As Mr Claus gets ready to embark upon yet another 34-hour journey across the globe, children around the world wait in anticipation for their desired treasures.1 Santa is always a delight to behold, with his rosy-red cheeks, belly like a “bowl full of jelly” and, of course, his sack laden with gifts, but have we ever stopped to think that Santa could be setting a bad example to us all with his less than healthy holiday habits?
At Christmas, most of us are inclined to go overboard with festive food and drinks, choosing to tackle the implications of our overindulgence in the new year. Santa’s approach, it seems, is even more lax. He rarely walks, spending most of his Christmas eve commanding a sleigh pulled by eight reindeer. He is also a hardcore binge eater, gorging each Christmas eve on the sweet treats left out for him by families all over the world.
Santa gets away with this because he is, of course, immortal.2 But what if he wasn’t? What would centuries of eating mince pies, downing pints of sherry, and contending with smoky chimneys do to Santa’s health?
Despite being an icon of joy, Santa’s lifestyle isn’t anything to live up to. He’s overweight, well advanced in years (around 1,700 years old),3 and works a job that condones drink driving. Everything that makes Santa, Santa, is bad for him, and bad for you too (that is, if you were to aspire to Santa’s lifestyle. Weird, but you do you).
We know Santa must be obese. The average mince pie totals over 200 calories,4 and with approximately eight million households to visit in the UK,5 Saint Nick consumes a whopping 1.6bn calories of snacks in just one (relatively small) country alone.
But the excess weight accrued from all the Christmas confections puts Santa at serious risk of several health conditions. Kris Kringle’s protruding middle increases his risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD) by 28%6 and he’s also seven times more likely than his trim elves to suffer from type 2 diabetes.7
But Santa’s problems don’t end there. Having a combination of both obesity and diabetes in addition to other comorbidities puts him at a greater risk for developing metabolic syndrome, which is a cluster of conditions that can cause coronary heart disease, stroke, and other conditions that affect the blood vessels,8 making them no-ho-ho laughing matter.
Research shows that people’s average blood glucose levels and cholesterol levels rise slightly during the holiday season.9 Prioritising a diet low in salt and saturated fat, not smoking, and maintaining a reasonable level of physical activity (at least 30 minutes every other day), are all important preventative measures that Santa and all of us should heed this festive season.10,8
It’s not just those pesky mince pie calories that Santa needs to keep his eyes on either. Partaking in a single measure of sherry (50ml) at each child’s house in the UK racks up an additional 400m calories11 in booze for The Fat Man. This does nothing to alleviate the snugness of that golden belt buckle, but the additional health risks associated with excessive drinking should give Mr Claus pause for thought.
If Santa was mortal, his excessive alcohol consumption would negatively affect his liver, the complex organ that does the important job of filtering toxins from the blood.12
A sherry at every UK home equates to eight million units of alcohol in a few hours alone.13,5 An over-consumption of plonk can result in alcohol-related liver disease (ARLD), which occurs when our livers can no longer repair themselves as effectively as they once did.12 ARLD can eventually lead to liver cirrhosis (alcohol-mediated liver damage), and worryingly, often goes unnoticed until the damage has been done.12
This also puts Santa at an increased risk of conditions including liver disease, various cancers, stroke and poor mental health.14 This isn’t to mention the crippling indigestion he no doubt suffers from as a result of all the sherry and mince pie gorging; he’s quite relieved when he gets to visit our milk-offering counterparts in the USA.
It may be astonishing that Santa manages to force his bulk down our chimneys at all, but the risk to his health goes beyond a burnt bottom, or potentially roasting his chestnuts on an open fire.
The link between woodsmoke exposure and various respiratory, circulatory and cardiovascular diseases has long been researched, but more recent evidence has linked woodsmoke inhalation to cognitive dysfunction, including Alzheimer’s disease.15
Studies have shown that the emission of various particulate matter from woodsmoke has been associated with an increased risk for dementia.16 This means that while Santa squeezes through chimney after chimney, he’s likely to inhale an inordinate amount of particulate matter that may increase his likelihood of developing the disease!
However, in addition to the negative impacts of inhaling toxins released by woodsmoke, Santa must face the extra risk of being exposed to carcinogenic chimney soot, which may increase his risk of developing cancer of the scrotum.17,18 So, Santa, if you’re reading this, please get yourself checked out. You’ve got more than one sack to worry about.
Fortunately for Father Christmas, most UK chimneys exist only for decorative purposes, owing to the introduction of smokeless zones in the 1950s.19 This means Santa’s risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease and scrotal cancer has greatly diminished since then.
Christmas wouldn’t be Christmas without the hope of glimpsing Santa and his sleigh soaring across a snow-filled sky, but it’s a strenuous mode of transport; the driving of which takes a physical toll on our old fellow.
Evidence shows that prolonged repetitive physical workload increases the risk of developing rheumatoid arthritis by 150%.20 What’s more, exposure to repeated vibration, carrying or lifting weights greater than 10kg (recall that gift-laden sack), and working with hands above shoulder level are all common causes of rheumatoid arthritis.21
With just 34 hours to visit 800 million homes in a variety of countries,1 few have a tighter schedule to adhere to than Father Christmas. Santa might well be tempted to cut corners in his pursuit of delivering his gifts on time, but hand sanitizer is non-negotiable.
There are over 500 infection-causing organisms that can be transmitted through human-to-human contact.22 Some of these organisms are waterborne or buried deep in the jungle, so pose no threat to The Fat Man, but this still leaves a considerable number that he could pick up and spread to other homes, in airborne droplets or via surfaces.22,23
Covid-19 and flu are the two most obvious that we need to be aware of during the winter season. Both are spread through close contact with people who have the viruses, as droplets containing Covid-19 and flu viruses are released when an infected person breathes, speaks, coughs or sneezes.23 These germs can live on hands and on surfaces, with flu being able to survive on surfaces for around 24 hours.24,25 Fortunately for Santa, he can simply swap washing his hands to a rendition of ‘Happy Birthday’ twice, for a couple of verses of ‘Jingle Bells’ to keep the winter bugs at bay for all of us.
Health-wise, things aren’t looking so merry and bright for old St Nick, but Santa wields more power and magic than us mere mortals: his inhuman metabolism makes him a living legend and he’s always cheerful and jovial, despite being on the brink of clinical death.
But we can learn a lot from the potential health pitfalls we’ve warned Father Christmas about. Keeping an eye on what we’re eating and drinking, remembering to move around plenty, and keeping our loved ones safe from germs will help to keep us all merry across the festive season.
Merry Christmas from Onyx Health and a Safe and Healthy New Year to You and Yours!