The holidays are here again! The next month will be filled with family, friends, fun, and sometimes, it seems above all else: food. Although I’ve given countless lectures and written numerous articles on nutrition, I’m a strong believer that food is more than nutrition. Food can bring joy, social interaction, and connection to the past, all of which are important components to your health when done in moderation. These components are especially important during the holidays. Below are some ideas for loosening the reigns (but hopefully not the belt) for a bit while still taking advantage of some great — and sometimes even healthy — holiday foods.
The number one key to your holiday eating: don’t let the sugars bring you down. Sugar increases inflammation and decreases your immune response both of which can make you more susceptible to illness during the holidays. Of course, some moderation should be kept in place, but if you are going to increase sugar, at least get it in the most enjoyable ways, like homemade foods and treats. Avoiding processed foods will naturally cut down a lot of the sugar intake we don’t even realize we are having. Also, when you do have those sugars, make sure it is combined with a protein or fiber. A sugar with a protein or fiber will take longer to digest, which means it will not be absorbed into your bloodstream as quickly and it will not give you as much of a blood-sugar spike. A smaller spike equals less detriment to your inflammatory process and to your immune system. The fiber or protein will also help you to stay full and eat less. Often, it is an increase in alcohol that contributes to an increase in sugar intake. Pair the alcohol with a little cheese or other protein, and your body will fare better.
Eat the soup. One of my favorite holiday additions are the great soups that typically offer a great whole foods option for getting a variety of vegetables. Those vegetables can also pack a powerful immune-stimulating punch. Garlic, onions, and turmeric are all anti-microbial, meaning they can help you fight off the viruses and bacteria that we so readily pass around this time of year. Chicken or chicken broth in the soup adds n-acetyl-cysteine, which serves as a natural mucous thinning additive to decrease congestion and cough. Add a little spice to your soup, like a black or cayenne pepper, which will increase circulation and further decrease congestion.
Drink the coffees and teas. Coffees and teas, both in moderation and without too much extra stuff added in, can provide a wonderful array of anti-oxidants. Coffee is one of our most abundantly studied plants. It has been credited with improving mood, decreasing Alzheimer’s, protecting the liver, decreasing cardiovascular risk, and more. Stick with the caffeinated version. Decaffeinated options aren’t as good for you due to additives in the decaffeinating process. Teas have many of the same benefits, and can be a good option for those intolerant to caffeine.
Take advantage of holiday foods. Some of the most ubiquitous holiday flavors are also some of our most useful medicinal herbs. From coffees to teas and cookies, peppermint is most useful as a digestive aide. Like most members of the menthol family, peppermint is an antispasmodic and as such can relax the digestive tract to ease indigestion and nausea. This can be beneficial during times like the holidays when we are eating more rich, and just more, food. Peppermint has even been shown to decrease symptoms of irritable bowel when taken regularly. The anti-spasmodic effects of peppermint and other mints can also relieve the spasm of a cough. Pick up a natural peppermint tea to use as a beneficial option to eggnog, cream-filled coffees and other warm treats.
Ginger, another common holiday addition, is a warming and drying herb. As a warming botanical, it can improve circulation and help to relieve cold hands and feet and increase your tolerance to the colder outdoor temperatures. Its drying property especially helps with the congestion that comes with cold and flu season. Ginger is also a great anti-microbial and will help you ward off those viral exposures.
Pumpkin, which seems to be added into just about everything these days, is actually considered a superfood because of its incredibly high nutrient content. Of course, check your labels to make sure that you are getting real pumpkin, but if you are, you will glean the benefits of a great set of anti-oxidants. Pumpkin is especially high in lutein, the same carotenoid also responsible for the orange color in carrots, which provides protection for eye health. A half cup of pumpkin also contains about 5 grams of fiber, which means that the sugar included in the pumpkin pie won’t cause as much of a blood-sugar spike compared with other desserts. Finally, pumpkin seeds are high in zinc, which stimulates the immune system and has been shown to be protective against some types of cancer.
Dark chocolate, likewise a super-food, can also be on your list of holiday libations. Dark chocolate (at least 70%), which by definition contains very little milk, boasts powerful anti-oxidants called flavonols. Flavonols have heart health benefits including regulation of blood pressure, and control of the arterial inflammation that can lead to heart disease. The magnesium content in dark chocolate can also serve to decrease sugar cravings for many so a small amount can help to moderate the intake of the other sweet treats that might be around.
We tend to eat more around the holidays but hopefully this will help you to lean towards the foods that might even be beneficial. These are the times to enjoy the social connection and memories with friends and family that often includes food and drinks. Appreciate how those foods are serving you, both emotionally, and with mostly good choices, nutritionally. I wish you the happiest of holidays.
Stay healthy & be well!
-Amy Whittington, NMD