If you’re like most of my patients, you worry that eating all those rich holiday foods in the upcoming weeks will sabotage your diet and healthy-eating efforts. As I tell my patients though, many of the typical foods we associate with the holidays, even a little alcohol, can boost your health rather than sabotage it! Let me explain how.
Holiday SuperFoods That Keep You Humming
Traditionally, high-fat, high-sugar foods are typical fare for holiday feasting. We look forward to eating them because they’re comfort foods that make us feel happy and remind us that it’s a special occasion to be able to enjoy such rich food.
There are, however, ways to prepare, and enjoy, those same holiday foods so that they become holiday superfoods without all the health concerns and weight gain! Here are some favorite holiday foods done healthy that can turbo-charge your health if you partake in them smartly.
Apples/Apple pie: Apples are full of quercetin, a potent anti-inflammatory which may prevent lung damage in smokers. They also contain a lot of fiber, and water. They have a very low glycemic load, meaning they don’t ratchet up your insulin levels so you don’t deposit fat. The trick is to prepare them without all the real sugar that usually accompanies holiday apple dishes. Instead, make baked apples with the skins on, and make your own applesauce instead of store-bought. This way, even apple pie can be healthier. Use low-carb almond flour for the crust instead of wheat flour and sweeten with a mixture of Stevia or Xylitol, and a little cinnamon (see health benefits below).
Beef/Carrots/Sweet Potatoes: If you like to serve juicy roast beef for your holiday meat, remember to combine it with carrots, or sweet potatoes. The zinc in the beef helps bind the Vitamin A so that your body can absorb it better. Vitamin A is essential for good eyesight, but did you know it also protects your skin and mucous membranes, or the wet tissues that line your mouth, nose, throat. Other protein/zinc/Vitamin A combos could be sweet potato, or winter squash with fish, turkey, chicken, or cantaloupe with cottage cheese.
Dairy, Leafy Green Vegetables: Many holiday meats like ham, roast beef, lamb are usually high in saturated fat. However, you can reduce the cholesterol/saturated fat load of these foods by combining them with high calcium foods, like the low fat dairy of yogurt, cottage cheese, or dark green leafy vegetables like bok choy, broccoli, kale or okra. The calcium binds to the fatty acids (and their cholesterol) in the meat during digestion and prevents much of their absorption .
Chocolate: What would the holidays be without chocolate? Just remember to make it dark chocolate, at least 70% cacao content, unsweetened, or sweetened with Stevia or Agave in dessert recipes. Dark chocolate helps decrease cholesterol, relaxes blood vessels and lowers blood pressure as it is high in magnesium and is also full of health-boosting flavonoids.
Cinnamon: Used to flavor favorites like apple and pumpkin pie, egg nogs, yams, etc. The health benefits of cinnamon (cassia and cinnamonum verum types) have been researched over the last few years and have been found to lower blood sugar as it increases insulin action. Be aware, though, that even though cinnamon is a GRAS (generally recognized as safe) food by the FDA, large amounts of American cinnamon (cassia cinnamon or cassia bark) may possibly be harmful to the liver, in sensitive people, as it contains coumarin. Limit cassia-type cinnamon to 1 gram a day (equivalent to ½ tsp or two, 500 mg capsules). This is about the amount that is contained in an entire apple or pumpkin pie. Ceylon or Sri Lankan cinnamon (cinnamonum verum) comes from a different source than cassia and doesn’t contain coumarin. You likely can find Ceylon cinnamon in whole foods markets. Common grocery store spice aisle cinnamon may be a combination of Cassia and Ceylon type. If you are in doubt, call the manufacturer’s 800 number on the spice tin and ask which type cinnamon they use in their product.
Cranberries: Cranberries are truly one of nature’s beautiful superfoods. They are chocked full of Vitamin C and natural compounds that destroy bacteria in the urinary tract, which help to prevent bladder and kidney infections! Just make your own cranberry sauce instead of store bought in the can and leave out regular sugar. Sweeten with Stevia or Xylitol.
Egg Nog: Believe it or not, this favorite holiday drink can actually be as healthy as a protein shake! Make it with low fat, low carbohydrate almond milk, free range organic eggs, some Stevia or Xylitol to sweeten, a little flax or light olive oil to give it body and a little cinnamon sprinkled atop. Contains protein (for blood sugar balance and muscle strength) and lutein (for eyesight) from the eggs and Vitamin E from the almond milk. If you like, a little rum can also be added to give it a little kick!
Nuts: No holiday party is complete without bowls of snacking nuts placed around the room! A handful of high quality nuts like almonds, cashews, macadamia nuts, walnuts, pecans can curb your appetite with their high protein, high vitamin E, low carbohydrate, monounsaturated fat content. Try to make them unsalted if possible.
Pumpkin, Pecan Pie: Like apple pie, these pies can be health-boosters if done the right way. First substitute traditional flour-based crusts with a low carb almond pie crust made from almond flour. Then omit the real sugar from your recipe by substituting Stevia or Xylitol and lots of spices as usual. Pumpkin has a lot of healthy fiber and Vitamin A. Pecans are full of good fats and fiber and are low in carbohydrates when not drenched in sugar.
Wine/Alcohol: Most holiday dinners/parties wouldn’t be complete without alcohol. You can stay on the healthier side of alcohol and still enjoy a drink or two with friends. Just stick to dry red or white wines which are lower in calories/carbs. Red wine especially is high in resveratrol, a potent anti-oxidant which also helps to break up cholesterol deposits. Recent research shows that people who drink a glass of wine a day have much lower risk of diabetes as it improves insulin resistance . There are also very low carb/calorie beers available as well.
As I tell my patients, the holidays are a time to enjoy being with your family and friends. You shouldn’t have to worry and fret about every little thing you’d like to eat or drink because there, no doubt, will be plenty of opportunities to indulge!
However, if you try to keep your feasting within moderation this holiday season, and include at least some of the superfoods mentioned here, you will not only celebrate the holidays but also keep your health turbo-charged while you participate in all the festivities!
Mark Rosenberg, M.D.
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