GO ON…INDULGE: The Health Benefits of Christmas Dinner
Is there any meal throughout the year that’s looked more forward to than Christmas dinner? It may take hours of preparation – it may mean that Christmas morning is spent in a steamy kitchen that smells of stuffing and Brussels sprouts (and will do for many days yet to come), and it may even mean telling everyone to get out of the room and leave you alone – but once it’s done, laid out on the table for all to see and be impressed by, it really is something to behold.
And there is always so much of it too. Dozens of roast potatoes, crunchy and fluffy in just the right measure for a handful of people, mountains of sprouts, a turkey that very nearly didn’t fit in the oven and needed two people to carry to the table to be carved, and more pigs in blankets than you could shake a stick at.
It would seem, then, that all this food – far too much really, and yet we always try to devour as much of it as possible, complete with silly paper hats and terrible jokes – has to be ever so bad for us. It’s Christmas, after all, and we do tend to forget about healthy eating for the day (or week, or actually all of December). But although Christmas dinner might seem like an unhealthy pile of calories, it can actually hold some rather healthy secrets.
The turkey, the great centrepiece of your laden Christmas table, is a strange thing. We don’t tend to eat it (much) at other times of the year, but at Christmas it is everywhere, and we eat it in various guises for days on end. And that, perhaps, is something we should try throughout the year as well because turkey holds some rather interesting health benefits.
- Turkey is wonderfully rich in vitamin B6, protein, niacin and tryptophan (an essential amino acid). To a lesser degree you’ll also find vitamin B12 and zinc in there too. Plus, without the skin turkey is low in fat. Lovely!
- Turkey contains selenium, which is a trace mineral known for its anti-cancer properties. As a bonus, selenium also helps to keep your thyroid (and therefore your metabolism) working properly, helping you to lose weight when you exercise and eat well.
- Cholesterol is something we’re all told to watch out for, but the problem is that it is absolutely everywhere, in pretty much everything we eat. Turkey, however, has very little of it, making it one of the healthiest meats there is (turkey contains less cholesterol than beef, pork and even chicken).
- Turkey makes us feel good! It might be for this reason that Christmas dinner is always such a jolly affair (of course, it could be the wine). Tryptophan, that amino acid mentioned earlier, produces serotonin which is known as the ‘happy hormone’. This hormonal neurotransmitter reduces the amount of cortisol (the stress hormone) in your body and improves your mood. Tryptophan is also something that helps to strengthen the immune system and it is perfect for aiding chronic insomnia.
- Vitamin B6 and niacin combine to aid our body in creating energy, converting all the fats, carbohydrates and proteins for us to use. Without this, we’ll feel sluggish and unwell, plus we’ll put on weight.
Love ’em or loathe ’em, Christmas dinner just isn’t the same without them – the good ol’ Brussels sprout. Being a vegetable, it’s clear that these little green balls of bitterness/tastiness have some health benefits, but there is more to them than that.
- Brussels are high in all kinds of nutrients such as protein, carbohydrates, fibre, vitamins A, C and K, folate and manganese. Vitamin K is needed for blood clotting and healthy bones, and vitamin C is required for a healthy immune system.
- Sprouts are absolutely bursting with antioxidants too. Antioxidants are compounds that help to lower your risk of developing chronic disease and sprouts are particularly rich in an antioxidant called kaempferol. Kaempferol has been shown to reduce the growth of some cancer cells, make the heart healthier and ease muscle inflammation such as might be caused through arthritis, for example.
- We’ve already mentioned that sprouts are high in fibre, but do you know why this is a good thing? It’s because fibre helps to keep your gut and digestive tract nice and healthy – basically, it stops you from getting constipated. As well as being something that no one wants to talk about, constipation is more than just being uncomfortable; it can lead to some serious problems and could even mean that you need to be hospitalised. Remember, we may laugh because the sprouts are giving Grandad wind, but all it means is that they’re doing their job and we should be glad about that…
- Having healthy blood sugar levels is all-important, and Brussels sprouts can help with that too, even potentially reducing your risk of developing type II diabetes. Again, this could be linked to the amount of fibre they contain, because fibre is fantastic at regulating blood sugar levels because it moves so slowly through the body before it is digested (this means it slows how much sugar is absorbed into your blood). But sprouts also contain alpha-lipoic acid, which studies have shown is also effective at lowering blood sugar and helping to produce insulin.
