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It’s that time of year again when people are starting to plan their festive menus, and with scare stories abound about the evils of sugar and the heart clogging effects of too much saturated fat, people often do not know which way to turn. Everyone wants to enjoy delicious food and maybe a festive tipple or two at Christmas, but ideally they don’t want that to come at the expense of their health or certainly their waistbands!
The good news is that there are many seasonal foods that are actually pretty healthy, so let’s take a look at the main ingredients in your Christmas dinner.
Turkey is a low fat meat, and is a good source of lean protein. It contains only approximately 240 calories per 4 ounces of meat, making it a relatively low calorie option. Perhaps the biggest ‘selling point’ for the star of our festive table though is that it is a good source of the essential amino acid tryptophan. Tryptophan is a precursor to the neurotransmitters serotonin and melatonin which are vital for mood and sleep. Tryptophan levels drop dramatically as we get older which is why we become more susceptible to sleep disorders, but increasing our intake of this amino acid can help to counteract that.
Brussels belong to the cruciferous vegetable family, and are a powerhouse of nutrients, being rich in anti-oxidant vitamins and minerals including vitamins C and A (as beta-carotene) and manganese. They also contain high levels of fibre (4grams in every cup), and a compound called sulforophane which has been shown to help prevent the pathogenic bacteria H. Pylori adhering to the wall of the stomach. This amazing vegetable also posses anti-inflammatory properties and even cancer-preventing properties, in the form of 4 different glucosinolates.
OK, so the breadcrumbs used in making stuffing may not be the healthiest thing on the planet or well tolerated by some of us, but fresh sage just well might be! So much so, that in 2001 this much over-looked herb was designated as ‘herb of the year’ by the International Herb Association! Its latin name: Salvia officinalis was derived from the term ‘salvere’ which meant to ‘be saved’, and many civilisations used it as a panacea or ‘cure all’. It contains a variety of volatile oils and phenolic acids, such as rosmarinic acid, which is both anti-oxidant and anti-inflammatory, whilst also boosting memory and cognitive function. I'm a huge fan of this herb, and even use it to make a simple tea to ward off a number of different ailments.
Cranberries are very high in anti-oxidants and proanthocyanidins. They have been shown to have both anti-inflammatory and cardiovascular supporting properties, in addition to their widely known ability to prevent E.coli from adhering to the lining of the bladder and causing cystitis. The berries should ideally be consumed raw, however, so long as the whole berries are eaten, rather than just their juice, most of their anti-oxidant benefits are still retained. Gentle simmering in order to make a sauce does not deplete too much of the valuable nutrition, just go easy on the sugar that you use to sweeten it, perhaps try an alternative to table sugar such as stevia or xylitol.
Whilst parsnips contain more sugar than other root vegetables such as carrots, they do contain excellent levels of both soluble and insoluble fibre (100g parsnips provide approximately 5mg fibre). They also possess good levels of the B-vitamin family, vitamin C, K and E and many minerals such as iron, calcium, copper, potassium and manganese.
With so many healthy components of a Christmas dinner, it is easy to maximise on these, and minimise the less nutritious parts of the meal, such as (I'm afraid to say) the roast potatoes and bacon rolls!). Everything is OK in moderation after all, so so long as 80% of the plate is providing you with a wide array of health benefits then I think we can all enjoy a delicious and ‘guilt-free’ Christmas, and over-look a duck-fat roasted potato or two!
So why do we always talk about Christmas as so unhealthy? To be honest it's probably the partying we do on either side of Christmas. Those drinks parties and New Years Eve may in fact be the reason why we enter the next year shattered, with colds and extra pounds to shed. So consider the run up to Christmas and where you are going. Alcohol depletes us of energy, can unbalance our blood sugar levels and don't forget it is stuffed with empty calories. The nibbles at these dos are also a big no no, as we tend to end up filling up on way more crisps, cheese straws and mince pies than we would normally eat. But do not despair, you don't have to cancel your parties in order to remain healthy over the Christmas period. Lets face it, life is about balance and parties are there to be enjoyed. Maybe just remind yourself to think ahead when you are at the point of having a yet another glass of Prosecco, and remember that you don't always feel great after that feeling of feeling great has worn off! With regards to foods and keeping your immune system healthy, there are ways in which we can enjoy ourselves without regretting it after. To read more about surviving the festive period in a healthy and happy fashion, you may be interested to read Nutritional Therapist Jo's festive survival guide.
Have a Happy, and healthy, Christmas break!