Holiday Superfoods

Seasonal eating can be as healthy as it is delicious.

November/December 2011

by Corinne Garcia


Holiday eating gets a bad rap from the fattening, unhealthy foods that people graze on at seasonal parties. But not all holiday foods can be blamed for those higher numbers on the bathroom scale.

Some elements of our traditional holiday feasts even have superfood qualities—those that pack a nutritional punch due to high levels of naturally occurring vitamins, phytonutrients and antioxidants.
“Superfoods are going to have more nutrition per calorie than other foods while being easily accessible and affordable,” says Jennifer McDaniel, RD, owner of McDaniel Nutrition Therapy in St. Louis, Missouri. “They’re also rich in color due to high levels of antioxidants and phytochemicals.”

Cancer prevention is the best-known superfoods benefit. But vegetable and fruit consumption also protects you from other health hazards such as cardiovascular disease, diabetes, stroke, obesity, diverticulosis and cataracts, according to many research studies. With this in mind, adding a well-rounded mixture of superfoods to your diet—combining a variety of colors and, therefore, a variety of plant chemicals and vitamins—is the most beneficial approach to eating well.

“I always say that there’s no one food that does anything miraculous. Instead, combine several
differently colored foods to make a super diet,” says registered dietician Julie Lanford, RD, a board-certified specialist in oncology nutrition and wellness director at Cancer Services, an independent United Way agency based in Winston-Salem, North Carolina.

Even the most careful eaters may feel the holiday spirit encroaching on their good intentions, with mouthwatering pies, creamy casseroles, holiday cookies and smothering gravies replacing one’s usual fare. But not everything on the seasonal table represents a hazard to health; here are 10 holiday superfoods that should be mealtime regulars all year long.

Brussels sprouts

Like other members of the broccoli and cabbage family, this vegetable has a slew of health-enhancing characteristics. Lanford says, “Brussels sprouts have beta carotene and flavonoids that are especially protective against cancer, actually interacting with DNA to prevent specific cancers.” Brussels sprouts are also high in fiber, potassium and calcium. For an everyday side dish, try roasting these in salt, pepper, olive oil and a touch of honey and balsamic. Or add them, steamed or raw, to salads.

Chocolate

Who knew something that seems so wrong—so decadent, so sweetly delicious—could be so right? Dark chocolate, at least that with 60% or more cocoa content, can be consumed in small doses (one to two ounces) for powerful health benefits. “It’s rich in flavonoids for the heart, reduces blood clots and can sharpen mental health,” says McDaniels. Elisa Zied, MS, RD, CDN, registered dietitian and author of Nutrition at Your Fingertips (Alpha/Penguin) recommends adding dark chocolate chips to muffins, pancakes, waffles and smoothies, and as a yogurt topping or part of a healthy trail mix.

 

Cinnamon

An essential addition to holiday cookies and other baked goodies, cinnamon can spice up your health as well. “It’s definitely a super spice,” says McDaniel. “A half-teaspoon a day can help keep blood sugar at good levels—perfect for diabetics—and it’s been shown to have antibacterial properties.” Studies have also revealed that cinnamon can relieve arthritis pain and reduce the proliferation of leukemia and lymphoma cells. Try sprinkling cinnamon on cottage cheese, hot chocolate, hot and cold cereals and in the batters of baked goods and pancakes.

Cranberry

The star ingredient in one of the holiday season’s most popular condiments, the cranberry is a powerhouse of nutrition, with high levels of health-promoting carotenoids and a variety of phytonutrients. The cranberry’s high vitamin C content is obvious in its extremely tart flavor, which is almost always balanced out with the addition of sweetener. Try adding dried cranberries to hot or cold cereal, baked goods and salads, and mix leftover cranberry jelly with olive oil, balsamic vinegar and orange juice for a tasty salad dressing.

Nuts

People go nuts for nuts around the holidays—pecan pies, warm chestnuts, mixed nut bowls. And a small handful goes a long way. “Nuts can help control weight and protect us from certain cancers,” says McDaniel. “And they’re a wonderful plant-based protein that’s high in fiber and a good source of mono-unsaturated fats that protects heart health.” But because nuts are high in calories, keep servings to no more than 1.5 ounces. “They can be sprinkled in cereal or oatmeal, over roasted or sautéed vegetables, or used in a stir fry,” Zeid recommends. Or add nuts to a homemade trail mix.

