How to Stay Healthy During the Holidays

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Vegetable Gumbo with Cabbage
Spicy Mexican Walnut Mix

If you’re stumped about what to buy for a
holiday gift, consider this: Some gifts may transform people’s
lives for the healthier.

In a study published in the 1996 Journal of the ­American
Dietetic Association, researchers conducted ­interviews with 150
people who had made notable ­improvements in their eating habits.
Some of those interviewed mentioned gifts as pivotal

“I think when people receive a gift, they feel obligated to try
it–or eat it, if appropriate–when they might not do so otherwise,”
says Cheryl Achterberg, Ph.D., professor of nutrition at Penn State
and a researcher on the study. Gifts that may help change a person’s habits include unfamiliar
or exotic fruits and vegetables that the receiver wouldn’t normally

“Similarly,” Achterberg says, “an invitation to dinner for a
different cuisine–for example, Indian–or a [gift] certificate to a
different restaurant might again spur someone to try different
foods that he or she may then incorporate more routinely into the

The findings show that one modest change can prompt several
changes that researchers call a “clump.” Just one gift can trigger
such a clump.

“Behavior change tended to occur in groups of about six to eight
specific changes,” Achterberg says. “The gift of a wok might
trigger an increase in ­cabbage and peppers, an increase in rice or
complex carbohydrates, and a decrease in meat, as someone uses this
appliance on a regular basis.”

Study participants mentioned several kitchen appliances as
motivators, including rice cookers and bread machines, which can
lead to the consumption of more whole grains. A gift of homemade food alone is not likely to change someone’s
behavior unless it is accompanied by the means and motivation to do
so, Achterberg says. For example, she recommends supplying the
recipe for the gift or the book that contains the recipe.

“The main thing is that someone needs to try it, like it, and
then follow through and re-create it,” she says.

A Basketful of Nutrition

What can you give friends and family that would be more
meaningful than a box of candy, slippers, or another tie? Healthy
gift baskets may be a good place to start. Nutrition and
health-food stores have a wide selection of books and videotapes on
nutrition and cooking, healthy snacks (such as roasted soybeans or
pumpkin seeds), teas, juices, and products such as specialty skin
creams and soaps. Visit grocery stores for exotic fruits. Beth Bussey, a registered dietitian and EatRight weight-control
program coordinator in the Department of Nutrition Sciences at the
University of Alabama at Birmingham, says she likes to assemble the
ingredients for a healthy bean soup and include a recipe. Dried
beans come in many colors and are nutritious, too. She stuffs a
basket with the beans, plus canned items, specialty crackers, and a
soup mug.

You may also consider a magazine subscription (wrap up a copy of
your favorite health, cooking, or nutrition magazine with a gift
card) or a book. The National Center for Nutrition and Dietetics,
part of the American Dietetic Association (ADA), has compiled the
Good Nutrition Reading List, a selection of publications on
nutrition, diet, fitness and health.

Savvy Strategies to Keep You on Track During the Holidays

Ah, those buffet tables, those butter
cookies, cream pies, and fatty snacks. How will it ever be possible
to eat healthy from Thanksgiving through New Year’s? ‘Tis the season to be jolly–not a time to worry about what
you’re going to consume. Have a good time, eat well, but be
realistic, nutritionists say.

“The holidays are a time for sharing the festivities of the
­season. Be observant of what you eat–but not fanatical,” says
Peter D. Vash, M.D., an expert in the treatment and control of
obesity and the executive medical director at the Costa Mesa,
California, Lindora Medical Clinic.

And don’t even think about dieting ­during the holiday season.
“Think weight main­tenance, not loss,” says Beth Bussey, a
registered ­dietitian and EatRight weight-control program
co­ordinator in the Department of Nutrition Sciences at the
University of Alabama at Birmingham.

Here are some savvy tips for getting through the season–from
what to eat before tackling the mall to how to graze successfully
at the buffet table.

Off and Running

You’ve heard it before, but it’s important to repeat: Don’t skip
breakfast. Get plenty of rest, too.

“I recommend that people sleep at least eight hours a day,
especially during the holidays, and this may mean short naps,” says
Connie Crawley, a registered dietitian and nutrition and health
specialist with the University of Georgia Extension Service.

