Simple strategies can improve health for everyone around the table
By David Dunaief, M.D.
Many of us give thanks for good health on Thanksgiving. This is especially relevant this year. While eating healthy may be furthest from our minds during the holidays, it is so important.
Instead of making Thanksgiving a holiday of regret, eating foods that cause weight gain, fatigue and that increase your risk for chronic diseases, you can reverse this trend while maintaining the traditional theme of a festive meal.
What can we do to turn Thanksgiving into a bonanza of good health? Phytochemicals (plant nutrients) called carotenoids have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity 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 (1).
Carotenoids help to prevent and potentially reverse diseases, such as breast cancer; amyotrophic lateral sclerosis, also known as Lou Gehrig’s disease; age-related macular degeneration; and cardiovascular disease — heart disease and stroke. Foods that contain these substances are orange, yellow and red vegetables and fruits, and dark green leafy vegetables. Examples include sweet potato, acorn squash, summer squash, spaghetti squash, green beans, carrots, cooked pumpkin, spinach, kale, papayas, tangerines, tomatoes and Brussels sprouts.
Let’s look at the evidence.
We know that breast cancer risk is high among U.S.-born women, where the average lifetime risk of getting breast cancer is 12.8 percent (2). In a meta-analysis (a group of eighteen prospective studies), results show that women who consumed higher levels of carotenoids, such as alpha-carotene, beta-carotene, and lutein and zeaxanthin, had significantly reduced risk of developing estrogen-negative breast cancer (3).
Lou Gehrig’s disease
ALS is a disabling and feared disease. Unfortunately, there are no effective treatments for reversing this disease. Therefore, we need to work double time in trying to prevent its occurrence. In a meta-analysis of five prestigious observational studies, including The Nurses’ Health Study and the Health Professionals Follow-Up Study, results showed that people with the greatest amount of carotenoids in their blood from foods like spinach, kale and carrots had a decreased risk of developing ALS and/or delaying the onset of the disease (4). This study involved over 1 million people with more than 1,000 who developed ALS.
Those who were in the highest carotenoid level quintile had a 25 percent reduction in risk, compared to those in the lowest quintile. According to the authors, the beneficial effects may be due to antioxidant activity and more efficient function of the power source of the cell: the mitochondrion.
Strategies for healthy holiday eating
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, negating their benefits, but clearing our consciences.
Many consider Thanksgiving a time to indulge and not think about the repercussions. Plant-based foods like whole grains, leafy greens and fruits are relegated to side dishes or afterthoughts. Why is it so important to change our mindsets? There are significant short-term consequences of gorging ourselves.
Not surprisingly, people tend to gain weight from Thanksgiving to New Year. This is when most gain the predominant amount of weight for the entire year. However, most do not lose the weight they gain during this time (5). If you can fend off weight gain during the holidays, think of the possibilities for the rest of the year.
Also, if you are obese and sedentary, you may already have heart disease. Overeating at a single meal increases your risk of heart attack over the near term, according to the American Heart Association (6). However, with a little Thanksgiving planning, you can reap significant benefits:
Make healthy, plant-based dishes part of the main course. You don’t have to forgo signature dishes, but add to tradition by adding mouthwatering vegetable-based dishes.
Improve vegetable options. Most people don’t like grilled chicken without any seasoning. Why should vegetables be different? In my family, we season vegetables and make sauces to drizzle over them. Good resources for appealing dishes can be found at PCRM.org, DrFuhrman.com, mouthwateringvegan.com, and many other 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 fat around the belly (7). 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 or mashed cauliflower for rice or potatoes.
Create a healthy environment. Instead of putting out creamy dips, cheese platters and candies as snacks, choose whole grain brown rice crackers, baby carrots, cherry tomatoes and healthy dips like hummus and salsa. Help people choose wisely.
Offer healthy dessert options. Options might include dairy-free pumpkin pudding and fruit salad.
The goal should be to increase your nutrient-dense choices and decrease your empty-calorie foods. You don’t have to be perfect, but improvements during this time period have a tremendous impact — they set the tone for the coming year and put you on a path to success. Why not turn this holiday into an opportunity to de-stress, rest, and reverse or prevent chronic disease?
(1) Crit Rev Food Sci Nutr 2010;50(8):728–760. (2) SEER Cancer Statistics Review, 1975–2016, National Cancer Institute. (3) Am J Clin Nutr. 2012 Mar; 95(3): 713–725. (4) Ann Neurol 2013;73:236–245. (5) N Engl J Med 2000; 342:861-867. (6) www.heart.org. (7) 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.