As the holiday season approaches with visions of sugar plums, pecan pie and other sweet treats in our heads, you might be surprised at how many healthy holiday foods you also consume over these festive months.
Thanksgiving, Christmas, Chanukah, Kwanzaa and other family-centered celebrations give us a much-needed chance to reconnect with family and friends over a bounty of food.
As you look forward to dessert and treats, remember that there are, indeed, many healthy appetizers, main courses, and side dishes that will likely be present on the table this year.
Here are some traditional holiday foods that might surprise you with their health benefits.
Foods On Your Holiday Table That Are Super Healthy
1. Cranberry sauce
We think of cranberry sauce as the ultimate tasty turkey topper, but this side dish has real health benefits as well.
Cranberry products contain flavonoids called anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins, which have antioxidant properties. Antioxidants block the activity of other chemicals in the body known as free radicals, which are highly reactive and have potential to cause damage to cells, including damage that may lead to cancer.
But try to keep your cranberry sauce to a homemade version, which contains far higher levels of anthocyanins and proanthocyanidins than canned sauces processed with whole berries or the jelled type.
2. Sweet potatoes
Sweet potatoes are a staple of many holiday meals, whether seasoned and baked or mashed and topped with marshmallows.
This orange-fleshed root vegetable is an important source of beta-carotene, which the body converts into Vitamin A (retinol). Vitamin A contributes to healthy skin and mucus membranes, and good eye health. Absorption of beta-carotene is enhanced if eaten with fats, which works well at holiday time!
Carrots, yams and pumpkins are also good sources of beta-carotene, so glaze, bake, or prepare a soup and get those vitamins!
3. Collard greens
Collard greens, a green vegetable with large, dark-colored, edible leaves, is one of the traditional holiday foods, particularly among African-American families during Thanksgiving or Kwanza.
Collards are a good source of vitamin C and soluble fiber, which helps to prevent constipation and maintain a healthy digestive system.
Collard greens are also rich in vitamin K, which aids blood clotting, so they should be eaten in moderation by people taking blood thinners.
Stuffing, the classic holiday meal side dish, is full of carbohydrates, but can be made healthier by adding ingredients such as dates.
As well as adding sweetness to the dish, dates contain Vitamin C, an antioxidant, and various B vitamins, which help you get energy from foods you eat and form red blood cells and are high in dietary fiber. Dates are also a good source of antioxidants.
As a main course, turkey is a good one for health benefits. Turkey is packed with protein, and is a source of iron, which helps form red blood cells (hemoglobin) that carry oxygen to the body’s cells; zinc, which supports the immune system; potassium, which builds muscle, breaks down carbs and controls the electrical activity of the heart; and phosphorus, which helps formation of bones and teeth and helps the body make protein for cell and tissue growth and repair.
Many of us serve up shrimp as a special appetizer for the holidays, and Italian families often celebrate Christmas Eve with meals featuring shrimp and other seafood.
Related: 5 Benefits Of The Mediterranean Diet
Shrimp contains omega-3 fatty acids that can have protective health effects including a reduced risk of cardiovascular disease, stroke and diabetes.
Seafood is also naturally rich vitamin D, which helps our bodies absorb calcium and iodine, needed for normal thyroid function.
7. Red wine (yay!)
Raise your glass to a holiday toast with red wine. Studies have shown that habitual light to moderate alcohol intake (up to one drink per day for women and one or two drinks per day for men) is associated with decreased risks for coronary artery disease, diabetes, congestive heart failure and stroke.
Did you know that wine also is a good source for antioxidants? One antioxidant found naturally in grapes is pterostilbene, which packs many health benefits in terms of skin care, cognitive function and anti-aging properties.
Related: 7 Benefits Of Red Wine
However, medical experts don’t encourage non-drinkers to start imbibing for potential health benefits, and higher levels of alcohol consumption are actually associated with increased cardiovascular risk.
In fact, some health benefits in red wine come from the skin of grapes used in the wine; eating grapes may be a good alternative.
Enjoy your holiday cheer at your family and friends’ dinner tables – you can have your cake, but eat healthy too with these holiday foods!
Frank L. Jaksch Jr. is a member of the American Chemical Society and the CEO of ChromaDex, a natural ingredients company.
Photo by lovelihood