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You don't have to sabotage your health when you indulge in festive treats -- just focus on picks from this short-list of healthy (and delicious) holiday eats!
For many, the holiday season can mean loosening your belt and indulging in foods that are normally off-limits. But you don't have to torpedo your health (or your weight) this holiday season. Dip into this list of five healthy holiday foods that will satisfy your desire to indulge in holiday cheer, without the post-holiday guilt.
1. Pastured Turkey
Turkey is a staple of the holidays. But have you given much thought to how it's raised? Pastured birds are better than factory-raised birds -- better for you, better for the animals and better for the environment. Raising turkeys in a natural setting creates healthier birds, which means more nutritious meat for consumers.
Raising smaller flocks mostly outdoors also creates less negative impact on the environment than factory farms, which raise large numbers of birds in confined indoor spaces. Pastured turkeys consume a variety of grasses, bugs, worms and fruit, which gives their meat a more delicious and complex flavor.
Nutritionally, pastured birds are generally higher in healthy fats and contain more vitamins and minerals, with better ratios of omega-3 fats to omega-6 fats than factory-grown birds.
Turkey is a rich source of vitamin B6 and niacin, essential for energy production in the body. Turkey is also high in selenium, an essential mineral for proper metabolic and immune system functioning.[i] Since food labelling standards vary and can be deceptive, consider purchasing pastured turkey from local sources such as farmers markets, where you can talk to farmers and verify how birds are fed and kept.
Heritage turkeys support a network of independent growers that preserve endangered lines of turkey breeds and ensure humane animal treatment. If you don't have this option in your area, seek out "organic" and/or "pasture-raised" birds for the highest quality meat.
Tangy and delicious, cranberries are a festive seasonal fruit that usually make their first appearance on Thanksgiving Day. But don't limit this nutritional powerhouse to special occasions. Cranberries are considered one of the healthiest foods on the planet, so make this bright berry a regular fixture on your fall (and winter) table.
Densely nutritious, 1 cup of raw cranberries supplies around 25% of your daily requirement of vitamin C, 16% RDA of manganese and a healthy dose of vitamins A, K, E and B-complex.[ii] Rich in polyphenols that produce the berry's deep red color, a study[iii] of 20 common fruits found that, gram for gram, cranberries had the highest level of antioxidants, with red grapes placing a distant second.[iv]
Fresh cranberries are the superior choice for health, since most prepared juices and sauces are loaded with sugar. When cooking down raw berries, adding a small amount of raw sugar and fresh orange helps bring these fruits into balance. For a festive and healthy holiday beverage, tame the tartness of pure cranberry juice by mixing with sparkling mineral water and raw honey. Add a cinnamon stick to give it a spicy, seasonal kick.
3. Sweet Potatoes
Another richly colored holiday food, sweet potatoes are known for their bright orange flesh -- unless we're talking about the purple variety -- and naturally sweet flavor profile. Traditional sweet potatoes are rich in beta-carotene, a phytochemical that gives the potato its orange hue. Both the purple and orange varieties are high in vitamins C and B6 and loaded with potassium and fiber.
But it's a little-known compound called anthocyanins that has natural health advocates hunting purple spuds for their holiday dinner plates. Anthocyanins are phytochemical pigments that convey the coloring in foods that appear blue, red or purple. Anthocyanins have demonstrated ability to protect against a myriad of human diseases, thanks in part to their high antioxidant concentrations.[v]
Studies on anthocyanins have demonstrated anti-inflammatory properties that may help prevent alcoholic fatty liver disease.[vi] Anthocyanins have also been epidemiologically associated with a reduced cancer risk.[vii]
4. Brussels Sprouts
A vegetable that you either love or hate, Brussel sprouts are worth taking the time to warm up to. Named after the city in Belgium where they were first widely cultivated in the 16th century, Brussels sprouts are just what they appear to be -- tiny cabbages.
