Enjoying the Holidays with a Healthy Conscience….
With the holidays just around the corner this is a good time to think about some of the unhealthy aspects of the season and find ways to minimize them. These days most social gatherings revolve around food and drink, with the typical holiday fare featuring high-sugar, fat-laden foods, and perhaps a drink or two. The result may be more than just weight gain; your holiday habits can also conspire to hamper your immune system, disrupt your digestive tract, and decrease your overall vitality. It thankfully doesn’t require abstinence from all the merry-making; some holiday foods have important health benefits. With a little forethought there is much you can do to have your fruitcake and feel good too.
Sugar, Fat, and Alcohol… Oh My!
In naturopathic medicine we refer to certain lifestyle habits as obstacles to cure. Good examples include smoking and excessive alcohol. Even doing things that benefit your health, while continuing certain habits, may prevent you from being totally well. Your eating habits can also be an obstacle to enjoying good health. Working with kids it is no surprise when I start getting calls from parents with sick little ones soon after Halloween. The season to be sick begins with Halloween and continues right on through the New Year. One of the prime reasons for this is increased sugar intake. Sugary foods and drinks do a good job of suppressing the immune system, not a good thing when we start clustering indoors at school or holiday gatherings. Excess sugar causes weight gain, stresses the pancreas, and increases one’s risk of blood sugar problems.
Like cholesterol, fat in the diet is typically thought of as bad. The reality is there are good fats and bad fats, but of course too much of any kind of fat means excess calories. Cholesterol and fat are actually important nutrients. Though we’ve been told to avoid cholesterol and fat, for many this is bad advice, especially children. The key is getting the right fats in your diet. Typically they come from natural foods like nuts, seeds, fish, eggs, and lean meats. Omega-3 fats from fish and some seeds are clearly beneficial and protective against heart disease, diabetes, cancer, and other diseases. One the other hand, trans fats and fried foods are clearly detrimental. It’s important to check labels carefully on packaged foods. The trans fat label under the “Nutritional Facts” on food packages is misleading and you shouldn’t rely on it to determine if a food contains trans fats. Read the ingredients. Any food with hydrogenated oils will have trans fats; this includes margarine, shortening, and partially hydrogenated vegetable oil. Cholesterol is really a red herring. It’s not only essential for proper brain and nerve function, it’s essential for producing many hormones in the body. The key is eating a healthy diet high in natural antioxidants, moderating stress, and getting regular exercise; your body will manage cholesterol just fine most of the time.
There is no question that alcohol can adversely affect your health, but like many things in life it is a question of excess. Besides helping you enjoy the holidays with your in-laws, the only clear benefit is from drinking very moderate amounts of red wine and a substance called resveratrol that has vascular protective effects. Now it’s possible to take resveratrol as a supplement and avoid the alcohol. What are some of the problems with alcohol besides the obvious? It impairs the central nervous system and immune system, is liver toxic, increases your risk of cancer, imparts empty calories, and increases triglycerides (blood fats). At least half of all automobile deaths are alcohol related and the American binge culture is alive and well on many college campuses. Knowing all this it is difficult to ever recommend alcohol for any health benefit. I suggest the only alcoholic beverage worth bothering with is a small glass of red wine with that special dinner.
Which holiday foods are good for you? Here are a few to consider:
Cocoa and chocolate are made from the fermented and roasted seeds of the cacao tree. Cacao is one of the richest sources of magnesium and also contains iron, zinc, and vitamin C. Very high in flavonoids and antioxidant power, cacao has one of highest ORAC (oxygen radical absorbance capacity) ratings of any food. Cacao has been shown to reduce cardiovascular disease risk and lower blood pressure. These health benefits are from the raw fermented cacao. Most commercial cocoa and chocolate have been roasted, which reduces their beneficial properties. In addition, by adding milk and sugar to chocolate, the health benefits are further reduced. Choose dark chocolate or use unsweetened cocoa powder and sweeten with agave syrup. Better yet use raw cacao to make this year’s holiday brownies. Cocoa production has a long history of harshness on the environment and the use of child labor has been common overseas. Buy organic and from fair trade sources for a health body and conscience.
Cranberries are an essential part of any holiday dinner, especially that Thanksgiving turkey. While also having a high ORAC score, they provide antioxidant protection against heart disease and cancer. Cranberries also reduce dental plaque and gingivitis, decrease kidney stones, and prevent urinary tract infections. Containing a moderate level of manganese, vitamin C, and fiber, once again nature’s signature of a darkly pigmented fruit is a winner. Buy fresh organic cranberries when in season and make your own cranberry sauce. Buy a little extra and freeze some to use later. Watch out for juice or sauces with excessive added sugar.
Pumpkins signal the arrival of autumn better than just about anything, whether carved into a Jack-O-Lantern or made into pumpkin pie. High in beta-carotene, they provide fat-soluble antioxidants and a source of vitamin A, along with traces of other nutrients and fiber. A pumpkin extract has been shown to improve pancreatic function in diabetics and pumpkin seeds are a power house of minerals and essential fatty acids, shown to benefit prostate health. Though most people buy canned pumpkin, once again fresh is best. The smaller and heavy for size pumpkins are better for eating. Prepare them by cutting in half and steaming for 40 minutes, remove seeds and skin (much easier after cooking), and puree into soup or for pie.
Persimmons, another orange fruit of fall, can be found in stores and at local farmer’s markets. Not surprising the Fuyu persimmon, the most common non-astringent variety, contains beta-carotene and other carotenoids. It is also relatively high in B vitamins, choline, potassium, and fiber. An interesting caution, especially for the pear-shaped astringent Hachiya variety, is that it should only be eaten when soft. Eating them unripe can create a mass in the stomach that blocks the movement of food through the digestive tract. That won’t make for a happy holiday. To ripen quicker place them in a brown paper bag with an apple or banana. The Hachiya variety can be put in the freezer for 24 hours and then thawed to speed ripening. Try making molasses persimmon cookies or just eat them fresh.
So with all the busyness of the season, don’t forget to slowdown and enjoy your blessings- family, friends, and good food. Key in naturopathic medicine, don’t overlook the importance of adequate sleep, a little sunshine, clean water, fresh air, and exercise. When you’re feeling stressed take a moment to breath deeply- in through your nose into your abdomen and exhale through your mouth. Give thanks and enjoy the best of the season.