Eating Healthy During the Holidays

By Barbara Cunnings-Versaevel

With cancer comes a new awareness of food and its impact on our health.  This is not about weight loss.  This is about ensuring that our immune system is functioning at full capacity so our body can begin healing.  The holidays seem to present a challenge in this regard.  The excess, not to mention the sugary treats, wine and other temptations that under normal circumstances would not be so available are now at every event and/or family dinner.

Here are some strategies I’ve found helpful for navigating the holiday season with my health in mind.


1.     Know what foods are going to benefit you.  You will find them among the selections if you look closely.  Then you can indulge without guilt.  They are:


       a.    Beans – look for very tasty bean salads.  Beans have lots of fibre which will help fill you up with less volume and thereby control your appetite.

       b.    Berries – fresh fruit is an excellent choice.  They are high in Vitamin C as well as fibre.

       c.    Cabbage, broccoli and Brussels sprouts – members of the cruciferous vegetables.  Almost every Christmas dinner I’ve attended has at least one of these offerings, especially Brussels sprouts.  They were never my favorite but over the years, I’ve had them served in ways that were truly delicious.  So I’m a convert.

       d.    Dark leafy vegetables (i.e. spinach, kale, dark lettuces) – think salads.  Kale is a vegetable not many people eat.  I’ve grown to love it – added to spaghetti sauce, lightly heated up with boiled potatoes, kale chips, tossed into soups.  When eating the salads, be mindful of the dressings.  Oil and vinegar is best, but if not available, try to stay away from the creamy dressings.

       e.    Garlic – well this may not be a good choice at an event, but often mashed potatoes are spiked with garlic.  Very tasty.  Onions fall into this category as do chives.  Make sure you have some gum or breath freshener on hand.  Garlic, onions and chives all are potent and holiday time is social.

       f.    Grapes and grape juice – wine and cheese buffets most often have grapes.  You can get your share of resveratrol that way. Wine is grape based as well but doesn’t have as much of the good ingredient resveratrol.  Enjoy a glass – it’s the holidays.  Just don’t overdo it.

       g.    Green tea – a great option in place of coffee.  Lots of antioxidants and shown to impede cancer growth, especially colon, breast and prostate cancers.  Be aware that it does contain caffeine.  Depending on the time of day, you might want to consider an herbal tea or just plain old hot water.  Sometimes I put a small slice of ginger in the hot water – or a slice of lemon.

       h.    Tomatoes – think salads, soups – also ketchup and tomato sauces.  Processing tomatoes brings out more of the lycopene content.
2.    Have a quick snack of healthy foods prior to heading out to the event.  This way, you are not starving and better able to make good choices.  I have also found at corporate events, especially the buffet style, it’s hard to eat and converse, especially standing up.  I’m a slow eater, so having a little something to eat before I go is an excellent strategy to get enough to eat without sacrificing the social part of the equation.
3.    If meat is served at a dinner and you have chosen not to eat meat, just eat the vegetables and bread/grains.  A true host/hostess will understand.  And, you will still have enough to satisfy your hunger and needed nutrients.  As a vegan, I’ve learned to navigate this possible social minefield.  Occasionally, I’ll have a token piece of meat – very token – and as mentioned, load up on the vegetables.
4.    If you are the host/hostess, a wide selection of vegetables, grains, and meat (even if you don’t eat meat) will make everyone happy.  My family would not be thrilled to be invited to a vegan turkey dinner.  They’d probably disown me.  But that doesn’t mean I have to eat what I serve.  Everyone has choice.
5.    Make sure you have enough sleep.  When I’m sleep deprived is usually when my defenses are down and I gravitate to those foods I know aren’t good for me.  Then I get into a bad cycle of up and down energy spikes.  I know it’s hard over the holidays with all the extra demands on our time, but the body heals during the sleep cycle.  Even if you have to catch a few cat naps during the day – or even better, meditation for even five minutes – you will avoid this pitfall.
6.    If the fridge beckons with leftovers that are off limits for you, prepare a container of fresh vegetables – i.e. carrots, celery, broccoli, cauliflower, tomatoes. Keep them handy in the fridge.  These can be your go-to snacks.  I know they aren’t always as appealing as some of the other goodies, but you will definitely feel much better snacking on these.

Also homemade soups from the leftover vegetables with added beans and leafy kale or Swiss chard tossed in are very tasty and nourishing, especially with a fresh salad and wholegrain bread.  Could be a great dinner when time is rushed.
7.    Exercise – go out for a long walk. Get some fresh air.  The walk with energize you; give you extra oxygen which cancer hates and burn off any extra calories if weight gain is your issue.  A walk will also take you away from the food.  I always found that if I was fit and exercising, making healthy food choices was much easier.  My body didn’t crave the foods that weren’t good for me, so I wasn’t so easily tempted.  Walking can also be a great outing to share with family and/or friends over the holidays.
8.    Take the time to look for new recipes.  If you like to cook, this is fun. If not, then find sources of homemade prepared foods at local markets.  Sometimes there just isn’t time and having healthy options at hand are truly priceless.  There are even personal chefs and catering services that could do the honors.  Just be specific about your needs.
9.    If dinner is at a restaurant as some family traditions go, I’ve found I can modify a dish by having a conversation with the server.  Most restaurants are open to adapting a meal to suit their clientele.  Especially now that I eat the vegan way, restaurant menu options are more limited.  However, I have found that there is usually something on the menu I can eat or adapt to my needs.
10.    And if all else fails, eat what’s there, but go back on the wagon in the days following.  Sometimes you just have to go with the flow.  Holidays are for family, sharing, and being grateful.  Adding another stress is just as bad as eating unwisely, unless of course you get a violent or nasty reaction to certain foods.  That will mean being ill or very uncomfortable, so definitely not a good idea to ‘go with the flow’.

As with anything, common sense has to play into the equation.  Life is not perfect.  Do the best you can with the situation at hand.  Enjoy your holiday.  Be grateful, even if eating and socializing at a time when you are going through treatment is difficult.  I remember that time because I had my first chemotherapy treatment three days before Christmas.  I was in no shape on Christmas Day to do anything.  My family understood so we celebrated a few days later when I felt better.  It was all doable.


If you have other ideas to share with us, please leave your comments.  We will all benefit.


Here’s to a healthy, enjoyable holiday.


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