The distaste that some people develop for Brussels sprouts is likely due to a bitter flavor and unpleasant odor that occurs when the vegetable is overcooked, especially when boiled. However, it's important to cook Brussels sprouts rather than consuming them raw, since cooking breaks down glucosinolates into isothiocyanates,[viii] compounds that have been studied for their anticancer effects[ix] and their ability to protect cells against DNA damage.[x]
To prepare Brussels sprouts, clean and slice in half, lengthwise. Roast in a 400-degree F oven with a drizzle of olive oil and seasoning until lightly browned. You can also steam them for around six to eight minutes until just tender, then drizzle with extra virgin olive oil and season with salt and pepper before serving.
5. Dark Chocolate (Raw Cacao)
No holiday feast is complete without dessert, and what's better for satisfying a sweet tooth than chocolate? Dark chocolate -- the food anomaly that disproves the adage if it tastes good, it can't be good for you -- is a delicious superfood.
Made of high concentrations of cocoa or raw cacao, dark chocolate just might be the greatest health news of all. Cacao generally refers to raw cacao beans, while cocoa refers to cacao beans that have been roasted. Rich in flavanols and antioxidants, dark chocolate is considered a heart-healthy food. Studies have shown that chocolate consumption may be associated with reduced risk of cardiovascular disease (CVD)[xi],[xii] and may reduce the 10-year risk of CVD death by as much as 40%.[xiii]
And if that isn't enough good news, chocolate may help make you smarter. A 2016 study demonstrated that chocolate intake was associated with better brain function,[xiv] and studies on seniors who ate dark chocolate showed that they performed significantly better on cognitive tests[xv] and had lowered risk of cognitive decline than control subjects.[xvi]
That's hardly the end of the story of cacao's powerful health benefits. For example, if you're concerned about diabetes risk from eating dark chocolate, don't be; studies have shown that cacao flavonoids reduce the risks of several chronic diseases caused from metabolic disorders, including Type 2 diabetes[xvii] and obesity.
A 2018 meta-study showed that cocoa/dark chocolate supplementation actually reduced body weight, lowered body mass index (BMI) and reduced waist circumference in clinical trials.[xviii] When purchasing chocolate, a higher cacao percentage generally correlates to lower sugar content. For optimal health benefits, look for bars of at least 70% cocoa or cacao.
[i] Marangoni, F., Corsello, G., Cricelli, C., Ferrara, N., Ghiselli, A., Lucchin, L., & Poli, A. (2015). Role of poultry meat in a balanced diet aimed at maintaining health and wellbeing: an Italian consensus document. Food & nutrition research, 59, 27606. https://doi.org/10.3402/fnr.v59.27606
[ii] WebMD, Food-Recipes, Health Benefits of Cranberries, https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/health-benefits-cranberries
[iii] American Chemical Society. (2001, November 8). Holiday Fruit Ranks Number One In Antioxidants. ScienceDaily. Retrieved November 29, 2020 from www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2001/11/011108064027.htm
[iv] WebMD, Food-Recipes, Health Benefits of Cranberries, https://www.webmd.com/food-recipes/health-benefits-cranberries
[vi] Zhihui Jiang, Chen Chen, Wenyan Xie, Meng Wang, Jian Wang, Xiaoying Zhang. Anthocyanins attenuate alcohol-induced hepatic injury by inhibiting pro-inflammation signalling. Nat Prod Res. 2015 Mar 16:1-5. Epub 2015 Mar 16. PMID: 25774691
