For many of us, the holidays are defined by family, fun, and, above all, food with traditional dishes, hearty comfort foods, and sweet seasonal indulgences at the heart of nearly all celebrations. For those living with a chronic illness or condition, though, these festivities can be a minefield of forbidden foods and triggering ingredients. Thankfully, with some smart planning, increased awareness, and these expert tips, it’s possible to enjoy—and host—a healthful, inclusive holiday meal.
1. Know your triggers.
While inflammation is a vital part of the body’s immune system and helps it fight infections, chronic inflammation can damage healthy cells, tissues and organs and lead to long-term disease, explains Celine Beitchman, director of nutrition education at the Natural Gourmet Institute in New York City. Because we know that certain foods can ramp up the inflammatory response, Beitchman recommends avoiding or limiting intake of saturated and trans fats, as well as high glycemic foods.
2. Make smart choices.
While seeking healthful food options is smart year-round, those living with chronic conditions may need to be particularly mindful of and avoid nutrient-poor foods during the holidays. Beitchman suggests limiting intake of alcohol and refined carbohydrates, such as white bread and pasta, and skipping anything deep fried, charred, blackened, or smoked. Instead, seek out anti-inflammatory eats like colorful fruits and vegetables, omega-3-rich fish, eggs, and certain legumes, like soybeans. Another tip: Choose beans, grains, nuts, or seeds that have been pre-soaked before cooking, so they are easier on the digestive system.
3. Serve a few options.
When hosting a meal, the goal is always “to serve a menu that most of your guests could and would want to eat,” Beitchman notes. But if asking guests about their dietary needs feels awkward, cover your bases by planning a menu to include a few healthy options that will make guests with chronic issues feel comfortable, and that everyone will enjoy. Here’s how:
Offer a selection of beverages that includes at least one or two flavorful nonalcoholic options, beyond soda and juice. Try creating a “house mocktail” for the celebration.
Be sure to include a nondairy option or two, particularly for dessert.
Plan a plant-forward menu, with meat as a minor player. Get more greens in by serving quick, sautéed wilted greens with a sour-sweet balsamic dressing as a starter instead of raw salads. For added protein (and flavor), soak nuts and seeds for 24 hours, then drain and toast them, and add to salads, soups, desserts, or cocktail snack mixes.
Opt for seafood rich in omega-3 fats, like salmon and red snapper.
4. Take care of yourself.
The holidays can be a stressful, busy time for all, so be sure to practice some self-care. “No matter your condition, consider managing stress, sleep, and social support,” Beitchman says, as the holidays can be a “strain on all of these, and make whatever you are going through worse. So make time to regroup and recharge.” If you’re nervous about attending a gathering and not being able to enjoy the meal, be your own advocate by bringing a dish to share, or, if you are close with the host, ask if they can accommodate your dietary needs, then provide them with a short list of what you can and can’t eat. Above all, Beitchman stresses, “remember that holiday time may include a ton of food, but the best part is the company,” so take the time to celebrate, be grateful, and enjoy.
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