Do not eat holiday desserts. Stay away from the fatty meat and cheese trays. Avoid consumption of alcoholic beverages. Is anyone else tired of hearing the same old recommendations to avoid holiday weight gain? I know I am.
Holidays would be nothing without two things: family, and traditional foods and beverages. Although I would not recommend eating the way we do over the holiday season all year round (the average American gains one pound each year from Thanksgiving through New Year’s Day), a few “naughty” foods thrown into the diet for a few weeks will not kill a healthy diet completely. Besides, even traditional holiday delicacies can have potential beneficial health effects underneath all those unhealthy calories, sugars, saturated fats, and trans fats.
Rather than lash out at you, and provide negative judgment about your “poor” dietary habits over the holiday weeks (as most nutritionists do), I am going to enlighten you with some purported health benefits involving some of the traditional “naughty” foods with which you saturated your body throughout the holiday season.
Meat and Cheese Tray
Conjugated linoleic acid (CLA) is a natural trans fat found in meats and dairy products derived from ruminant animals such as cows. While most trans fats exhibit negative health effects, and disturb blood lipid profiles, CLA has been shown to improve blood lipids by decreasing total and LDL cholesterol, along with reducing blood triglycerides. This may lead to significant reductions in risk of heart disease. CLA also has been shown to reduce blood glucose levels and improve insulin sensitivity, both key health parameters that may help ward off diabetes. Other potential health benefits of CLA include antioxidant properties, anticancer potential, increased bone formation during growth, and enhanced immunity. Although somewhat controversial, CLA even has been shown in some studies to decrease both total-body and abdominal fat, and increase lean body mass (i.e., muscle, bone, etc.).
Just about every holiday dessert contains some form of chocolate. In addition to tasting delicious, and acting as a natural aphrodisiac, chocolate has been shown to reduce risk of heart disease. Antioxidants in chocolate decrease LDL cholesterol oxidation (a key step in atherosclerotic plaque formation), and compounds called epicatechins decrease blood pressure. Additionally, compounds in chocolate called flavonoids have anticancer properties. The pharmaceutical industry has started using cocoa-based treatments to help with symptoms of diabetes and dementia. Choose dark chocolates for the most health benefits, as they contain more cocoa and antioxidants than their milk-based counterparts. If milk chocolates are more to your taste, choose whole milk varieties to get the benefits of CLA mentioned above.
Wine contains many potentially beneficial compounds, including polyphenols, flavonoids, procyanidins, and antioxidants. The main polyphenol antioxidant thought to be responsible for most of the health benefits is resveratrol. Moderate wine consumption has been shown to decrease blood pressure and risk of heart disease. Additionally, resveratrol itself has been shown to increase life span by mimicking a “reduced-calorie” state within the body. It also has been linked with anticancer properties, anti-inflammatory properties, decreased blood-glucose levels, and decreased risk of neurodegenerative diseases (e.g., Alzheimer’s, dementia, etc.).
Spices, especially the cinnamon and nutmeg in eggnog, and ginger in gingerbread cookies, have been shown to display a wide array of antioxidant and antimicrobial properties, helping to prevent infection and sickness, while enhancing the immune system. These three spices all have been identified with improvements in digestion. Cinnamon and ginger have been linked with blood-glucose stabilization and improvements in symptoms associated with diabetes. Ginger has been used to decrease joint pains and inflammation associated with arthritis, and its cholesterol-lowering and blood-thinning properties help decrease risk of heart disease.
Several other traditional holiday foods and drinks provide important health benefits. Cranberries and cranberry-based sauces contain loads of beneficial phytochemicals, antioxidants, flavonoids, and tannins—all important compounds that protect the body, help it recover, and help prevent disease formation (e.g., heart disease, cancer, diabetes, etc.). Drinks such as coffee, tea, and cider also are rich in phytochemicals and antioxidants. Tea contains tannins, as well as a specific antioxidant called epigallocatechin gallate (EGCG) that has been shown in numerous studies to reduce oxidative cell damage, enhance metabolism (it burns extra calories while you sit on your butt), and prevent tumor formation. EGCG as well is being investigated in the treatment of multiple sclerosis and HIV. And to think you just drank coffee and tea for the caffeine jolt!