Nutrition News: The Healthy Food Spectrum
The holiday season can make it tough to stay on track with eating healthy. There is such an abundance of food, gatherings, desserts and temptations. When the table is laden with mashed potatoes, casseroles, turkey, ham, prime rib, pumpkin pie and red velvet cake, it can be confusing to determine which traditional holiday foods can support good health. While Thanksgiving may be behind us, there will be other times to gather with family and friends during the holiday season.
It's good to remember that one day of splurging won't ruin the benefits of an otherwise healthy dietary pattern. Try to choose more whole and minimally processed fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes, whole grains, herbs and spices, yogurt and seafood, which are on the "healthy" end of the spectrum. Dishes that feature those ingredients will be healthier choices than those that are made with refined flour and have higher amounts of added sugar or salt.
Consider a healthy foods spectrum -- while a piece of apple pie is made up primarily of added sugars and refined carbohydrates, it also has the vitamins, minerals and fiber from the apples. Apple pie would never be considered a health food, but it might rank higher than a sugar-sweetened beverage or a piece of cake. It's true pumpkin pie and cranberry sauce have added sugars, but they also have beneficial compounds from fruits and fiber compared to white bread or white potatoes.
The key is to put foods (and meals) in perspective. The fiber, vitamins and minerals in a piece of pumpkin pie make it a better choice than some foods, but it doesn't come close to the healthfulness of fruit or vegetables. But they can all fit into a healthy food pattern. Choose a wide variety of foods and make them healthier if you can. Can you use less sugar in the sweet potatoes? Can you top the sweet potatoes with nuts instead of marshmallows? Can you add some extra vegetables to the stuffing? Can you choose a smaller portion of pumpkin pie and skip the whipped cream? Can you add a salad to the table to balance some of the sweets?
And remember, taking a family walk can also balance the extra food you may eat.
Happy Holidays from my house to yours!
Q and A
Q: Are plant milks, frozen veggie burgers and seasoned fresh fish processed foods? Should they be avoided?
A: Think about processed foods in categories. There are minimally processed foods (whole foods that have been slightly modified to make them edible, safe or more pleasant to consume), and there are ultra-processed foods (industrial formulations made mostly from sugar, starch, fats, proteins, hydrogenated fats, modified starch and flavor enhancers, artificial colors and stabilizers). A frozen fish fillet is minimally processed; however, fish sticks would be considered highly processed. The amount of processing in a veggie burger can vary but if they mimic meat, they are considered ultra-processed. According to a 2021 study, 90% of the plant-based beverages marketed as "milks" meet the criteria for ultra-processed foods, including 95% of almond milks. That doesn't mean all ultra-processed foods should be avoided but compare labels and choose the brands with the least salt, sugar and refined flour.