[vii] Kansas State University. "Purple Sweet Potato Means Increased Amount Of Anti-cancer Components." ScienceDaily. ScienceDaily, 30 June 2009. https://www.sciencedaily.com/releases/2009/06/090629132250.htm
[viii] Harvard School of Public Health, The Nutrition Source, Food Features, Brussels Sprouts, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/food-features/brussels-sprouts/
[ix] Christopher S Bryant, Sanjeev Kumar, Sreedhar Chamala, Jay Shah, Jagannath Pal, Mahdi Haider, Shelly Seward, Aamer M Qazi, Robert Morris, Assaad Semaan, Masood A Shammas, Christopher Steffes, Ravindra B Potti, Madhu Prasad, Donald W Weaver, Ramesh B Batchu. Sulforaphane induces cell cycle arrest by protecting RB-E2F-1 complex in epithelial ovarian cancer cells. Mol Cancer. 2010;9:47. Epub 2010 Mar 2. PMID: 20196847
[x] Christine Hoelzl, Hansruedi Glatt, Walter Meinl, Gerhard Sontag, Gerald Haidinger, Michael Kundi, Tatjana Simic, Asima Chakraborty, Julia Bichler, Franziska Ferk, Karel Angelis, Armen Nersesyan, Siegfried Knasmüller. Consumption of Brussels sprouts protects peripheral human lymphocytes against 2-amino-1-methyl-6-phenylimidazo[4,5-b]pyridine (PhIP) and oxidative DNA-damage: results of a controlled human intervention trial. Mol Nutr Food Res. 2008 Mar;52(3):330-41. PMID: 18293303
[xi] Yongcheng Ren, Yu Liu, Xi-Zhuo Sun, Bing-Yuan Wang, Yang Zhao, De-Chen Liu, Dong-Dong Zhang, Xue-Jiao Liu, Rui-Yuan Zhang, Hao-Hang Sun, Fei-Yan Liu, Xu Chen, Cheng Cheng, Lei-Lei Liu, Qiong-Gui Zhou, Ming Zhang, Dong-Sheng Hu. Chocolate consumption and risk of cardiovascular diseases: a meta-analysis of prospective studies. Heart. 2018 Jul 30. Epub 2018 Jul 30. PMID: 30061161
[xii] C S Kwok, Y K Loke, A A Welch, R N Luben, M A H Lentjes, S M Boekholdt, R Pfister, M A Mamas, N J Wareham, K-T Khaw, P K Myint. Habitual chocolate consumption and the risk of incident heart failure among healthy men and women. Nutr Metab Cardiovasc Dis. 2016 Jan 28. Epub 2016 Jan 28. PMID: 27052923
[xiii] Roberto Sansone, Ana Rodriguez-Mateos, Jan Heuel, David Falk, Dominik Schuler, Rabea Wagstaff, Gunter G C Kuhnle, Jeremy P E Spencer, Hagen Schroeter, Marc W Merx, Malte Kelm, Christian Heiss,. Cocoa flavanol intake improves endothelial function and Framingham Risk Score in healthy men and women: a randomised, controlled, double-masked trial: the Flaviola Health Study. Br J Nutr. 2015 Sep 9:1-10. Epub 2015 Sep 9. PMID: 26348767
[xiv] Georgina E Crichton, Merrill F Elias, Ala'a Alkerwi. Chocolate intake is associated with better cognitive function: The Maine-Syracuse Longitudinal Study. Appetite. 2016 May 1 ;100:126-32. Epub 2016 Feb 10. PMID: 26873453
[xv] Edilbeto Orozco Arbelaez, José Ramón Banegas, Fernando Rodríguez Artalejo, Esther López García. [Influence of habitual chocolate consumption over the Mini-Mental State Examination in Spanish older adults]. Nutr Hosp. 2017 Jul 28 ;34(4):841-846. Epub 2017 Jul 28. PMID: 29095007
[xvi] Afonso Moreira, Maria José Diógenes, Alexandre de Mendonça, Nuno Lunet, Henrique Barros. Chocolate Consumption is Associated with a Lower Risk of Cognitive Decline. J Alzheimers Dis. 2016 May 6. Epub 2016 May 6. PMID: 27163823
[xviii] Hamed Kord-Varkaneh, Ehsan Ghaedi, Ali Nazary-Vanani, Hamed Mohammadi, Sakineh Shab-Bidar. Does cocoa/dark chocolate supplementation have favorable effect on body weight, body mass index and waist circumference? A systematic review, meta-analysis and dose-response of randomized clinical trials. Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr. 2018 Mar 19:0. Epub 2018 Mar 19. PMID: 29553824