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The Healthy Food Guide team believe that making small diet and lifestyle changes brings the best long-term gains. We look at the science behind the headlines and promote a balanced way of eating.

Your summer getaway is on the horizon – a time to recharge and relax. But it’s often at the moment you clock off that you get ill and energy levels slump. Our expert diet will help you beat the pre-holiday stress that lowers your immune system, with meal ideas and diet tips to leave you fighting fit – and a few pounds lighter – so you feel and look fantastic from day one, not day 14!

People who are rarely ill while working often get sick as soon as they stop. It’s a condition that’s earned the term ‘leisure sickness’ after a Dutch psychologist started investigating symptoms in adults during their holiday time. He found three in 100 reported problems such as headaches, migraine, fatigue, muscular pains, nausea and viral infections that caused flu-like symptoms and colds. The onset of these symptoms was linked to stress caused by work overload before taking time off and the actual stress of getting organised to go on holiday. People also found it hard to switch off.

This year, we’re going to help you break the pattern. ‘Use our tips and diet plan to lose a few pounds, beat pre-holiday stress and strengthen your immune system, so you’re less likely to get ill,’ says HFG nutrition consultant Juliette Kellow.

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8 WEEKS TO GO: Put exercise in your diary

However well you plan, life is going to get hectic as you try to fit everything in before your holiday, so schedule 2.5 hours of moderate-intensity exercise into your week now. How you break this down is up to you – it could be 30 minutes on five days a week or three 50-minute sessions. In addition, you should add muscle-strengthening activities on at least two days each week. But it needs to be planned and in the diary, because that means you’ve made it fit into your lifestyle and are more likely to stick to it. Your plan might look like this: three 30-minute fast walks to work plus an hour’s bike ride with the children at the weekend; then, for muscle strengthening, a yoga class and a session of sit-ups and press-ups at home while watching TV.

Exercise is a fabulous stress buster as it releases those happy hormones, endorphins. Plus it’s been proved to build muscle and boost your metabolism so you burn fat faster. The result: regularly exercising in the run-up to your holidays will help you feel happier and calmer, with the added benefit that you’ll feel more confident baring all on the beach, in the garden or by the pool!

7 WEEKS TO GO: Picture yourself on holiday

Turn your holiday prep into me-time. Instead of compiling a frantic shopping list in your head, use that pre-holiday haircut or leg wax appointment to boost your motivation. Close your eyes and imagine watching a calmer, slimmer, more toned and relaxed version of yourself on your summer holiday. Look at the way you move, what you’re wearing, how you talk to other people, the activities you do and how much more energetic you feel. Whenever you feel stressed out or are tempted to pour another glass of wine or munch on chocolate, go back to this home-movie in your head and you’ll feel calmer and more in control.

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6 WEEKS TO GO: Go to bed earlier

Being tired before you go on holiday means you’ll be even more tired when you get to your destination (and chances are you’ll feel irritable, low on energy and cope less well with stress in the run-up, too). Make it your mission to get enough rest before you head off – so you don’t waste the first week of your holiday trying desperately to catch up on sleep. It may help with weight loss, too. Numerous studies show that people who have less than six hours’ sleep a night are more likely to have bigger waistlines, because too little sleep affects our appetite hormones. Levels of leptin, which tells the brain when we’re full, drop and trigger hunger; while levels of ghrelin increase, telling the brain we need to eat. Aim for seven to nine hours of sleep a night. To help you get to sleep, avoid eating large meals late in the evening, swap alcohol and coffee for calming chamomile tea and switch off your laptop and phone long before bedtime.

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5 WEEKS TO GO: Stock up your freezer

If you’re extra busy before you go away, you may not have much time or inclination to cook – but eating unhealthily isn’t going to help your immune system. Instead, prepare now by filling your freezer with homemade ready meals. Every time you cook, double the quantities you make and freeze the remainder in individual portions. Great choices include moussaka, bolognese sauce, chilli con carne, fish pie, veggie lasagne, jacket and mashed potato. Many of the recipes in HFG can be frozen, too. Stock up on frozen veg and berries and buy a couple of extra loaves of bread and cartons of milk to freeze and use in those hectic last couple of days.

4 WEEKS TO GO: Rethink the way you drink

Being dehydrated can cause headaches, poor concentration and tiredness, making life seem even more stressful. Avoid it by drinking plenty of water – you know you’re having enough if your urine is a pale yellow and doesn’t smell. All fluids (except alcohol) count, but some may make you feel more stressed out. Caffeine (in cola as well as tea and coffee, don’t forget) is a stimulant that creates a stress reaction in the body and may make it harder for you to drop off to sleep.

 

Now’s a good time to switch to decaff versions or fruit and herbal teas. Bear in mind, too, that many drinks, including smoothies and fruit juices, are loaded with calories, which won’t help you shift those excess pounds. For a fruity, calorie-free alternative, try sparkling water with a squeeze of fresh citrus juice. And remember alcohol causes dehydration – as well as being packed with empty calories – leaving you more prone to a hangover, which will make everything feel more stressful.

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3 WEEKS TO GO: Pack more nutrients into every meal

Eating well keeps every part of the body in good shape, including your immune system, so make sure you have a balanced diet that’s packed with nutrient-rich foods. Munch on plenty of fruit and veg – they’re good sources of antioxidants, which help to mop up an excess of free radicals that can damage the immune system. In particular, vitamin C increases the production of infection-fighting white cells, so include citrus fruits, berries and peppers. Don’t, however, be fooled into thinking that taking megadoses of vitamin C will prevent  you getting a cold while you’re away – research shows that at best it will only help to slightly reduce the severity and duration of symptoms.

Include lean meat and eggs, too – they’re rich in zinc, low levels of which can upset the balance of white cells in the body. Add nuts, seeds and avocado to meals – they contain vitamin E, which has been found to boost the immune system in two ways: by stimulating the production of natural killer cells that seek out and destroy germs, and by enhancing the production of immune cells that produce bacteria-destroying antibodies. Brazil nuts are also loaded with selenium, an antioxidant that’s essential for a healthy immune system.

2 WEEKS TO GO: Start your day with a probiotic yogurt or drink

These products contain good bacteria that help keep the digestive system healthy, which in turn can help ease some of the digestive problems we sometimes experience when we’re stressed out, such as bloating, loose stools and a gurgling tummy. Making sure your digestive system is in tip-top shape and packed with good bacteria may also help to protect against infections while you’re away and help you cope with the diet changes that often go hand-in-hand with a holiday. And remember to feed these good bacteria by eating plenty of prebiotics found in vegetables such as asparagus, leeks, Jerusalem artichokes and onions.

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1 WEEK TO GO: Make meals in minutes

Keep cooking time to a minimum by stocking your fridge and cupboards with plenty of ready-to-eat, time-saving ingredients that need little preparation and cooking but can be transformed easily into a tasty meal. Hummus, tzatziki, peppers, carrot sticks, bags of salad leaves, cherry tomatoes, melon, lean cold meats, cooked prawns, fresh pasta and low-fat soft cheese are great additions to your fridge, and tins of tuna and salmon, jars of low-fat tomato sauce, couscous and microwaveable rice are handy for your cupboards. The enemy of pre-holiday prep is the takeaway menu…

*Weight-loss results will vary and are down to your individual circumstances and the amount of weight you have to lose.