Healthy Holiday Meals: Start with Careful Planning and Smart Choices

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Author and pain specialist Ronald Stern, M.D. offers 4 easy cooking and eating tips

healthy holiday meal - pumpkin soup

Healthy holiday meals are easy with a little planning and a few substitutions.

"It only takes a few small changes to start a new tradition and create healthy holiday meals."

Getting ready for the holidays but dread blowing your diet? Whether you want to keep your weight down or avoid aggravating inflammation, here’s good news: you certainly can enjoy the bounty of the season in a healthy way.

"First of all, good nutrition is always about two things: what we eat and how much," says Ronald Stern, M.D., author of Meals, Movement and Meditation: Using Science, Not Myth, for Healthfulness. He offers four key tips for striking the right balance.

1. Limit portions

There’s overwhelming evidence that a Mediterranean-style diet is the healthiest, which means eating mostly vegetables and fruits and whole grains; but "there’s nothing wrong with eating some turkey, or mashed potatoes, or even pecan pie," says Dr. Stern, who is an interventional pain management specialist at Physician Partners of America.

2. Choose wisely

The key is to not make traditional holiday foods the base of the eating pyramid. In other words, the majority of your food choices and calories should come from green salads and low-fat vegetable dishes, with small servings of meat, refined carbohydrates, and sweet desserts. "Think of meats and starches as the side dishes or garnish to a plant-based meal," says Dr. Stern.

3. Make smart substitutions

If you’re hosting dinner, get creative without sacrificing traditional favorites. It’s easy to switch out whole-grain breads for the white dinner rolls,healthy vegetable dishes instead of the high fat, creamy bean casseroles, and make a healthy sweet potato casserole instead of the heavily sugared, high-calorie version. Do a search for some healthier versions of your family’s favorites; they’re easy to find.

4. Get some exercise

Almost as traditional as turkey and pumpkin pie is fighting for couch space after dinner. It’s a myth that turkey makes you sleepy. While the meat is rich in the sleep-inducing amino acid tryptophan, research shows it’s the combination of carbs, overeating and alcohol that makes us feel tired. Instead, gather the family and take a walk after the meal.

"Food will always be the centerpiece of the winter holidays," says Dr. Stern, "but it only takes a few small changes to start a new tradition and create healthy holiday meals." And those meals can be just as memorable and satisfying.

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Rodolfo Gari, MD
Physician Partners of America
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