Healthy diets are full of fruits and vegetables, seeds, nuts and legumes, whole grains, unrefined sugars and good-for-you dietary fats. But in a world of expanding waistlines and a holiday gravy habit, it's hard to deny we could do better when it comes to our nutrition. Currently, more than 35 percent of American adults (and about 17 percent of American kids and teens) are considered obese, which means they're at least 30 pounds (13.6 kilograms) or more over the healthy weight for their height (and that's not including everyone who hasn't yet been able to lose those extra pounds, or those who are considered overweight but not obese) [source: Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, Hellmich]. Sure, your weight is based on several things, from your gender and your genetics to your medications and medical conditions, but the bottom line is that we all need a good balance of physical activity and calories to be healthy.
Laugh at the saying, but you really are what you eat. Highly-processed foods and drinks contain a lot of artificial ingredients, refined sugars, saturated (and trans) fats and only a little nutritional value, a cocktail of poor nutrition that leaves you fatter, with an increased risk of developing chronic inflammation and other conditions. Granulated white sugar (table sugar), all-purpose flour and hydrogenated oils are all processed foods, as are artificial flavors and colors. Candy canes, fruitcake and eggnog are not natural foods. Cross them off your holiday menu. Natural foods, however, are foods that have not been processed (or only minimally so). They have no additives, and they are nutrient dense. Natural foods are fresh and healthy foods.
Whether you've already begun to replace processed foods with natural ones, or if you want to kick start a New Year's resolution to eat healthier, it's easy to pull together a holiday feast built around natural foods. A holiday menu can be full of fresh and healthy natural foods while still giving you that classic holiday season feeling. Let's look at ways to add natural foods to the holidays, from easy substitutions to new dishes, including the dessert table.
A Natural Foods Holiday Menu
Let's look at the ingredient lists of two commercially-prepared tomato sauces as an example of what to look for when reading a food label to evaluate its natural-food worthiness -- that is, if you're not making your own fresh sauce. The ingredient list for a natural food tomato sauce would look something like this: Organic tomatoes, extra virgin olive oil, organic basil, organic roasted garlic, sea salt. The first five ingredients of a commercially-prepared sauce, on the other hand, may look something more like this: tomato puree, corn syrup, vegetable oil, dehydrated garlic, spices.
A natural food menu should include plenty of fresh fruits and vegetables, organic dairy, organic meats and poultry as well as whole grains and nuts. (Note that while organic foods are part of a natural foods menu, not all natural foods are organic. For example, while shopping you choose between organically-grown or conventionally-grown carrots -- both carrots are natural food, but only one carrot is organic. The choice between the two is yours.) Seasonal foods are important to menu planning, and your dishes should include a mix of fruits and vegetables, fresh meats and poultry such as heritage turkeys (or fresh turkey with no added hormones, steroids or artificial enhancers) as well as whole grains, seeds, nuts and legumes. Plan your holiday menu with plenty of autumn and winter bounties including apples, potatoes (of all kinds), pumpkins and squashes, cabbage, turnips and other root vegetables, onions, garlic, cranberries, figs and herbs.
In addition to creating fresh, seasonal dishes, the thing about planning a holiday meal with natural foods is that it isn't much different than planning your traditional holiday menu. Preparing a fresh and healthy holiday menu can be as simple as making some smart substitutions. Instead of the traditional sweet potato casserole -- you know, the one coated in sugar and covered with marshmallows -- try coating those sweet potatoes in natural maple syrup and baking them -- it's still a sweet side dish, but made from all natural foods.
Let's take another example: stuffing. With a few substitutions, stuffing can easily be made with natural foods. Choose whole grain bread and try adding combinations of fruits (fresh and dried), nuts and berries or a more savory blend of wild or brown rice, onion, celery and mushrooms.
Don't shy away from natural desserts, which include fruits, whole grain flours and unrefined sweeteners. Pie crusts, for instance, take on a nutty, toasty flavor if you make them with buckwheat flour (which also makes them gluten free). Sweeten with fruit, honey or maple syrup (buy 100 percent maple syrup, not the fake stuff), and enjoy with a glass of (natural) wine.
More Great Links
- Centers for Disease Control and Prevention. "Overweight and Obesity - Facts." 2012. (Sept. 28, 2012) http://www.cdc.gov/obesity/data/facts.html
- Hellmich, Nanci. "Study: U.S. obesity rates projected to climb by 2030." USA Today. 2011. (Sept. 28, 2012) http://yourlife.usatoday.com/fitness-food/diet-nutrition/story/2011-08-29/Study-Obesity-rates-projected-to-climb-in-US-and-UK/50180424/1
- Niman, Bill; and Nicolette Hahn Niman. "Heritage Turkeys: Worth the Cost?" 2010. (Sept. 28, 2012) http://www.theatlantic.com/health/archive/2010/11/heritage-turkeys-worth-the-cost/66727/
- Spector, Kaye. "Nutrition labels and ingredient lists the required reading of good food choices." Cleveland.com. 2009. (Sept. 28, 2012) http://www.cleveland.com/healthfit/index.ssf/2009/08/nutrition_labels_and_ingredien.html
- WebMD. "Obesity - What Is Obesity?" 2011. (Sept. 28, 2012) http://www.webmd.com/diet/what-is-obesity
- Whole Living. "Natural Dessert Recipes." (Sept. 28, 2012) http://www.wholeliving.com/136258/natural-dessert-recipes/@center/136758/natural-pantry