“When people get too tired, they are more likely to eat to keep
going and to drink caffeine, which disrupts natural sleep
patterns,” she says. “They should also eat three to four small
meals per day. Aerobic exercise should also be a priority. All
these things help a person deal with stress and resist overeating
or eating low-nutrient foods.”

When you take to the road for shopping trips and other holiday
errands, Bussey suggests keeping some healthy foods, such as a bag
of apples, in your vehicle. She keeps a case of vegetable juice in
her car and cans of nutritious beans in her desk drawer at
work. If you get caught without healthy snacks and are tempted by fast
food, order a chicken breast sandwich or a salad instead of a
cheeseburger. Remember that stress also can add to poor eating habits, so
prepare to pamper yourself.

“Plan for disaster, not perfection,” Bussey says. If you can,
she says, put aside some “mad money” to pay for such time-savers as
additional time on your cellular phone or the gift-wrapping service
at the mall.

A Balancing Act

Carbohydrate-rich foods such as fruits, vegetables, legumes, and
grains turn into energy quickly in the human body. However, you
also need a bit of fat and some protein to help you sustain that
energy while you’re running on full speed.

Crawley says that when people get too hungry, their bodies crave
high-sugar and high-fat foods.

“Our appetite control centers work best when we are moderately
hungry,” Crawley says. “Also, we are more likely to control our
intake better if we eat ­carbohydrates that are higher in
fiber–that usually means fewer processed foods.”

To maintain one’s energy during the day, Vash suggests eating
carbohydrate-rich food with a little protein, such as cottage
cheese and a slice of whole-grain toast with jelly or a turkey
breast sandwich with mustard on whole-grain bread. If you have a
salad, he says, make sure it includes some protein, such as egg
whites, poultry, or seafood–and don’t load it with dressing.

A mixture of black beans, brown rice and salsa is also a good
mini-meal, Bussey says, and provides you with protein,
carbohydrates, fat, vitamins and minerals.

Don’t Forget Your Multivitamins

If you’re already taking vitamins and/or supplements, be sure to
continue taking them throughout the holidays. “This is no time to
change your routine,” Bussey says.

Taking a multivitamin is a prudent thing to do, Vash says, and
will ensure quality health, not only during the holidays but
throughout the year.

“Many physicians realize the value of vitamins, minerals and
herbs; we generally feel that all these can have an important place
in the maximizing of the individual’s health.” He says, however,
that eating the right foods and getting exercise also are part of a
healthy lifestyle.

Working the Party

Go to parties somewhat hungry, never famished–and before you set
out, plan an eating strategy. Think moderation and balance.

“I suggest [having] a piece of fruit or a bowl of soup before
the party to curb hunger and give the person a sense of control,”
Crawley says. Curbing your appetite may help you make better
choices at the buffet table.

Once there, survey the food options. “Even at the buffet table,
you usually have a wide range of choices,” Vash says. He recommends
avoiding foods that are oily or greasy, especially items made with
butter, mayonnaise and margarine.

“Choose more grain foods, turkey, chicken, fish and seafood.
And just because it’s fish or seafood, that doesn’t mean it can be

If appropriate, Bussey suggests, bring a healthy appetizer or
main dish to add to the buffet table, so that in a worst-case
scenario, there will be something you can eat.

“The goal is to go and eat right,” she says. “We feel so good
when we do what we planned–it’s those feelings of control that give
us the feeling of success.”

A part of the plan may be to allow yourself one bite of
everything you truly like. Don’t deprive yourself, but use
discernment; nobody ever ruined his or her health or gained weight
by having one serving or one bite, Bussey says.

It’s Not Just About Food

Eat well before you arrive at the party. Once you’re there,
socialize instead of eating or drinking–the refreshments at a
holiday gathering should be merely incidental. You’re there for
fellowship, to celebrate, Bussey says.

“If we could focus on the purpose of the gathering, food can
move into second place.”

Have a handful of heart health and

Nuts are a misunderstood food. Sure, all nuts
have fat, but most of that fat is unsaturated, which means nuts
won’t increase cholesterol.

