If you’re like many people in the age of COVID-19, you’re stuck at home, relying on takeout more than you’d like to admit or perhaps doing a bit more baking than you should, all while being locked out of your gym. It’s no wonder the “quarantine 15” is a thing. And with the holidays upon us, the prospect of putting on even more weight can feel like a certainty.

But there’s no reason to let the holidays make things worse for your waistline. With some careful planning, a few tweaks here and there to your favorite holiday dishes and good old willpower, you can emerge from the holidays none the worse for wear.

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Healthier Holiday Dishes

How to enjoy a festive meal without the guilt

December 17, 2020

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If you’re like many people in the age of COVID-19, you’re stuck at home, relying on takeout more than you’d like to admit or perhaps doing a bit more baking than you should, all while being locked out of your gym. It’s no wonder the “quarantine 15” is a thing. And with the holidays upon us, the prospect of putting on even more weight can feel like a certainty.

 

But there’s no reason to let the holidays make things worse for your waistline. With some careful planning, a few tweaks here and there to your favorite holiday dishes and good old willpower, you can emerge from the holidays none the worse for wear.

 

Read on for some easy ways to make your holiday meal healthier and lighter, with all the festive, delicious trimmings you’ve come to love.

Tips to Make Your Cooking Healthier — yet Still Delicious

Here are a few ways to make your holiday meal (and virtually any meal throughout the year) healthier ... and to keep yourself healthier in the process, too.

Healthy holiday dishes pouring olive oil into bowl

Add Fruits and Vegetables Where You Can

Not only are fruits and veggies integral to a healthy diet, but their natural fiber also helps fill you up, which can keep you from overeating.

 

Having a hard time finding fresh? No worries! Research has shown that frozen produce can be just as nutritious — and sometimes even more so — than fresh. For example, research conducted at the University of California, Davis, found that the levels of several nutrients, including beta carotene, riboflavin, and vitamins C and E, were largely comparable between fresh and frozen produce among eight varieties studied. What’s more, frozen produce was actually higher in these nutrients than fresh in some instances.1

 

Another study out of the University of Georgia primarily found no significant differences in three nutrients — folate, provitamin A and vitamin C — between eight types of produce according to whether they were fresh, frozen or fresh-stored. But when differences were found, frozen produce more often had a higher nutrient count.2

Choose “Good” Carbs Over “Bad”

Because of their ability to spike insulin and blood sugar levels quickly, foods that have a high glycemic index (“bad” carbs) should be limited — yes, even at the holidays! Those with a low glycemic index (“good” carbs) are healthier options because they have a slower, steadier effect on your insulin and glucose levels. This can be important for all people, but especially those with prediabetes or diabetes.

 

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In addition to ill effects on insulin and glucose levels, high-glycemic foods, especially when consumed often, can pose other risks as well. According to the experts at Harvard Health, maintaining a diet high in high-glycemic foods increases the risk of developing several types of cancer, including those of the breast, colon, pancreas and prostate. Such a diet also increases the risk of developing cardiovascular disease and Type 2 diabetes.3

Healthy holiday dishes legume

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On the other hand, maintaining a diet high in low-glycemic foods may help aid weight loss, blood glucose control and appetite control while helping to lower cholesterol, according to the Mayo Clinic.4

 

Here’s a short list of foods according to their glycemic index (GI), per the Mayo Clinic:

 

Low GI:  Bran breakfast cereals, chickpeas (also known as garbanzo beans), green vegetables, kidney beans, lentils, most fruits, raw carrots
Medium GI:  Bananas; multigrain, oat bran or rye bread; oat breakfast cereals; raisins; raw pineapple; sweet corn
High GI:  Potatoes, white bread, white rice

 

Keep in mind that your overall diet ideally should be high in low GI foods and low in high GI foods, with medium GI foods eaten in moderation.

Throw in Lots of Herbs

Not only do fresh or dried herbs impart delicious flavor to holiday cooking (and virtually all cooking, for that matter), but they have a host of potential health benefits. Here’s a look at four herbs perfect for your holiday cooking.

 

Parsley is brimming with antioxidants, calcium, potassium, and vitamins A, C and K.5 And research has suggested that a compound in parsley called myricetin6 may help lower blood glucose levels and improve insulin resistance, which in turn can help prevent diabetes.7
Rosemary boasts calcium, iron and potassium,8 as well as compounds called diterpenes, which have powerful antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.9
Sage is rich in vitamin K, antioxidants10 and polyphenols11 and may help reduce blood-glucose levels and protect against several types of cancers.12
Thyme is rich in beta carotene, calcium and potassium.13 Animal studies have shown that it can reduce blood pressure significantly14 and may help protect against colon15 and breast cancer.16

Healthy holiday dishes Cauliflower mix

How to Make Your Holiday Fare Healthier

Yes, you can still make your favorite dishes for the holidays, but with a few tweaks to make them healthier. And if you just can’t forego the traditional prep on some of your favorite dishes, simply make your servings smaller. After all, who wants to be in a food coma for the rest of the night?