Nutmeg

Often used around the holidays as a complementary flavor to cinnamon, nutmeg is another super spice known for calming the stomach, relieving joint pain, improving circulation and concentration, regulating anxiety and promoting sleep, says McDaniel. Like cinnamon, it also has been shown to have antibacterial properties. As with cinnamon, nutmeg can be used in baked goods, curries, and hot and cold cereals, and sprinkled into stir-fries. But nutmeg can lead to nausea if consumed in large doses, so go easy on the amount you use.

Pomegranate

In season from late fall through January, pomegranates often grace the holiday table in edible or decorative form. “They’re fun to eat and rich in vitamin C and fiber,” says McDaniel. These rich-red, juicy fruits also contain antioxidant, anti-inflammatory anthocyanins that benefit blood vessels, the nervous system and the eyes, and have been found to inhibit the growth of tumor cells. Try a pomegranate sauce with meats, and add the seeds to green or fruit salads, oatmeal, batters and breads. McDaniel recommends peeling the fruit in a bowl of water, as the seeds will drop to the bottom and your hands will remain stain-free.

Pumpkin

Gloriously rich and creamy, pumpkin pie is a holiday favorite that also happens to be rich in nutritional value. “Pumpkins are a great source of fiber and the alpha and beta carotenes that convert to immune-boosting, vision-enhancing vitamin A,” says Zied. In addition, pumpkin contains lutein and zeaxanthin, two nutrients that promote good eye health, along with B-complex vitamins and the minerals copper, manganese and potassium. Canned pumpkin, available year round, can be easily added to soups, oatmeal, and muffin, cookie and pancake batters. “It’s a great way to add extra vitamins to baked goods,” notes McDaniel.

Red Wine

Parties and family gatherings are often made merrier by the presence of wine on the holiday table. The good news is that moderate alcohol use (one drink per day for women, two for men) has been shown to lower the risk of heart attacks and strokes. Red wine has the added benefit of resveratrol, a powerful antioxidant found in grape skins. “It also prevents blood clots and has additional heart-boosting benefits,” McDaniel says. If you’re going to raise a glass over the holidays, why
not derive health benefits each sip of the way?

Sweet Potato

Whether hidden in sugary casseroles or covered in marshmallows, sweet potatoes often accompany holiday meals. But their health benefits have gone a long way towards making them a great year-round food choice. “They’re loaded with vitamin A in the form of beta carotene, and also pack in vitamin C, fiber and potassium,” Zied says. To cut down on the added sugar and fat, try sweet potatoes oven-fried, mashed or baked as a switch from regular white potatoes. “It’s also an awesome food to introduce to kids because of its natural sweetness,” says McDaniel.

 

SUPER SUPPLEMENTATION

Health authorities agree that foods we generally associate with the holidays definitely deserve a place in everyone’s year-round diet. Their excellent nutrient-to-calorie ratios encourage nutritional synergy, in which all the components found in, let’s say, pumpkin—carbohydrates, fiber,
phytonutrients—work together to provide benefits that are more than the sum of their parts.

Eating well isn’t always easy, though, especially when life gets busy (and whose doesn’t nowadays?). That’s why many people hedge their nutritional bets through the use of dietary supplements.

One easy way to put superfood power to work for you is by taking a whole-food multi, one based on concentrates of foods across the color spectrum from golden guavas to brain-friendly blueberries. It’s important to choose your multi with care, however. Some products use yeast to propagate the synergistic cofactors that make whole foods so healthy.

But yeast doesn’t contain many of the vital elements that only whole-food concentrates can provide, preferably those taken from organic produce to further reduce exposure to synthetic compounds. (Yeast-based products can also provoke allergic reactions in sensitive people.) True whole-food multis, while no substitute for proper dietary habits, can help increase intake of the crucial nutrients contained in such foods—nutrients many Americans simply aren’t getting enough of.

In addition, alternative healthcare practitioners often employ single-item supplements to support well-being in specific ways, such as cranberry for bladder health and cinnamon for proper blood sugar regulation. Resveratrol, the chief beneficial component in red wine, is also available in supplement form.

 

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