By David Dunaief, M.D.
How hard is it to maintain healthy eating habits during the holidays? Even when we have the best of intentions, it’s hard to resist indulging in seasonal favorites and secret family recipes spread before us in a sprawling buffet.
Unfortunately, that one meal, and perhaps subsequent leftover meals, can have striking health consequences. And if you tend to overeat, be aware that there are significant short-term consequences of stuffing ourselves.
Not surprisingly, Americans tend to gain weight between Thanksgiving and New Year’s Day. This is when many accumulate the greatest weight gain of the year, and most do not lose the weight they gain during this time (1). If you can avoid weight gain during the holidays, think of the possibilities for the rest of the year.
Those who are obese and sedentary may already have heart disease. Overeating during a single meal increases your risk of heart attack over the near term, according to the American Heart Association (2).
The good news is that, with a little planning, you can reap significant health benefits.
What can we do to turn a holiday dinner into a healthier meal? The secret is likely there on your table, hidden in the side dishes. By reconsidering how we prepare them, we can change the Thanksgiving health equation.
Focus on plants
Phytochemicals (plant nutrients) called carotenoids have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects and are found mostly in fruits and vegetables. Carotenoids make up a family of more than 600 different substances, such as beta-carotene, alpha-carotene, lutein, zeaxanthin, lycopene and beta-cryptoxanthin (3).
Carotenoids help to prevent and potentially reverse diseases, such as breast cancer, amyotrophic lateral sclerosis (Lou Gehrig’s disease), age-related macular degeneration, and cardiovascular disease — heart disease and stroke. Foods that contain these substances are dark green leafy vegetables, as well as orange, yellow and red vegetables and fruits.
Focus on presentation and perception
Despite the knowledge that healthy eating has long-term positive effects, there are obstacles to healthy eating. Two critical factors are presentation and perception.
Vegetables are often prepared in either an unappetizing way — steamed to the point of no return – or smothered in cheese and butter, negating any benefits. Fruits are buttered and sugared beyond recognition or used as a garnish for more decadent dishes.
Other plant-based foods, like whole grains and leafy greens, are relegated to side dishes or afterthoughts.
Here are some suggestions to get you thinking about ways to shift the heavy holiday meal paradigm.
• Make healthy, plant-based dishes more appetizing. You don’t have to forgo signature dishes, but supplement tradition by adding mouthwatering vegetable-based dishes. One of my favorites is steamed “sweet” vegetables – cauliflower, broccoli, snap peas, onions and garlic. To make it sweet, I sauté it in a splash of citrus-infused balsamic vinegar and add sliced apples. Who doesn’t love poached apples? If you want to make this a primary dish, add diced tofu and/or garbanzo beans to make it more filling without overwhelming its delicate sweetness.
• Season your vegetables. Why would you serve vegetables without any seasoning? In my family, we season vegetables and make sauces to drizzle over them. Personally, I’m a fan of infused vinegars. Each adds a different flavor to the vegetables.
My 17-year-old nephew, who has never liked cooked vegetables, fell in love with my wife’s roasted Brussels sprouts and broccoli while on summer vacation together. He texted her afterward to ask for the recipes, which are surprisingly simple. Now, he makes them for himself. Good resources for appealing vegetable dishes can be found at PCRM.org, mouthwateringvegan.com, and many other online resources.
• Replace refined grains. A study in the American Journal of Clinical Nutrition showed that replacing wheat or refined grains with whole wheat and whole grains significantly reduced central fat, or belly fat (4). Not only did participants lose subcutaneous fat found just below the skin, but also visceral adipose tissue, the fat that lines organs and causes chronic diseases such as cancer.
For even better results, consider substituting riced cauliflower or mashed cauliflower for rice or potatoes. You can purchase frozen riced cauliflower in many grocery stores now. Just be sure to get one that’s unsalted. If you prefer mashed, here’s a simple recipe for mashed cauliflower: https://medicalcompassmd.com/post/mashed-cauliflower-recipe-vegan.
• Offer healthy snacks. Instead of laying out creamy dips, cheese platters and candies as snacks, choose whole grain brown rice crackers, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes and healthy dips like low-salt hummus and salsa. Help people choose wisely.
• Improve dessert options. Options might include dairy-free, sugar-free pumpkin pudding and fruit salad.
The goal should be to increase your nutrient-dense choices and decrease your empty-calorie foods.
Instead of making Thanksgiving a holiday of regret, eating foods that cause weight gain, fatigue and that increase your risk for chronic diseases, promote good health while serving a delicious, festive meal.
(1) N Engl J Med 2000; 342:861-867. (2) www.heart.org. (3) Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2010;50(8):728–760. (4) Am J Clin Nutr 2010 Nov;92(5):1165-71.
Dr. David Dunaief is a speaker, author and local lifestyle medicine physician focusing on the integration of medicine, nutrition, fitness and stress management. For further information, visit www.medicalcompassmd.com or consult your personal physician.