The holidays can be an anxiety-inducing time for many of us. We constantly think about the pressures of hosting our families and friends for holiday dinners, making sure we get our holiday shopping done, and stressing about what to get for whom.
But maybe none of these is as stressful as our relationship with food around the holidays. Holiday eating — and the flip-side of that, which is eating healthy during the holiday season — is something Whitney Catalano, a registered dietician, calls, “the perfect storm of food and body anxiety.”
As it turns out, it may be easier than you think to take that perfect Category 1 storm and downgrade it to a passing shower — with a few health and wellness tweaks. In this article, you’ll learn how to eat healthy during the holidays and five great dishes you can prepare to enjoy and indulge without overdoing it.
Why You Should Keep Healthy Even During the Holidays
For many people, the end of the year can trigger a lot of pent up pressures. Seeing family, financial burdens, and juggling personal demands can ironically cause us to reach for something comforting to eat. Suddenly, we’re baking batch after batch of holiday cookies and we find ourselves in front of the pantry at 2 a.m. at night.
Here’s the thing: eating healthy food during the holidays is actually one of the best ways, besides regular exercise, to ward off rising stress levels. Elevated levels of stress can then significantly reduce our immune system’s ability to cope with seasonal infections and family obligations.
Studies have also shown that reaching for sugar, especially during winter seasons, where it gets colder and darker earlier in the day, can deeply affect our moods. Research published in the Medical Journal finds that people who want to avoid winter-onset depression need to put away holiday sweets and sugary snacks.
"When we consume sweets, they act like a drug. They have an immediate mood-elevating effect, but in high doses they can also have a paradoxical, pernicious longer-term consequence of making mood worse, reducing well-being, elevating inflammation and causing weight gain."
Luckily, there are four steps you can take to make sure you’re reaching for healthy food that will serve your body rather than deplete your health.
How to Eat Healthy During the Holidays
The CDC has a few tips if you want to learn how to eat healthy during the holidays. Prioritizing your health and wellness during the holiday seasons is easier if you know what to expect, you’re aware what your triggers are, and you have a strategy to combat these factors that contribute to unhealthy eating.
- Start with a holiday-proof plan — Your holiday meal plan will differ based on if you’re hosting or you’re going to someone else’s holiday gathering. If the latter and you can’t control what you’re served, offer to bring a healthy dish along. If you’re hosting the gathering, keep snacking on bite-sized foods during the day — a handful of nuts, carrot sticks with hummus, or apple slices with nut butter are great options.
- Beat around the buffet — When faced with a buffet, you’ve got to prioritize. Start off with a little bit of your favorite foods. Really savor these first because enjoying your favorites right away may help you feel both emotionally satisfied and physically satiated.
- Get rid of the “naughty” list — Let’s get one thing straight: the holidays are a bad time to demonize food. Sure, we shouldn’t overindulge in sugary snacks — but labeling foods you love as “bad” has the opposite effect. Instead, use substitution. So, if you have a delicious brownie, cut back on potatoes or carbs during your meal.
- Pair food with movement — After a satisfying holiday meal, you may want to just curl up with a good movie. Instead, make a plan before you sit to eat with your family or friends that you all will go for a post-meal walk. If you pick up the pace, you can boost norepinephrine and dopamine levels, important neurotransmitters that control mood and energy.
Three Healthy Dishes You Can Prepare During the Holidays
Eating healthy food during the holidays is easier than you think — just incorporate superfoods. Superfoods are those naturally-occurring foods that have documented health benefits (such as containing cancer-fighting compounds or antioxidants). These foods are nutrient-dense and also have naturally high concentrations of vitamins, minerals, probiotics, and phytochemicals, which promote total-body health and wellness.
What's more, these critical nutrients are mostly missing in today's mainstream diets, which is a shame because superfoods can help with improving heart health, promoting detoxification, helping with sleep and weight loss, as well as mitigating anxiety and depression. They balance the body's energy without causing major dips and highs.
To do this right, you should make a list of and consciously assess the dishes you usually prepare. The only “rule” you need to institute is substitution and addition to recipes you already rely on during the holidays.
Each of the three recipes featured below makes healthy (no pun intended) use of this rule so you can preserve the taste and decadence of your favorite dishes while reaping the wellness benefits.
1) Alternative Moringa Pesto
Let’s start with a little moringa magic, shall we?
The research behind this delicate-yet-hearty little leaf is stunning. No wonder it’s the prodigal son of superfoods:
- Moringa leaves are full of vitamin C, calcium, potassium, amino acids
- The powder smells like a savory, almost peppery version of matcha powder
- Stabilizes blood sugar
- Contains substances called isothiocyanates, which boosts human resistance to cancer
Hint: If you're using moringa powder as a swap or an addition to your holiday recipes, you should know that not all moringa products are created alike. You want to look for a formulation, such as Miracle in the Green's Oringaa, which is cruelty-free, sustainably sourced, and is free of fillers, dyes, and additives.
So how do you incorporate moringa into your holiday recipes? If you don’t want to go for the leaves (or they’re simply not in season where you live), you can easily use moringa powder for twice the potency and less cooking time.
Use this recipe for moringa pesto for some fantastic pasta. All you need is one bunch of fresh basil, a large handful of spinach, a large handful of washed and chopped kale, unsalted almonds that are soaked overnight, and, you got it, that peppery dash of moringa powder.
2) Moringa Maple-Glazed Root Veggies
Root veggies are a great substitute for the classic candied sweet potatoes. Sweet potatoes are, themselves, a great swap for the regular potato. But if you want to skip the “candied” part and still keep things saccharine, opt for root veggies.
These are carrots, parsnips, beets, and, yes, sweet potatoes. Using a combination of all these veggies will bring some color to your plate. Use a combination of maple syrup and a cup of orange juice to glaze the veggies and bring out their natural sweetness without elevating your blood sugar. Don’t forget to sprinkle with moringa powder!
3) Moringa and Mint Dark Chocolate Brownie Squares
These no-bake dark chocolate brownie squares are as close to the holiday season, in terms of flavors, as it’s possible to get. Beyond that, the dark chocolate is itself a superfood rich in antioxidants — so it’s time to get that delicious mint filling.
- Add some walnuts, dates and cocoa powder to your food processor and process into a sticky dough. It should hold together when you break off a piece and squeeze it together with your fingers.
- Press this down into an 8×8 square dish and place into the freezer to set.
- Add some soaked cashews (soaked for 1 hour in hot water), some dessicated coconut, coconut oil, salt, date honey or maple syrup, peppermint extract and baby spinach into the blender and blend until smooth. If your blender isn’t super powerful, you can also do this step in the food processor though it won’t get as smooth.
- Pour this out over your base and smooth down with a spatula or the back of a spoon. Place into the freezer to firm up before adding the topping.
- Now add melted coconut oil, date honey or maple syrup and cocoa powder to your food processor and process into a smooth chocolate.
- Pour out over the mint filling and smooth down with a spatula or the back of a spoon.
- Place into the freezer once again to set before cutting it into squares.
- Just make sure to pop in just about two teaspoons of moringa powder into the mix and you’re ready to go!
More healthy moringa recipes here.
Love + miracles,