Health benefits of Christmas foods
Thursday, December 14, 2017. Author Dr Haran Sivapalan
Thursday, December 14, 2017. Author Dr Haran Sivapalan
Christmas day is approaching quickly, a day when the average Briton consumes a gargantuan 5,373 calories in 24 hours. To put that in context, that’s similar to the amount an elite cyclist needs to ride a Tour de France stage. Of course, there’s a massive difference in energy expenditure between riding a bicycle for 100 miles through the Alps or Pyrenees and sitting on the couch unwrapping presents. On the other hand, what better time and place for the occasional overindulgence than at the Christmas dinner table? So, lest I be named the Ebenezer Scrooge of FitnessGenes, here’s an article extolling the potential benefits of Christmas foods.
Traditionally eaten on Thanksgiving too, turkey is a Christmas food that’s a great source of protein. A 100g (3.5oz) serving of roast turkey contains about 31.2g of protein, more than the equivalent portion of chicken, pork or lamb. Furthermore, at 1.4g saturated fat per 100g (3.5oz) portion, turkey is a healthier, leaner source of protein – ideal for those looking to lose fat and/or gain muscle.
When it comes to micronutrients, turkey contains significant amounts of selenium and phosphorous. Abundant in brazil nuts, lean meat, and seafood, selenium is an essential trace mineral needed for immune function, making antioxidant enzymes and producing thyroid hormones. 3oz (85g) of boneless, roasted turkey contains 31 micrograms of selenium, roughly 44% of your Daily Value (DV). The same amount of turkey also contains 184mg (18% of your Daily Value) of phosphorous, a mineral important for maintaining healthy bones and teeth.
Given its nutritional content, you can enjoy gobbling turkey (pun very much intended) as part of a healthy diet. Nevertheless, any boon to your health will obviously depend upon how you cook and prepare your turkey. Lashings of butter, oil, and gravy all serve to ramp up the saturated fat content. The skin, although a good source of monounsaturated fat (which can help reduce blood cholesterol), also contains saturated fat. The cut of meat also makes a difference. Cuts of light meat (e.g., breast) tend to have less fat and more protein than cuts of dark meat (e.g., leg and thigh).
You may enjoy your Christmas turkey paired with cranberry sauce. Could that bring any further health benefits? Cranberries are particularly rich in flavonoids – a class of phytochemical (i.e., compound produced by plants) linked to antioxidant and anti-inflammatory effects in the body. Specifically, cranberries are packed with anthocyanin: the subclass of flavonoid responsible for the cranberry’s characteristic red hue. Although its red colour may otherwise connote ‘danger’ in the natural world, anthocyanin may have several beneficial effects on our cardiovascular system. Blood tests of subjects given cranberries and cranberry juice rich in anthocyanins show reduced levels of inflammatory markers, lower LDL (‘bad’) cholesterol and improved insulin sensitivity.
Of course, there’s a large difference between freshly-picked cranberries and processed cranberry sauce in a can. Making cranberry sauce typically involves boiling or heating cranberries in water and adding sugar. Unsurprisingly, this process strips the fruits of their vitamin C, fiber and anthocyanin content. In fact, to consume the same amount of anthocyanin contained in 100g of fresh cranberries, you would have to eat a gargantuan 5.9kg of canned jellied cranberry sauce!
The good news is that you don’t have to use the canned stuff. By making cranberry sauce at home, you can boost the amount of cranberries, cut the sugar content and, in doing so, produce a sauce that’s healthier, tastier and higher in anthocyanin. In one study, a homemade sauce made from 350g cranberries, 200g sugar, and 225ml water contained 15 times more anthocyanin than canned jellied sauce.
Potatoes are often maligned due to their hefty carbohydrate content and high glycaemic index (GI). High GI foods cause levels of glucose in the blood to rise rapidly, a process linked to the development of Type 2 diabetes, cardiovascular disease and obesity. Nevertheless, potatoes have many nutritional benefits. With about 20 mg (30% of your Daily Value) in a 100g portion, potatoes are a good source of Vitamin C – important for immune function and maintaining healthy skin, joints and blood vessels. Potato skin is rich in potassium and vitamin B6: so, for the maximum nutritional benefits, put away those potato peelers!
Again, how you cook your ingredients is key. Boiling unpeeled potatoes causes as much as 84% of vitamin C to leech out. By contrast, baking and roasting result in lower vitamin and mineral losses. Although roasting your potatoes to a crisp, brown color can cause the build-up of acrylamide (a known carcinogen in animal models), there is currently no strong evidence linking acrylamide from the diet to cancer in humans.
Chestnuts roasting on an open fire are more than just a Christmassy opening lyric for Nat King Cole; they’re an extremely healthy snack too. In contrast to potatoes, chestnuts are a low-GI source of carbohydrates. They engender a more gradual rise in blood sugar, leaving you fuller for longer. One reason is that chestnuts are high in soluble fiber, which forms a gel-like substance in the digestive system, slowing the breakdown of carbohydrate into glucose.
Compared to other nuts, chestnuts contain fewer calories (213kcal per 100g) and are exceptionally rich in vitamin C (45mg per 100g serving). They’re also rich sources of copper and manganese, trace elements needed for the formation of healthy connective tissue and bones respectively.
If you’ve had your DNA tested by FitnessGenes, you may know that adequate consumption of folate (vitamin B9) is particularly important for people with genetic variations that negatively affect folate metabolism. Chestnuts can be of assistance here. With 62 micrograms of folate per 100g serving (15.5% of the Daily Value), chestnuts can help maintain a healthy folate cycle and keep levels of homocysteine (a molecule linked to cardiovascular disease) in check.
If you do massively overdo it at Christmas dinner, don't fret –a couple of days of overconsumption won’t massively dent your longer-term fitness efforts. Whatever you decide to eat over this festive period, we at FitnessGenes hope you enjoy your food.