They’re also nutritious. Walnuts, in particular, supply several
vitamins–including thiamin, vitamins B and E and folic acid–and
are high in protein and cholesterol-cutting fiber. They’re also a
good source of the minerals iron, zinc, copper, magnesium,
phosphorous and potassium. The fat in walnuts is 70 percent polyunsaturated and includes
the essential fatty acids linoleic acid and linolenic acid, plus
omega-3 fatty acids.

“A lot of studies have shown that omega-3 fatty acids reduce the
risk of heart disease and certain types of strokes,” says Liz
Weiss, a registered dietitian and Boston-based independent
nutrition consultant.

“Omega-3 fatty acids can be found in seafood and the vegetable
world,” Weiss says, “but a lot of people don’t like seafood.” Only
33 percent of Americans eat fish regularly, according to a 1996
U.S. News/CNN poll. For people who don’t eat seafood, walnuts may
be the answer, Weiss says. A quarter-cup (1 ounce) of walnuts contains 2 g of omega-3 fatty
acids. The American Dietetic Association suggests that fish,
seafood, or nuts be eaten two to three times a week to get the full
benefits of omega-3 fatty acids.

In a Loma Linda University study published in 1993 in the New
England Journal of Medicine, walnuts were shown to help reduce
blood cholesterol levels and protect against heart disease. Researchers found that when men with normal cholesterol levels
replace foods high in saturated fat calorie-for-calorie with
walnuts, their blood cholesterol levels drop by more than 12

Walnuts also contain vitamin E, an antioxidant. A study from
the University of Minnesota published in 1996 in the New England
Journal of Medicine examined the diets of 35,000 postmenopausal
women over a seven-year period. The study showed that women who
consumed diets richest in vitamin E, such as those including nuts,
had a 62 percent lower risk of heart disease.

A 1995 study published in Stroke and conducted by researchers at
the University of California at San Francisco compared the serum
fatty acid levels of ninety-six middle-aged men who had suffered a
stroke with a similar group of men who hadn’t. For every 0.13
percent increase in blood levels of alpha-linolenic acid, a
polyunsaturated acid, the risk of stroke dropped by 37 percent. Lead researcher Joel Simon, M.D., reported that alpha-linolenic
acid and the omega-3 fatty acids derived from it may help reduce
chances of clot formation and the occurrence of a stroke. Thus,
foods such as walnuts that contain this “good” fat may help lower
stroke risks. The weight-conscious may fret about nuts and calories, however.
Not to worry.

“If you decide to include a handful of walnuts into your diet,
you’re not going to gain weight from that,” Weiss says. “It’s all
about eating the foods that you enjoy in moderation.”

A quarter-cup of walnuts equals about 190 calories.

“It’s like eating a big bagel,” Weiss says. “It’s no different.
No studies show that walnuts make you fat. Too much food makes
people fat.”

In a nutshell, walnuts can be included as part of a low-fat diet
to replace foods that are high in saturated fat.

“Use them in baking or toss them in a salad or breakfast
cereal,” Weiss says.

Trace Mineral May Help Diabetics

Although not a magic bullet, chromium picolinate may help
protect against diabetes, according to recent research. Chromium
picolinate is an easily absorbed form of chromium, a mineral that
our bodies require in trace amounts. In November 1997, the medical journal Diabetes published a study
showing that Type II diabetics benefited from taking chromium
picolinate in addition to their hypoglycemic therapy. The
double-blind study involved 180 men and women; those who received 1
mg of chromium picolinate daily showed substantially improved blood
sugar control, according to Richard Anderson, Ph.D., lead scientist
at the Beltsville Human Nutrition Research Center of the United
States Department of Agriculture (USDA) and director of the

Another double-blind clinical trial, announced at the 1997
meeting of the American Diabetes Association, supports Anderson’s
findings. Overweight people with a family history of diabetes took
1 mg of chromium picolinate daily for four months. Results
documented a 40 percent increase in insulin sensitivity, reports
researcher William Cefalu, M.D., of the Bowman Gray School of
Medicine. Lack of insulin sensitivity, known as insulin resistance,
is a precursor to Type II diabetes. Nutrition 21, a supplier of raw ingredients to the supplement
industry, pioneered chromium picolinate. Nutrition 21’s Research
Director Mark McCarty says that taking chromium picolinate “may, in
the long term, have important protective benefits.”

