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Take It In: Weight gain need not be a holiday tradition

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Take It In: by Carol Bareuther

No matter where in the world you’re originally from or currently visiting, December is a month full of holiday festivities. One shared element of all of these celebrations is food. 

Each country has its own traditional favorites. Some are sweet, others are savory. However, it’s eating too much – especially of rich dishes – that is often blamed for unwanted holiday weight gain. The good news is that we really don’t pile on the pounds as much as we fear and not all festive dishes are full of undesirable nutrients such as calories. 

Most folks fear they’ll put on 5, 10 or even more pounds during the six-week period from late November (U.S. Thanksgiving) through the end of December. In reality, and according to a 2017 literature review published in the Journal of Obesity, weight gain is really only 1 to 2 pounds. 

However, these are the pounds the researchers say are not likely to be lost throughout the year. This annual holiday gain year after year can lead to obesity and all the chronic ills that come with this state of too much body weight. One way to curb holiday weight gain is to focus on eating healthfully.

Eating healthful foods doesn’t necessarily mean sacrificing traditional holiday dishes. Here are a couple of examples.

Celebrate the Russian and Polish way with beetroot soup, or borscht. Hot or cold, it’s often served as a starter on Christmas Eve. Not only is this soup low in calories – about 100 calories per cup if it contains beef, or 50 if it’s veggie-based only – it’s also rich in vitamin A, potassium and dietary fiber owing to its main ingredient. What’s more, other ingredients such as carrots, onions and cabbage provide additional nutrients while keeping calories low. 

Hot or cold, borscht is typically served as a meal started on Christmas Eve. This offers additional benefits. In 2007, nutrition researchers at Penn State University in the U.S. found that participants who ate a first-course soup before an entrée reduced calorie intake by 20 percent compared with those who didn’t eat soup first.

Tuck into a North American native. It’s hard to find roast turkey at Thanksgiving or Christmas that’s not served up with a side of cranberry sauce. Cranberries, like other berries, are a rich source of disease-preventing, plant-based nutrients. In fact, studies have shown that these tart red Skittle-sized berries contain nearly two dozen phytonutrients. The downside is that it takes a lot of sweetener to overcome this berry’s natural tartness. Traditional cranberry sauces are made with sugar and thus provide about 100 calories per 1/4-cup serving. It’s now trendy to make cranberry relish, or fresh cranberries paired in a food processor with one or two oranges. This recipe reduces calories by more than half.

If you’re in the Caribbean for Christmas, expect a heaping helping of rice and peas. The rice is customarily white rather than brown, but seasonings like onion, pepper and garlic, as well as the pigeon peas themselves, offer a healthy dose of soluble fiber. It’s this kind of fiber that can keep cholesterol from being absorbed and causing heart disease. Soluble fiber, according to 2018 research published in the journal Nutrients, can also help reduce the risk of Type 2 diabetes. Additionally, half a cup of rice and peas offers just 150 calories. In the Southern Caribbean, this side dish is made with coconut milk, which makes the calorie and fat content higher.

So, no matter where in the world you’re celebrating this December, be sure to deck your plate with healthful choices – make it a new tradition!

Carol Bareuther is a registered dietitian and freelance health and nutrition writer. Comments are welcome below.

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