 

Can’t Decide Between Turkey and Ham? Opt for the Poultry

While spiral ham is comparable to turkey breast when it comes to calories and fat, the former is loaded with nitrates and nitrites, neither of which are good for you. (Although, to be fair, if you choose dark-meat turkey or indulge in the skin, you could be taking in more calories and fat than if you ate the ham.) Plus, ham has a hefty amount of sodium: about 1,000 milligrams in just 4 ounces, say the experts at Consumer Reports.17

 

What’s more, according to Harvard Health, eating both unprocessed and processed red meat raises the risk of developing Type 2 diabetes — even if they’re consumed in small amounts. On the other hand, choosing healthier sources of protein, including poultry, lowers the risk.18

 

While you’re roasting your turkey, consider throwing healthy amounts of low-GI vegetables in with your bird. If you’ve got diabetes, the Cleveland Clinic recommends non-starchy vegetables such as broccoli, Brussels sprouts, cabbage, cauliflower and kale as some of the best choices.19

 

Swap Out Mashed Cauliflower for Mashed Potatoes

While potatoes are high on the glycemic index, cauliflower’s low — making it a great choice for people with diabetes. And it’s low-calorie, to boot!

 

So instead of whipping up a mountain of traditional mashed potatoes, consider steaming some cauliflower and mashing it instead. You’ll get the same delicious, creamy texture but without the high GI load. To make your dish even healthier, flavor it with a touch of salt and pepper, garlic and olive oil rather than butter and whole milk. It’s deceptively delicious!

 

Try Sautéed Green Beans in Place of Green Bean Casserole

Sure, green bean casserole technically boasts some veggies, but the items you add to those veggies tend to sink the health factor. Instead of the high-fat, high-calorie dish of your past, try sautéing some snappy green beans in a bit of olive oil and garlic, then topping with a smattering of heart-healthy sliced almonds.20

 

… Or Skip the Beans and Opt for Sautéed Spinach Instead

While nearly all vegetables are an important part of a healthy diet, green leafies may be particularly beneficial, especially when it comes to heading off Type 2 diabetes. Several studies have demonstrated their role in helping prevent the disease, including one that found that people who ate 1.35 servings per day reduced their risk of diabetes by 14 percent, compared with people who ate just 0.2 serving per day.21

 

Swap Out Roasted Sweet Potatoes for Candied Yams

Yes, candied yams are delicious, but do you really want to think about how many calories, sugars and fats are in that dish? (Take it from us: It’s a lot.) Instead of subjecting yourself to the fat and sugar bombs of this overly sweetened dish, try yams (or their cousins, the lighter-skinned sweet potatoes) in their more natural, and much healthier, state: roasted. It’s simple: wash and scrub, peel, slice and dice, then toss with a bit of olive oil, nutmeg and cinnamon. Roast in a 400° oven for about 45 minutes and voila: You’ve got a delicious, healthy side dish.

 

Make Your Stuffing Healthier

Instead of using white bread in your stuffing, try whole wheat bread or sourdough, which has a lower sugar content and may be lower on the glycemic index scale.22 (Research is conflicting.) Use plenty of sautéed onion and celery to help replace some of the bread; add in dried cranberries and wild rice, cooked al dente, for extra crunch, flavor and nutrients.

 

Celebrating Hanukkah?

For a healthier take on traditional latkes, try shredding some zucchini and carrot and substituting them for potatoes. Add a bit of curry or other spices to pump up the flavor, and use olive oil for frying if possible.

 

Don’t Forget Dessert!

If you have the heart to replace your pumpkin pie with something healthier, how about a selection of fruit with a dollop of whipped cream and some nutmeg or cinnamon sprinkled on top? But if you just can’t do without your pie, try a few tweaks to make it healthier: Use almond flour or whole wheat flour when making the crust; forego the ice cream on top; and serve yourself a small slice.

 

Even though the current climate may make celebrations a bit challenging, we truly hope this holiday season is as wonderful and heart-warming for you as those of the past, and that you’re able to gather and dine — safely and healthfully — with those dearest to you. Happy holidays!

