With the holiday season fast approaching, you may be feeling despair at the thought of facing all those tempting foods you so love. But you needn’t gain weight or eat foods with zero nutritional value.
The key is to make the best choices from the array of dishes spread out before you. Here are five foods often found in holiday meals that are actually quite good for you.
It’s always a good idea to reach for any dish containing fruits or vegetables. The common apple is one fruit often transformed for the holidays into sweet treats or included for crunch in salads. While the first isn’t so great, the second choice is excellent.
Be sure to look for apples with the peel still on, since that is where the largest concentration of nutrients is found. And choose red over green when possible, as the red-skinned apple varieties contain anthocyanins, a photosynthetic pigment which is a powerful flavonoid that helps protect the body against disease.
Apples are a good source of fiber, vitamin C, and antioxidants (phenols and flavonoids). They also have phytonutrients (polyphenols and flavonols). Phytonutrients are chemicals found in plants that provide health benefits and they are particularly dense in apples. This structure provides a strong antioxidant benefit which aids cardiovascular function, helping to decrease the amount of bad, or LDL, cholesterol and triglycerides in the bloodstream.
And even though apples are considered “high carb” they can help regulate blood sugar and slow down the body’s absorption of other carbohydrates and glucose. In addition, the flavonoids found in apples stimulate insulin production in the pancreas and insulin receptors in the cells.
This is the season when you will find fresh cranberries stocked in the produce aisle of your local market. Take advantage of them now, perhaps buying enough to use in a holiday dish along with a few extra packages to stick in your freezer.
Don’t buy cranberry juice or canned cranberry sauce – unless it’s the whole berry variety – because, just like the apple, the skin is where the nutrients are packed in.
One cup of fresh, whole cranberries provides 5 grams of fiber, along with healthy doses of manganese, vitamin C, vitamin E, copper, vitamin K and pantothenic acid. Cranberries are packed with antioxidants, second only to blueberries. They are also a top source of phytonutrients that provide anti-inflammatory, antioxidant and anti-cancer benefits for the human body. Read more here.
Hopefully you can find more than just pumpkin pie in the spread of food on your holiday table. Pumpkin bread, pumpkin seeds – in salads or used as a crust for other vegetables or meats – and roasted chunks of pumpkin are all nutritious choices to complement a holiday meal.
In one cup of cooked pumpkin you will find a minimal number of calories with a good amount of protein and fiber. Pumpkin is a great source of vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin E, riboflavin, potassium, copper and manganese as well as fair amounts of thiamin, vitamin B6, folate, pantothenic acid, niacin, iron, magnesium and phosphorus. That’s a lot of nutrition packed into one small cup of squash!
All these nutrients provide an antioxidant effect in the human body, which helps lower blood pressure, prevent degenerative eye diseases and support good heart health. The beta-carotene found in pumpkin, as well as other orange-hued vegetables, offers protection against heart disease, asthma, certain types of cancer and helps to delay body degeneration due to aging.
Pumpkin’s high potassium levels reduce the risk of stroke, muscle mass and bone density loss and the formation of kidney stones. One more bonus to eating pumpkin is its immunity benefit, due to the high vitamin C and beta-carotene levels.
Sweet potatoes are another nutrition-dense food you are likely to find on the holiday table. Skip the sugar-coated casserole topped with marshmallows, however, and opt for the roasted variety or perhaps a salad that combines greens and nuts with this healthy tuber.
If you have a choice between pumpkin pie and sweet potato pie, opt for the latter, which is likely to have a bit less sugar but a lot more vitamin A and vitamin C. For a delicious, savory side dish that includes sweet potatoes, onions and apple cider, try this recipe for Sweet Potato, Cheddar and Cider Gratin.
Don’t confuse sweet potatoes with yams, however, as they are two different vegetables. In the U.S., you are much more likely to find sweet potatoes in the grocery store, even if the bin is labeled as “yams.”
Sweet potatoes are very similar, nutritionally, to their “cousin,” pumpkin. In one cup, you will find more calories (180 as opposed to 49), but its superior nutritional value more than makes up for it. In fact, that one cup of sweet potatoes contains over 200 percent of the RDA (Recommended Daily Allowance) of vitamin A as well as impressive amounts of vitamin C, manganese, copper, pantothenic acid, biotin, potassium, fiber, vitamins B6, B3, B1 and B2 and phosphorus.
The presence of all these nutrients means that sweet potatoes have excellent antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties as well as blood sugar regulation. Even though they are high in carbohydrates and natural sugar, giving them a high glycemic index rating, sweet potatoes actually even out blood sugar levels.
In addition to all these great health benefits, sweet potatoes have antifungal and antibacterial properties. Next time you suffer from a superficial cut, try applying a slice of sweet potato!
What holiday dinner would be complete without turkey? When it comes to a choice between ham and turkey on the holiday table, turkey wins hands-down as far as popularity, and with good reason. It is the healthier choice, by far, in terms of fat and calories, and it is extremely versatile as a leftover.
In about half a cup of turkey you will find 125 calories in white meat or 147 calories in dark meat without skin – not enough to make a big difference so go ahead and enjoy either. Note that dark meat is more nutritionally dense.
That half cup of turkey also has 2 grams of fat (white)/5 grams of fat (dark); 0 grams of carbs; 26 grams of protein (white)/24 grams of protein (dark); good amounts of vitamins B6 and B12, niacin, selenium, choline and zinc. There is tryptophan – but not enough to put you to sleep. In fact, all meats have some level of tryptophan.
The high amount of protein in turkey as compared to low levels of fat means that it has the ability to fill you up while stabilizing insulin levels and maintaining lean muscle mass. This makes it a good choice for diabetics.
The holiday season only comes once a year and by all means, you should enjoy it. But instead of indulging in every dish at once, try to have a little restraint and make healthier choices. You will feel much better after the New Year is rung in and you are left with distant memories of buffets and parties and holiday events.
What special treats do you have planned for your holiday meals? Which of these holiday super-foods do you include in your celebrations? Do you have any special family recipes? Please share!