“A lifelong feeding study of rats shows this,” McCarty says.
However, future studies will be necessary to confirm these findings
in people, he says.

Other than helping those who are overweight and diabetic,
“insulin resistance is an important prognostic factor for heart
disease,” McCarty says. “We hope that by improving insulin
resistance we can subsequently decrease heart disease risk.” He stresses, though, that diet, weight loss, and exercise also
have an impact on heart disease.

McCarty says that although chromium picolinate has not produced
any adverse side effects in the amounts used in the clinical
studies, diabetics taking other drugs or injections may need to
modify their treatments and should consult their physicians. Chromium is available as chromium picolinate, chromium
polynictotinate, and chromium chloride. Only a small amount of
chromium is absorbed by the body from foods such as beef, fish,
fresh fruits, whole grains, potatoes, and brewer’s yeast. The
USDA’s Anderson says that additional studies are needed to
establish the form and amount of supplemental chromium necessary to
produce the maximal response in individuals.

Legumes Packed with Folic Acid, New Research Shows

Americans haven’t been too fond of eating beans and peas in the
past–even though these legumes are excellent sources of fiber,
protein, minerals, B vitamins and folic acid. Kathaleen Briggs Early, a researcher at the Department of Food
Science and Human Nutrition at Washington State University, says,
however, that recent findings about the folic acid content in
legumes may encourage people to eat more of them.

Her study–to be published in December in Research
Signpost–suggests that legumes may contain more folic acid than had
previously been detected. Early used an analytical method called
high-performance liquid chromatography (HPLC) in conjunction with
new extraction methods. Her research implies that foods should be
re-evaluated for their folic acid content. Folic acid, also known as folate, lowers the risks of specific
birth defects during pregnancy and also may reduce levels of
homocysteine, an amino acid that is a risk factor for
cardiovascular disease. Legumes include peas, lentils, garbanzo beans and dry beans
such as soy, black and kidney.

Drug-Free Headache Relief

The Headache Alternative:
A Neurologist’s Guide to Drug-Free Relief

By Alexander Mauskop, M.D., F.A.A.N., and Marietta Abrams
Dell Publishing, 1997.
Softbound, 411 pages,
$13.95. ISBN 0-440-50820-7

Book Review

Headaches. We all get them at one time or another. Some people
suffer chronic, often debilitating headache pain. Is the solution
to grab some aspirin or acetaminophen? Not necessarily.

The Headache Alternative, a recently published guide to
preventing and stopping headaches–from debilitating migraines to
tension headaches–may be of help to sufferers. Intended to be a
thorough guide to drug-free options for headache relief, all of the
therapies recommended by author Alexander Mauskop, a neurologist
and director of the New York Headache Center, are natural

Mauskop, also an associate professor of clinical neurology at
the State University of the New York Health Science Center in
Brooklyn, has found that the most effective ways to treat headaches
are biofeedback, acupuncture, and the use of vitamin B2 and
magnesium supplements. Over the past six years, he has conducted several studies with
magnesium that have opened his eyes to natural alternatives, he
says. His studies with magnesium and migraines continue.

Mauskop reports in his book that “stress- or disease-related
deficiencies in important vitamins or minerals, such as magnesium,
may set off a cascade of biochemical events that lead to headache.”
Magnesium in the body can be depleted, he says, through stress,
alcoholism, or malnutrition, among other factors. In an easy-to-read style, Mauskop explains how headaches happen,
the importance of diet in offsetting headaches, and alternatives to
drug treatments–from the simple to the more specialized. The book
also includes a useful glossary, resource list, selected
bibliography, and references.

“Nutrition supplement: vitamins, minerals, and more” is offered
as a bimonthly supplement to Herbs for Health and is written by Lee
Peck, an independent journalist from Fort Collins, Colorado.
“Nutrition supplement” is intended as an educational service, not a
source of medical advice or a guide for self-medication. Please
consult a qualified health-care professional for treatment of any
serious health problems.

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