Set a Healthy Holiday Table
Feeling like you want to skim some fat off your own thighs instead of the turkey's? Surprise! There are actually a lot of holiday foods that, if you prepare them in a healthful way and watch your portions, reap countless nutritional benefits and can even help you lose weight. So pull a chair up to the FITNESS holiday table, where it's your overeating anxieties — not the butter — that will melt away.
Turkey is a dynamite healthy protein source — unless it's deep fried and slathered with gravy. Sarah Krieger, RD, National Spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association, points out that a serving of turkey provides almost half of the recommended daily allowance of folic acid and is a good source of vitamin B, zinc, and potassium. These nutrients have been found to keep blood cholesterol down, protect against cancer and heart disease, and boost the immune system (not bad for an old bird). A normal portion size is usually 3 to 4 ounces — and if you stick to white meat and peel the skin off, you'll literally save hundreds of calories at the Thanksgiving table. Fortunately, turkey is one of those dieter's dream foods that will fill you up when you eat just a little.
Sweet potatoes are among the healthiest vegetables around — so long as they don't get doused with butter, marshmallows, or some other high-calorie holiday sabotage. If roasted — which keeps the flavor very intense without adding fat — sweet potatoes burst with fiber, vitamin A, potassium, and phytochemicals, which stave off aging, cancer, and arthritis. Plus, they're very filling, so you don't have to overload your plate with them.
As millions of us reach for pretty-in-pink cranberry sauce to garnish our turkey and stuffing, few realize we're getting much more than a sweet-tasting accoutrement. Krieger points out that cranberries are loaded with disease-fighting antioxidants and their fiber content helps to lower "bad" cholesterol levels. However, because these beautiful berries are naturally low in sugar, many recipes call for large doses of added sweetener. Steer clear of all that sugar and, instead, try adding a sugar substitute like Splenda to keep this side dish healthy, suggests Krieger.
Power to the pomegranate! This gorgeous fruit is proving its worth as one of the richest sources of antioxidants around, and it's popping up more and more in holiday dishes. You can indulge in the pomegranate's benefits by simply buying a bottle of its juice to add to your favorite recipe, or sprinkling the pretty seeds over a salad.
Talk about a healthy food in need of a name change. This fluffy side is often regarded as one of the most fattening (and, well, stomach-stuffing) holiday dishes, but with only a few minor adjustments it can actually be a healthy standout. Pack it with nuts, dried fruits, carrots, and celery, and you'll benefit from fiber and a range of vitamins, recommends Krieger. Also, and this is crucial: Use low sodium chicken broth instead of butter to keep the dish moist and low in fat.
If it's not Thanksgiving without a slice of pumpkin pie, we've got good news for you. This veggie is packed with heart-healthy fiber and vitamin A. Plus, says Krieger, because pumpkin is very moist, you don't have to add lots of unhealthy ingredients to make it taste flavorful yet still be low-fat (sub in skim and egg substitutes to make any recipe healthier). A guaranteed way to avoid accidentally gorging on a high-fat dessert? Bring your own pie, so you know what's in it.
Prefer pecans to pumpkin? Instead of plunging into a heap of high-fat pie, try sprinkling this star nut over salads, add it to your stuffing, or snack on a few as a precursor to the meal. Pecans are a great source of vitamin E and magnesium, which supports muscle strength. Plus, they're packed with protein, fiber, and the same "good" fats as olive oil.
Collards are ultra-healthy — except when sabotaged by greasy fat sources like pork, a popular additive in many holiday recipes. By preparing these leafy greens in a steamer, you'll leave out the unnecessary calories and gain a ton of vitamins and antioxidants. If you just can't give up flavoring your greens, use turkey bacon or saute the veggie in olive oil, suggests Krieger.
Nutmeg and Cinnamon
More and more research is being conducted on the health benefits of spices, says Krieger. Nutmeg, with its nutty, earthy flavor, and cinnamon, which shines with its sweetness, can do a whole lot more than garnish eggnog. Mixing these spices into fruit or vegetable sides can help you lower your cholesterol and maintain insulin levels in the blood.
While wine and cocktails can add needless calories to an already over-the-top meal, wine delivers heart-healthy properties in exchange for its calorie count (about 100 calories per 5-ounce serving). All wine is naturally heart-healthy, but red wines will provide the most antioxidant bang for your calorie buck. And take note: the dryer the wine, the higher the concentration of those disease-fighting properties.
To keep your calorie count to a minimum, ask your host for a spritzer — half wine, half calorie-free seltzer water.
Originally published on FitnessMagazine.com, November 2008.