Footnotes:
1
Bouzari, Ali, et al. “Vitamin Retention in Eight Fruits and Vegetables: A Comparison of Refrigerated and Frozen Storage.” Journal of Agricultural and Food Chemistry, vol. 63, no. 3, Jan. 2015, pp. 957–62. PubMed, doi:10.1021/jf5058793.
2 Li, Linshan, et al. “Selected Nutrient Analyses of Fresh, Fresh-Stored, and Frozen Fruits and Vegetables.” Journal of Food Composition and Analysis, vol. 59, June 2017, pp. 8–17. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/j.jfca.2017.02.002.
3 “Choosing Good Carbs with the Glycemic Index.” Harvard Health, https://www.health.harvard.edu/staying-healthy/choosing-good-carbs-with-the-glycemic-index. Accessed Dec. 2020.
4 “Glycemic Index Diet: What’s behind the Claims.” Mayo Clinic, https://www.mayoclinic.org/healthy-lifestyle/nutrition-and-healthy-eating/in-depth/glycemic-index-diet/art-20048478. Accessed Dec. 2020.
5 FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170416/nutrients. Accessed Dec. 2020.
6 Haytowitz, DB et al. “Flavonoid content of vegetables.” U.S. Department of Agriculture Agricultural Research Service, https://www.ars.usda.gov/ARSUserFiles/80400525/Articles/AICR03_VegFlav.pdf. Accessed Dec. 2020.
7 “Minireview: Therapeutic Potential of Myricetin in Diabetes Mellitus.” Food Science and Human Wellness, vol. 1, no. 1, Dec. 2012, pp. 19–25. www.sciencedirect.com, doi:10.1016/j.fshw.2012.08.002.
8 FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173473/nutrients. Accessed Dec. 2020.
9 Habtemariam, Solomon. “The Therapeutic Potential of Rosemary (Rosmarinus Officinalis) Diterpenes for Alzheimer’s Disease.” Evidence-Based Complementary and Alternative Medicine : ECAM, vol. 2016, 2016. PubMed Central, doi:10.1155/2016/2680409.
10 FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/170935/nutrients. Accessed Dec. 2020.
11 Lu, Yinrong, and L. Yeap Foo. “Polyphenolics of Salvia—a Review.” Phytochemistry, vol. 59, no. 2, Jan. 2002, pp. 117–40. ScienceDirect, doi:10.1016/S0031-9422(01)00415-0.
12 Ghorbani, Ahmad, and Mahdi Esmaeilizadeh. “Pharmacological Properties of Salvia Officinalis and Its Components.” Journal of Traditional and Complementary Medicine, vol. 7, no. 4, Jan. 2017, pp. 433–40. PubMed Central, doi:10.1016/j.jtcme.2016.12.014.
13 FoodData Central. https://fdc.nal.usda.gov/fdc-app.html#/food-details/173470/nutrients. Accessed Dec. 2020.
14 Mihailovic-Stanojevic, Nevena, et al. “Upregulation of Heme Oxygenase-1 in Response to Wild Thyme Treatment Protects against Hypertension and Oxidative Stress.” Oxidative Medicine and Cellular Longevity, vol. 2016, 2016. PubMed Central, doi:10.1155/2016/1458793.
15 Gordo, Joana, et al. “Thymus Mastichina: Chemical Constituents and Their Anti-Cancer Activity.” Natural Product Communications, vol. 7, no. 11, Nov. 2012, pp. 1491–94.
16 Bozkurt, Emir, et al. “Effects of Thymus Serpyllum Extract on Cell Proliferation, Apoptosis and Epigenetic Events in Human Breast Cancer Cells.” Nutrition and Cancer, vol. 64, no. 8, Nov. 2012, pp. 1245–50. Taylor and Francis+NEJM, doi:10.1080/01635581.2012.719658.
17 Lee, Janet. “9 Holiday Foods That Are Healthier Than You Think.” Consumer Reports, https://www.consumerreports.org/nutrition-healthy-eating/holiday-foods-that-are-healthier-than-you-think/. Accessed Dec. 2020.
18 “Simple Steps to Preventing Diabetes.” The Nutrition Source, 18 Sept. 2012, https://www.hsph.harvard.edu/nutritionsource/disease-prevention/diabetes-prevention/preventing-diabetes-full-story/.
19 “The Top 10 Worst Foods If You Have Diabetes.” Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic, 12 Mar. 2020, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/top-10-worst-diet-choices-if-you-have-diabetes/.
20 “How Almonds Can Improve Your Heart Health.” Health Essentials from Cleveland Clinic, 10 Nov. 2020, https://health.clevelandclinic.org/how-almonds-can-improve-your-heart-health/.
21 Carter, Patrice, et al. “Fruit and Vegetable Intake and Incidence of Type 2 Diabetes Mellitus: Systematic Review and Meta-Analysis.” BMJ, vol. 341, Aug. 2010. www.bmj.com, doi:10.1136/bmj.c4229.
22 “Sourdough Bread May Have Health Benefits.” University Health News, 30 June 2020, https://universityhealthnews.com/daily/nutrition/sourdough-bread-health-benefits-make-it-the-best-bread-choice/.

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