The one fact that most people are able to tell you about carrots is that they help you see in the dark. Whilst they do have some health benefits for your eyes, they can do a lot more besides.
- Carrots contain loads of beta-carotene which, studies have discovered, is linked to reducing the risk of both breast, lung and colon cancer, and you only need to consume around 2 milligrams of beta-carotene a day to feel the effects. Since one medium sized carrot contains about 3 milligrams, it isn’t a hard thing to do.
- High cholesterol is one of the biggest factors causing heart disease, so it’s important to reduce your cholesterol where possible. Eating carrots makes that a much easier task because they lower your cholesterol automatically. It’s better if they’re raw for this particular job, but cooked carrots can still help to a lesser extent.
- Carrots can help you to control your blood sugar, and by extension your risk of developing type II diabetes. If you already have the disease, the carotenoids within carrots can still help. Carotenoids lower blood sugar and improve insulin resistance.
- Ever been told you have high blood pressure? Many of us do from time to time, especially if we go through stressful periods. This is perfectly normal and it tends to settle down again after a short time. Chronic high blood pressure is not normal and it can lead to heart attacks, heart disease and strokes. If you have chronic high blood pressure you need to control it, and if you want to do this naturally, potassium is what you should be looking out for. Rather brilliantly, carrots contain lots of this, and can help you lower your blood pressure quickly and safely.
- And yes, carrots are good for your eyes. This is because they are full of vitamin A, which is directly linked to healthy eyes and good eyesight. As we get older, our night vision starts to fade (we lose this before any other vision problems in most cases), and for those who really suffer night blindness can set in. Consuming more vitamin A can help – so, it seems, carrots really can help you to see in the dark.
Is it chestnut stuffing that matches perfectly with your turkey at Christmas? Or do you prefer them roasting on an open fire? Either way, they are the ideal accompaniment to your meal, especially since they have some health benefits too.
- Nuts are notorious for being high in fat, but the chestnut bucks the trend, and is in fact the only known nut that is low in fat – there are only around 70 calories and just one gram of fat in each ounce of roasted chestnuts.
- Chestnuts differ from their other nutty neighbours because they are also the only nut to contain vitamin C which we need to keep our immune systems healthy. We can get around 45 percent of all the vitamin C we need per day from a tiny three ounces of chestnuts.
- And then there’s that all-important fibre again; chestnuts contain a lot of fibre which improves the health of the gut and lowers cholesterol.
Pop some ‘snips on your plate this Christmas Day and you can indulge in their lovely sweetness whilst feeling good about that fact that they are so healthy too.
- We’re talking fibre again. Most of us just don’t get enough of it in our diets which is why we can easily – and often – suffer from stomach complaints. It’s vital to improve the amount of fibre we consume on a daily basis, and if sweet and tasty parsnips can be part of that, we’re glad.
- Parsnips also contain folate, which is part of the B family of vitamins. Folate is great because it keeps our metabolism working speedily (so we use food’s energy rather than letting it go to waste – and go to our waist). It also keeps our nervous system working as it should, and can even promote the production of red blood cells. Plus, if you’re pregnant, folate can help to keep your baby healthy too.
- Potassium also features heavily in the make up of parsnips. Potassium keeps our skeletons and muscles functioning, and keeps our brains active, so it’s hugely important.
If you’re adding cranberry sauce to your Christmas table make sure it’s the real stuff – with real cranberries in it – because really, nothing else will do in terms of taste and, luckily enough, in terms of health benefits too.
- Cranberries contain a type of antioxidant known as polyphenols and, more than that, they contain a rather rare polyphenol subtype called B-type proanthocyanidin. What this means is that cranberries have an almost unique ability to protect the urinary tract, reducing or even eliminating the effects of UTIs.
- The antioxidants in cranberries have also been shown to keep the heart healthy, even helping arteries to run more smoothly.
- Cranberries, unlike many other fruits, are low in sugar too.
Is your go to veggie for Christmas the vibrant purple cabbage? If not, why not? It’s delicious, and it’s packed full of health-giving nutrients. If you’ve never included it on your festive table before, this year might be the one to start.
- Purple cabbage contains plenty of good things including fibre, potassium, vitamin A and vitamin C. As we’ve noted above, some of each of these can assist in making your body healthy and hearty, keeping everything running smoothly and exactly as it is meant to.