It seems almost ironic that the last 5 weeks of the year cause enough guilt to fuel New Year’s resolutions that seem more like punishment than an honest attempt to live healthier. Why does such festivity result in feelings of failure, self-loathing, and a belief that healthy living is the end of all enjoyment of food? Year after year, the cycle continues. It’s time to try something better. Let me show you how.
Unless you have some life-threatening condition that requires a complete and immediate transformation of your diet, I recommend you start with small steps to changing your relationship with food. Relationships are what life is really all about; who and what we connect with is very important because it becomes the rails on which our life runs. I will expound on this later.
So, let’s start with food that you make. As we get busier and busier in our daily lives, the tendency is to buy food premade, or to cut corners when preparing food at home. Cooking is becoming a lost art, and the result is consumers who really don’t know what is in their food, how it’s prepared, or whether it’s promoting health or disease.
The key to eating healthy is education; the key to avoiding eating unhealthy is education. Pick which statement inspires you most (although they go hand in hand). Establishing better practices will serve you all year, but will be especially helpful around the holidays. So, let’s just jump in.
When preparing food at home, there are some ingredients that you need to avoid because they cause inflammation, and provoke an immune system response (which in the very least causes weight gain, bloating, and digestive problems). In the long run, they raise your risk of developing disease, and will lower your quality of life.
Namely, they include hydrogenated fats, artificial flavors, artificial colors, artificial sweeteners, corn syrup, HFCS (high fructose corn syrup), MSGs (monosodium glutamate), cooking oils such as soy, canola, corn, and cotton seed oil (which are often simply labeled as vegetable oil), and preservatives in meats. Fortunately, there are some healthy alternatives.
Margarine is made with hydrogenated oils; use organic butter instead. Don’t worry about the added fat, it is actually good for you, unlike margarine which is an anti-nutrient. Shortening is also hydrogenated oil, in pastries, substitute with organic butter; for greasing bakeware and cookware, organic extra virgin coconut oil should be used.
Avocado oil and coconut oil both make great substitutes for sautéing, browning, and for recipes that call for vegetable oil. Olive oil should always be cold pressed extra virgin and only be used unheated due to its low smoke point.
Due to the prevalence of people having, often undiagnosed, sensitivity to gluten, switching to gluten free flours and other products will do a lot for easing digestive and allergy problems. It can take some time to get good at choosing the correct flour for different recipes, but is well worth it. I recommend you find others who have already made the transition to a gluten free diet for proven recipes. Even if you do not go completely gluten free, you will see an immediate difference in how you feel; let this guide you as to how dedicated you should be to avoiding wheat and other sources of gluten.
Any time you can avoid buying something that is processed or premade, you have an automatic opportunity to make it healthier. One of our favorite things to make at home is pizza from scratch. We make the crust from spelt flour, season our own sauce from tomato paste, load it up with lots of organic veggies and meats, and top it off with goat cheese. It is truly a fantastic meal that everyone fills up on; no guilt here!
Speaking of meats, look for meats that are not preserved with nitrites and nitrates. These ravage your body with free radicals, and make you feel bloated and lethargic. Meat without preservatives need to be prepared soon after purchase or frozen for later use. You will find that organic, free range meat tastes so much better than meat that comes from CAFOs (confined animal feeding operations), if you can afford it. A local farm that raises organic, free range animals will be your cheapest option.
When making sweet treats, as everyone likes this time of year, especially, the more you can make at home, the more control you have to make it healthier. Keep the sugar content as low as possible by sweetening to taste. Recipes should be used as guides, with you having the option to make modifications to suit your taste. If you have not done much cooking, don’t let that concept intimidate you. Remember, the goal is to implement changes in steps that you are comfortable with. Plus, there are a lot of resources out there if you need some advice on something.
Refined sugar can be replaced with honey, molasses, pure maple sugar, coconut sugar or raw cane sugar. The key is that these options are unprocessed and haven’t been subject to the chemicals normally used to process sugar. Plus, unprocessed foods, in general, have naturally occurring nutrients that your body will use, and many of them create a lower glycemic response, meaning that your blood sugar will be more stable. Choose the sweetener according to the taste you want the dish to have, and only use as much as is satisfying to your palette.
Cocoa powder and most name brand peanut butters are highly processed. Cacao powder is raw ground cacao beans (which is what cocoa powder is made from). Cacao powder is an intensely rich superfood, meaning that it contains nutrients, like powerful antioxidants and polyphenols, that are really good for you; these nutrients are lost in processing into cocoa powder. And since cacao powder is not sweetened, you decide how sweet to make dish, drink, or treat. Opt for fresh ground peanuts in place of processed peanut butter. Most store-bought peanut butter contains oils and sugar, both of which make it unhealthy.
If your recipe calls for whipped cream, such as Cool Whip, make your own from organic whipping cream. All you need is a mixer to whip up a luscious whipped cream topping that will last for days in the refrigerator. Premade whipped topping like Cool Whip and Redi-whip are made with oils, corn syrup and chemical preservatives. That doesn’t sound tasty at all.
Make your pie fillings with fresh or unsweetened canned fruit in a saucepan on the stove. Heat the fruit with a little water, and sugar to taste. It will automatically thicken as you simmer it. Pass up the sweetened condensed milk, and start with unsweetened condensed milk. This will really give you versatility to create the exact taste you want. Molasses can be used in place of brown sugar for a rich warm flavor, while raw cane sugar will make a lighter sweetness. Again, sweeten just enough to be satisfying, but not overpowering.
These suggestions for food substitutions will be enough to get you started and can really fire your imagination when it comes to cooking. Once you taste food made from scratch, you won’t believe how good it tastes. You don’t need to go to culinary school to learn how to make food that is superior in taste and nutrition. Like I said earlier, cooking is an art. It takes practice to get a good feel for it, yet it is not beyond most people’s ability to grasp the basic concepts enough to make great tasting, healthy meals.
Some other tips to help you navigate holiday festivities guilt free are mostly common sense. If you are going to a party or dinner, eat a little before you go; don’t show up starving. Remember that the gathering is a social event, not an all you can eat buffet. While there is no substitute for eating amazingly tasty food, it’s actually the relationships we find at these events that feed us the deepest.
Portion control goes beyond merely feeding a hungry stomach. Most people who overeat consistently, are not feeding a physical hunger, but an emotional one. Food is an easy place to find comfort, and is often used to avoid facing the real issue because it is so satisfying at the time. The problem is that the guilt that comes up later about overeating, amplifies the emotional pain.
To combat this kind of overeating, a shift in daily attitude needs to take place. Begin each day with a positive outlook. Practice mindfulness in which you focus on your thoughts, and actions that result from your thoughts. Make gratitude take precedence over disappointment, hurt, and anger. Change takes time; start with baby steps. Think of these things as bad habits that you are needing to change. I promise, that if you are willing to make these changes, your relationships will change for the better, and you will not need to use food as a source of comfort.
A couple of final tips, allow yourself to sample as many of the foods as you love, but keep the portions small to avoid overeating. If you are still hungry after you have eaten what’s on your plate, by all means, get a little more. Go easy on drinking alcohol at social functions. Alcohol contains a lot of calories and will also get in the way of good judgment.
If you spend the year putting all these things into practice, you will be able to enjoy the holidays free from guilt. A little extra exercise is always helpful, too!