Here come the holidays

As we turn the page on the calendar and head into the month of December, our thoughts turn to the details and preparations we make for the upcoming holiday season. For many, this means extra baking and cooking, and for some it just means extra eating. The abundance of freshly baked goods is so much a part of our holiday fun and tradition, that it is hard to imagine how we can keep the holiday spirit and still eat healthy.

It seems that many of our traditional foods are also pretty high in calories and fat and that may make you at least pause and think about what can be done ahead of time to lighten up some of your holiday fare. Some recipes just aren’t the same if you “tweak” them, but others can be modified without affecting the flavor or texture. Many family favorite recipes seem to contain cream, cream cheese, butter, sour cream or sugar. Many of these older and favorite recipes were also developed during a time when there were not a lot of good lower fat or sugar-free options available. In addition, the amount of exercise and activity that occurred years ago was likely higher than it is now. Our grandparents were able to eat more calories and yet maintain a normal weight due to all the extra activity that they did in a day. After all, I can push a button and open the garage door and change the TV channel from the couch now. But even I can remember a time on the farm when I spent many summer mornings walking up and down the bean field rows hoeing weeds, getting out of the car to open the door to the garage, etc.

Our activity level has definitely changed with the advent of technology and time saving devices. Don’t get me wrong, I do appreciate my garage door opener and remote control, but we do need to keep it in perspective that if we are not that active then we don’t need to eat that much. The thing is, the special foods we have at the holidays just taste so good, that it is easy to overdo it. I can recall my niece a couple of years ago remarking about grandma’s homemade caramel popcorn and said “I just love it!” We still mention that quip years later, because it is so true. When it just tastes so good, it’s hard to stop. I have often thought that if I could just figure out a way to capture the taste of some my favorite foods without having to consume the calories that go along with it, I could be a millionaire! Eating, especially at the holidays is a very social and family-friendly tradition.

So how do we successfully navigate the eating at this time of the year? And what would success look like? Now is the time to formulate a plan so that you can stay on track with your eating goals. Those goals might be to not gain additional weight, to keep your blood sugars under control, etc. At the same time, we want to enjoy our favorite foods and, if you are the cook or baker, prepare them for our holiday get-togethers.

Portion control and moderation are probably our best tactics for being able to have our “cake and eat it too.” It does take a more mindful approach though. As an example, if grandma’s caramel corn is your favorite holiday treat, then scoop up one portion and instead of having a second portion, opt for a lower calorie alternate if you still want to continue eating. I think of the lowly celery stick that gets touted as the “negative-calorie” food — meaning that eating it expends more calories to chew and digest it than the amount of calories it contains. There is no study either way to back up this claim, but it would be hard to mess up a diet plan by overeating on celery when a medium stalk only has 5-10 calories in all.

A recent conversation was held about celery and someone noted that really all a stalk of celery consisted of was a stick of green water. That is very true! Celery is rich in water, which is why it is so low in calories. It is also a good source of vitamin K and has a moderate amount of potassium, vitamin A and folate. It also has some antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects. One stalk of celery contains about 35 milligrams of sodium, which is not a concern for most people, but if you are on a sodium-restricted diet, and eat a lot of celery you may want to take note. Some diet plans will discourage people from eating celery because of this sodium content. It is true that this is a higher amount of sodium than many other vegetables, but then consider that a glass of milk contains about 125 mg of sodium and a cup of canned chicken noodle soup can contain more than 900 mg of sodium per serving. Celery, in an average size portion, is certainly not considered a high sodium food.

So here is where the relish tray comes in to play a role. Fresh vegetables make a great side, they are low in calories, low in fat and good sources of fiber. They give you something to munch on and help fill you up. A great relish tray with a big variety of cut up vegetables can be an attractive and tasty alternative, and it can be paired with a lower calorie dip, made with yogurt or lower calorie dressings. Besides the traditional carrot and celery sticks, there are a number of vegetables you can include to add some variety, such as green, red, yellow or orange peppers, different varieties of mushrooms, radishes, jicama, green onions and others as you desire.

Now is the time to make a plan, eat in moderation and not abandon your exercise routine. Here come the holidays!

Cheryl Rude is a registered dietitian at Avera Marshall Regional Medical Center.

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