that older people often do better with a little extra weight,” said Kitchin. “While we do not know Santa’s exact age, sightings of St. Nick date from the 16th century, making him possibly hundreds of years old. Weight loss in an elf his age could lead to osteoporosis, fractures and malnutrition, and who wants that for Father Christmas?”

“We know that Santa gets plenty of exercise on Christmas Eve, but he needs to be walking (or snowshoeing) at least 30 minutes on most days of the week as well,” Kitchin writes in her blog post. “Assuming he eats properly and takes care of himself, there’s no reason he can’t carry a few extra pounds. Besides, our studies on obesity and weight have been done on human subjects, and we don’t know that much about elf metabolism.”

So a portly Santa is not necessarily an unhealthy Santa, but Kitchin offers tips on how to help the old gift-giver eat healthy as he travels around the world on Christmas Eve.

Healthy Santa Snacks:

Cookie control. If you are sticking with the traditional Santa snack of milk and cookies, be sure to practice portion control. Remember, you are not the only one leaving him food. No more than one or two Oreos (50 calories each) should sustain Santa until he gets to the next house.

Skim or 1% milk. Santa needs milk to wash down those cookies. And because milk is loaded with protein, potassium and calcium, a glass could help lower Santa’s chances of breaking a bone in case of a hard landing.

Think Mediterranean. Santa needs fat in his diet to stay jolly, so let’s make that fat the healthy kind. The Mediterranean diet is packed with healthy plant fats such as olives, nuts, seeds and olive oil. So how about leaving Santa some hummus and pita chips?

Nuts and seeds. Nuts and seeds are also healthy fats — and if Santa is getting behind on his schedule, they travel well; he can throw them in his sack and be on his way. The reindeer like them, too.

Balance with fruits and veggies. Santa cannot live on cookies alone. He would welcome some carrot sticks with ranch dressing or a banana that he can take with him on the sled. Pack up some apples with peanut butter for the trans-Atlantic leg of his trip.