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Stanford nutrition expert discusses how to eat well while staying jolly

It's that time of year again: The holiday season is officially upon us. As we start gathering to celebrate with family and friends, it may seem tempting to splurge on a second plate of hors d'oeuvres, an extra glass of eggnog or an additional piece of pie. But as Stanford nutrition expert Christopher Gardner, PhD, discusses in the following Q&A, overindulging - even just for the short term - may have long-term consequences on our health. He offers some food for thought on how to take a healthier, yet still enjoyable, approach to eating during the holidays.

How much harm to our health could be done by granting ourselves a free pass on eating healthy during the holidays and then resolving to turn over a new leaf in the New Year?

It would be wrong to think that short-term overindulgence does no harm to our bodies. There are tests that have been done to show an almost immediate adverse impact on our blood vessels from eating a highly processed, low-nutritional-quality, junk-food meal. The more challenging question is: How much long-term harm does this do to our bodies? That is harder to measure. Equally important, and also difficult to quantify, is the potential harm to our mood and enjoyment of life if we don’t let loose once in a while and have fun with our food. Food isn’t just a source of nutrition, it’s an outlet of creativity, an important aspect of cultural heritage, an opportunity for exploration and, at times, a source of sheer pleasure.

I'm a big fan of Jesse Cool’s 80:20 rule. Cool currently runs the Cool Café at Stanford’s Cantor Art Center as well as other local eateries. Her 80:20 rule states: Make your regular day-to-day food choices with good health in mind 80 percent of the time, and 20 percent of the time go ahead and take some extra liberties with your food. Just don’t let the 20 percent grow over time to be 50 percent! And also consider that healthful food is not mutually exclusive from creativity, heritage, exploration and pleasure. They can all be one and the same!

Many people have switched to cooking with non-nutritive sweeteners as a way to cut back on calories and still enjoy their favorite holiday dishes. What does the scientific evidence indicate about the effectiveness of using non-nutritive sweeteners to help people maintain or lose weight?

There aren’t many good studies to draw on to form strong conclusions here. But the available evidence suggests substituting for sugar with a “non-nutritive sweetener," which includes artificial sweeteners and natural sweeteners such as stevia, reduces calories and sugar consumption. Both of which would be good for the majority of us, all else being equal.

The key here is the “all else being equal” part. There are several ways using non-nutritive sweeteners can backfire. For example, if later in the same meal, or even in the same day, that choice leads you to eat more sugar or more calories, then it negates what you were trying to accomplish. The limited evidence out there indicates this may happen a lot either consciously (e.g. rewarding yourself later for earlier good behavior) or unconsciously (e.g., you are simply hungrier later). The term that describes this is “compensation." The one area with artificial sweetener use that doesn’t seem to involve a lot of compensation, and therefore is likely helpful, is with beverages. But overall, water is the optimal choice for quenching your thirst.

Back in 2007 you and colleagues published a study that compared four popular weight loss strategies and found that the diet with the lowest-carbohydrate, highest-protein, and highest-fat content had a modestly better impact on weight loss and related health factors. Could adopting such a diet through the holiday season be an effective approach to maintaining, or even losing, weight?

This could be helpful if we re-frame the message and describe it in terms of foods rather than nutrients. A problem arises if you simply describe something as being “low-carb” - because I can think of two very different low-carb diets, one much healthier than the other. In focusing more on quality than nutrients or quantity, it's useful to know that three of the top four food categories contributing the most calories to the Standard American Diet (SAD) are heavy on lower-quality carbs. They include grain-based desserts, breads made with yeast, and sodas and sweetened beverages. Note that the remaining category is chicken and chicken dishes.

If someone were going to try out a “low-carb” diet for the holidays by cutting back on any, or all three, of these carb-heavy categories above, they would likely be doing themselves a favor in many ways. Those food categories, particularly the desserts and sweetened beverages, don’t have much in the way of nutrition and aren’t very filling. So, feel free to cut back with wild abandon on your usual daily intake of those items if you're trying to make room for a few holiday favorites.

Recent research suggested that hiding nutrient-dense foods, for example pureeing spinach and mixing it into a holiday casserole, is a good method for getting youngsters to eat their vegetables. What’s your perspective on this approach?

That study was done by Penn State researcher Barbara Rolls, PhD, who is wonderfully creative. Although I’m not a big fan of deception, research suggests that one of the barriers to increasing kids' consumption of vegetables is getting them to eat something frequently enough to develop a positive taste experience with it. If they won’t even put it in their mouths, then the whole frequency thing boils down to zero. Blending up vegetables so they are no longer recognizable in their original form and mixing them in with other dishes that youngsters, and the entire family, already enjoy certainly won’t change the nutritional make-up for the worse; it can only be for the better. If this approach gets them to eat their veggies more often, then it will also help them start to acquire those positive taste preferences. Personally, I prefer using creativity to make veggies and fruits look and taste good while still being able to recognize them - but since that doesn’t always work, I suppose there is room for a little “stealth health” now and then in terms of hiding or disguising veggies.

It’s previously been reported that most Americans are still failing to meet national dietary guidelines, especially when it comes to consuming vegetables and fruit. Can you share some ideas for eating more plant-based foods this holiday season?

How about making some deliciously savory, and often simple to make, warm soups? Some recommendations include: vegetable-bean-pasta minestrone soup or a winter squash soup with sliced up dried figs and roasted pine nuts sprinkled on top. One of my seasonal favorites is a gypsy soup recipe from Molly Katzen’s Moosewood Cookbook, which includes a medley of sweet potatoes, peas, carrots, tomatoes and more in a blend of spices featuring turmeric.

Also, make vegetables dishes festive by taking advantage of the diversity of colors for presentation appeal and herbs and spices for taste. Sauté green beans with garlic and roasted red bell peppers and sprinkle some slivered almonds on top. Bake a hard winter squash, such as acorn, scoop out the seeds and fill the cavity back in with a colorful mixture of onions, bell peppers, fresh herbs, black or red rice, raisins, apple, and pecans or other nuts.

Previously: Battling the bulge this holiday season, Losing vitamins – along with weight – on a diet, The not-so-sweet findings on non-nutritive sweeteners and Stanford nutritionist offers tips for eating healthy during the holidays
Photo by Frederick Dennstedt

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