You may be asking why I'm posting this now, before one of the most decadent holidays of the year, but every day is a great day to do something good for yourself! This time of year, we also tend to reflect on the past year, set goals for the year ahead, and celebrate the good fortune we have with family and friends. Maybe you didn't make many great decisions for the sake of your health, or maybe the hustle and bustle of the holiday season really set you off track the healthy habits you have already built. You can use this list to guide your New Year's Resolution plans, but it also includes changes you can make today! There are certainly plenty of opportunities to relax and indulge during the holidays, but maintaining a balance with health in between all of your cookie binges and mashed potato celebrations will keep you feeling happy, energetic, and better able to enjoy all of the festivities!
*Just a note: Even though I have a growing background in nutrition and health promotion, by no means am I a certified professional. Be mindful of your own medical conditions, and listen to the advice of a trusted health resource person. Additionally, no single ingredient or behavior is a magic bullet that will solve all of your problems, so always keep variety and balance in perspective. Do what makes you feel good and promotes your health!
- Cauliflower: Before you close this page, wait to hear me out! I really get it; cauliflower is like one of the most bland, boring, uninspiring vegetables out there. Except it isn't when you consider it's health benefits and culinary versatility. For one cup of cooked cauliflower, you get about 30 calories, 3 grams of fiber, and a huge boost of vitamin c, an essential nutrient and antioxidant. And you don't have to eat mushy steamed cauliflower to get these benefits; cauliflower can be made into rice, "mashed potatoes," pasta sauces, and flavorful curries! Sure, some of these recipes might not be as rich or entirely reminiscent of their originals, but they're a little lighter and just as filling. If you start incorporating some of these dishes into your weekly meal plan, you might find that they're your new favorites! Whether you work cauliflower into your holiday menu or eat some with hummus to take a break from all of the cookies, it's rarely a poor choice to eat more veggies. This summer, I tried this recipe for Tabbouleh with Cauliflower Cous Cous. I loved how easy it was to make, and how refreshed I felt after eating it!
- Dark Leafy Greens: If you only make one change to your diet, start eating more dark leafy greens! While 1 cup of these veggies don't provide more than 70 calories cooked, they pack a serious nutritional punch. Dark leafy greens are a great source of plant-based protein, iron (especially if they are gently cooked), calcium, fiber, vitamin C, and vitamin K among many others. Some greens like kale, swiss chard, and collard greens might be a little intimidating at first due to their tough, chewy texture, but massaging them with a small amount of oil goes a long way to making a salad more palatable. You don't even have to make your entire salad bed these greens either; mixing in a little with romaine (another good choice) is still better than eating none at all. Sneaking some spinach into a smoothie is so simple and I promise you won't realize it's in there at all. Adding a handful of greens into soups is the same thing, and Whole Foods's Chicken and Brown Rice Soup (replace the chicken broth with veggie broth and the chicken with tofu or eliminate it altogether for a veg-friendly meal) is super cozy and warming for this time of year! Is it, dare I say, reminiscent of my Jewish grandmother's matzo ball soup? (No of course not, what kind of grandchild am I?! But it still is really good!)
- Lentils: Lentils are probably the unsung heroes of many fabulous dishes. They're part of the foundation for many soup and salad recipes, but they shine with their own killer health stats. One half cup serving of lentils has 115 calories and acts as an excellent source of folate, a very good source of dietary fiber, and a good source of protein and iron. I would say that lentils are a great food for anyone to eat, but they are especially great for athletes and highly active people. For Thanksgiving, I enjoyed this Sweet Potato Lentil Shepherd's Pie, and I just wanted to make it again when I finished my leftovers (maybe partially because I'm a little obsessed with sweet potatoes too, but anyway...). Also, it might seem weird but this Lentil Walnut Loaf is really tasty as well (or see the recipe in the Oh She Glows Cookbook). For a recipe that is a little less time consuming, check out this lentil soup! As a side note, the United Nations has declared that 2016 as the "International Year of Pulses" (which includes beans, peas, and lentils) if you needed more of a reason to get excited about lentils.
- Walnuts: If you love your heart, you should love walnuts! We all know that nuts are mostly made up of fat, but not all fat should have such a bad reputation. We need fat to live, and eating fat isn't going to make you fat! Walnuts are an ample source of the healthy kinds of fat: monounsaturated fats, polyunsaturated fats, and omega-3 fatty acids. All of these nutrients are actually associated with greater cardiovascular health, with implications for people suffering from hypertension, type 2 diabetes, and metabolic syndrome. Omega-3s are generally lacking in many peoples' eating habits, but they are super important for cognitive function as well.* They can be found in fatty fish like salmon, but vegetarians and vegans can obtain them naturally in their diet from walnuts, among other sources. Walnuts are calorie dense at about 200 calories for a quarter cup, so don't go crazy, but a small handful does the job. A creative way of getting more walnuts and fruit into your diet is to blend both into a smoothie! This Cranberry Apple Walnut smoothie is both delicious and festive. Generally, fat is digested more slowly, so adding a little bit of healthy fat can help you stay fuller longer.
- Bananas: Bananas are my favorite fruit, so I might be biased, but they give me a great boost of natural energy just when I need it! You probably already know that bananas are a good source of potassium, an important nutrient in electrolyte balance and nerve function, although truthfully they aren't the greatest source. However, they are easy to digest, making it ideal for a pre- or post-workout snack or to rest your tummy following a big meal (if you're still actually hungry). Like other fruits, bananas do have simple sugars, but they also provide about 3 grams of fiber for some staying power for about 110 calories in one medium banana. I almost always eat a banana in my breakfast on top of cereal or mashed into some oatmeal (unless I make my Baked Pumpkin Spice Oatmeal), and nut butter and banana sandwiches are awesome. However, my favorite way to eat bananas is as Banana Nice Cream! Mimicking some of the taste and texture of traditional ice cream, Nice Cream is made by freezing a few bananas and then blending them up in a food processor or blender. That's it! Of course, you can mix in other fruits, as per this delicious Watermelon Banana Bowl, or add toppings and mix-ins like healthy cookie dough (What? You thought cookie dough and healthy didn't go together?) This could be a great way to tame your sweet tooth without throwing your health out the window!
I am not completely heartless, and I enjoy the holiday season just as much as anyone else! Here are a few links to some of my favorite holiday treats that are more indulgent but still have some valuable health benefits:
Easy Salted Oat Fudge from Cookie + Kate
4 Ingredient Peanut Butter Cookies from Healthy. Happy. Life.
Oatmeal Chocolate Chunk Cookie Stuffed Campfire Bananas from Half Baked Harvest
Turtle Oatmeal Cookies from Oh She Glows
*Mangels, R., Messina, V., & Messina M. (2011). The Dietician's Guide to Vegetarian Diets: Issues and Applications (3rd ed.). Sudbury, MA: Jones and Bartlett.
Live where you fear to live.
Destroy your reputation.