Your Christmas and Thanksgiving dinners may be healthier than you think.
Ever wonder why you feel so tired after that turkey feast? Don't blame it on the bird. "It's an old wives' tale that the amino acid tryptophan in turkey makes you tired," says Cynthia Sass, a spokesperson for the American Dietetic Association who is based in Tampa, Florida, and author of Your Diet Is Driving Me Crazy (Marlowe & Co., 2004). "Turkey is so high in protein -- which makes you feel alert -- that it cancels out the groggy effect of this amino acid."
The real reason you find yourself slumped in the armchair watching football? Plain and simple: You overate, says Sass. More of your blood is diverted to the digestive system instead of to the heart and lungs, she explains.
But there's no reason to skip those traditional holiday meals. In fact, many of your favorite holiday foods are stuffed with nutrition. If you practice a little portion control -- and in some instances, tweak preparation techniques -- you'll walk away from the bountiful table with heaps of health benefits.
Health benefits: With this holiday centerpiece, you'll reap plenty of benefits: Turkey is low in cholesterol, saturated fat, and overall fat, and it provides nearly 50 percent of the RDA for folic acid -- which helps protect against birth defects, various forms of cancer, and heart disease.
Holiday helper: Reach for turkey breast. It is especially nutritious, says Sass -- nearly synonymous with the healthy grilled chicken option you often see on menus.
Recommended Serving Size: 3 oz. (size of a deck of cards), roughly 105 calories
Health benefits: These bold red berries are beautiful and a boon to your body: An excellent source of free-radical scavenging antioxidants like vitamins C and E, the berries may help reduce the risk of chronic diseases like cancer, stroke, and heart disease. Solid research also backs up their role in preventing urinary tract infections.
Holiday helper: Consider breaking the mold and opting for the lower calorie and easy-to-prepare fresh variety, which cooks up in 5 minutes: Put fresh berries in a small saucepan, cover with a little fruit juice, add a pinch of sugar, and boil until they pop. Reduce to a simmer and heat for a few minutes.
Recommended Serving Size: 1/4 cup (golf-ball size) from the canned version (which packs in the high fructose corn syrup), 110 calories 1/4 cup fresh cranberries, 11 calories
Health benefits: Call it a great gourd! This fiber-rich winter squash is chock-full of beta-carotene (which is good for the eyes and may help prevent some types of cancer and atherosclerosis) and serves up vitamin C and potassium (the latter can help counteract the effects of sodium if you have high blood pressure).
Holiday helper: Substitute evaporated skim milk to cut down on calories and fat in your pumpkin pie, says Sass. And even if you halve the sugar and add more spices (like nutmeg, cinnamon, and cloves), your healthier pie will be a huge hit at the table.
Recommended Serving Size: 1/2 cup canned (half of standard-size yogurt container), 40 calories (the fresh variety is only 15 calories)
Health benefits: In general, 100 percent whole wheat breads have more fiber than white bread or other breads made with wheat flour. Fiber can decrease the risk of heart disease and some types of cancer and it helps you maintain regular bowel movements.
Holiday helper: Most of the ready-to-bake varieties aren't 100 percent whole wheat (it must say just that or it is a mixture of whole wheat and enriched white flour). To give your rolls additional crunch, flavor, and whole grain goodness, Sass suggests sprinkling oats, seeds (like pumpkin or sunflower), or nuts on top.
Recommended Serving Size: 1 small roll, 110 calories
Health benefits: These green veggies are an ample source of fiber (both insoluble and soluble). Sass recommends fresh or frozen over the canned variety because soaking in the liquid breaks down some of the fiber, and nutrients in the peas leak into the water, which is then thrown away. Plus, canned peas are loaded with sodium.
Holiday helper: "Spice up your peas with something other than salt," says Sass. Consider using pepper or sprinkling nuts like almonds or cashews on top.
Recommended Serving Size: 1/2 cup cooked or frozen peas, 30 calories
Health benefits: Sweet potatoes are an excellent source of beta-carotene, antioxidants, and fiber.
Holiday helper: Let the sweet potatoes' sweetness speak for itself, instead of preparing it with a lot of brown sugar and butter. For a change of pace, Sass suggests baking it in the oven like you would a baked potato.
Recommended Serving Size: 1/2 cup, 90 calories (if baked)
Originally written for BHG.com, October 2004.