As this year is drawing to a close, we find our calendars are beginning to fill with parties and gatherings to celebrate the November and December holidays. The grocery stores are building displays to entice holiday bakers to create delectable desserts and treats. Friends and neighbors will be sharing special pies, gooey cakes and other calorie-laden gifts with one another. We will work our way through one gastronomic adventure after another until we roll into a new year a little pudgier, a little more energy-challenged, and perhaps a little disappointed in ourselves for not having been more disciplined.
Do your holiday plans include spending a week in bed with the virus? Perhaps we should consider the toll that holiday goodies might take on our health so that we will remain healthy during the holidays. Instead of rolling into a new year with a few extra pounds and an appointment with the dreaded flu, we can make three simple choices that will not only support our health but also create a springboard for shedding both poor eating habits and extra weight.
Choice #1: Choose to eat more whole foods.
Bite for bite, whole foods provide the most nutrients. Cynthia Lair, author of the book Feeding the Whole Family: Cooking with Whole Foods gives us the following questions to ask if we want to know if a food is a whole food:
- Can I imagine it growing? “Tough to picture a field of marshmallows,” she writes in her book.
- How many ingredients does it have? The answer should be one.
Whole foods are food that can be grown–radishes, avocados, almonds, carrots, apples. Whole grains can be included in this category if they have not been refined and processed. Examples include brown rice and quinoa. Animal foods are included when they have not been processed. Beef, chicken and fish and eggs fall into this category. We can never go wrong eating a holiday diet that is centered on whole foods whenever possible.
When a whole food is refined it is subjected to mechanical or chemical processing that changes its nutrient content. Refined are foods like refined white flour, refined sugar, and refined table salt. The original whole food has been stripped of nutrients and subjected to chemical processes to produce something that looks pure and white. Refined foods like baked goods, donuts, lunchmeat, chips, and candy can damage our health if over-consumed.
Americans tend to choose highly processed foods over whole foods. Typically found in boxes, cans and packages, highly processed foods bear little resemblance to the original whole food that might be listed in the ingredients list. Factory-produced foods might contain dyes, preservatives, artificial flavors, artificial sugar, hydrogenated oils, fillers and other chemicals. Eating nutritionally deprived processed foods damages health.
Lightly processed foods can be a healthier choice. Freshly prepared juices, soaked and cooked beans, olive oil, and fermented vegetables are not whole foods, but they are still healthy.
Choice #2: Choose foods that support health.
Some foods can build the immune system, whereas other foods suppress it. We know that whole foods provide vitamins, minerals, nutrients and phytochemicals (special compounds in plants that have health benefits). Stock up on fruits, vegetables, nuts and seeds for healthy snacking.
Eating healthy foods before going to a party will help you to avoid filling up on sweets and other foods that do not support good health. During the holidays there is of course an abundance of sweets on every table. Raymond Francis, author of Never Be Sick Again, writes that sugar “damages the cells of our immune system, creating susceptibility to colds, flu and other immune-related diseases.” It is surprising to learn that the average person eats half a pound of sugar a day. Sugar, which has zero nutritional value, can add up quickly. When we look at the ingredients listed on food labels, we find sugar in processed foods like cereals, snacks, juices, frozen dinners, even ketchup. A twelve-ounce can of Coke, for example, contains ten teaspoons of sugar.
Sugar is not our only concern. Pasta, white bread, white rice, and white potatoes are examples of starches that are quickly converted to sugar in our body. It is always better to choose a whole food over a processed food, like a whole orange over a glass of orange juice which might have five teaspoons of sugar and no fiber. Food manufacturers offer a variety of processed foods made with organic ingredients, but these are not always healthy choices. Cookies made with organic flour and organic sugars are still sugary desserts that contribute to our overload of immune-suppressing sugar.
Is it best to choose organically grown foods? The answer is yes. Go for whole fruits and vegetables. Organic produce is grown without the use of harmful chemicals and pesticides.
Choice #3: Choose healthier beverages
“Water is the single most important nutrient for our bodies,” says Don Colbert, M.D. in his book The Seven Pillars of Health. If you tend to start the day with a glass of juice followed by a cup of coffee, he adds, you are giving your body caffeine and sugar that actually steal water from the body. In his practice, Dr. Colbert finds that many people are mildly dehydrated, which leads to many conditions like headaches, back pain, skin problems, and digestive problems. Drinking sufficient amounts of pure water will “do more to improve your health than anything else you can do!” Dr. Colbert writes.
Experts say that it takes about three weeks to develop a new habit. During the upcoming holidays, consider these three simple choices that you can make to support your health and build a stronger immune system.
- Snack on fruit or nuts before a party so you won’t be tempted to overindulge.
- Avoid processed foods at parties and dinners.
- Choose water over juice and soft drinks and begin to reduce coffee and other health-depleting beverages.
As the weeks roll by remember this often quoted phrase, “Nothing tastes as good as good health feels.”