Against-the-Grain, Low-Carb Holidays

How to be carb-smart and enjoy the season without the weight gain using these low carb holiday recipes and tips

Ask the Nutritionist

by Melissa Diane Smith

Q: Somehow, every holiday season, I end up getting sick with some kind of bug, feeling uncomfortably full, and gaining extra pounds. Can you offer any nutritional advice for getting through Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year’s feeling healthy and without gaining unwanted pounds? —Ellen S., Portland, Ore.

A:   As enjoyable as the holiday season can be, it’s also the time of year when we encounter sugar- and carb-laden sweets, beverages, baked goods, and side dishes at every turn. Sugar is an immune suppressor. The more of it we eat, the more apt we are to get sick. And overloading on any type of carbs—not just sweets, but also bread, stuffing, and mashed potatoes—can stimulate our appetite and make us feel bloated and gain weight.

The secret to healthy holidays is to go against grains and sugars as much as possible and emphasize nonstarchy vegetables both at holiday meals and during the non-holiday days in between.

Of course, all of us want to partake in some special seasonal foods. To do that without tipping the body’s scale to the side of illness, we have to prioritize the foods we want to indulge in; make healthier versions of as many favorites as we can; avoid all nonessential foods and beverages; and temper our indulgences with blood-sugar-balancing protein and low-carb vegetables. Here are some tips for enjoying the season in good health:

Dump sweetened beverages from your diet

The easiest way—by far—to be sugar-smart is to avoid sugary drinks, including fruit juice, sweetened iced tea, and soda. Opt instead for naturally calorie-free water, sparkling mineral water, or unsweetened iced tea. With dessert, hot tea or coffee (with or without organic cream, coconut milk, or unsweetened almond milk) is a great way to top off a satisfying meal.

Go nutty when baking

To lower the impact of baked goods on blood-sugar levels, switch from using grain-based flour to nut flour or coconut flour in baking. Nut flours are naturally low in carbohydrates and rich in nutrients, and they can be used to make everything from pie crusts to muffins to fruit crisps.

Sweeten desserts sensibly

Know what kind of sweeteners you and your family tolerate best. By cutting out blood-sugar-spiking grain-flour baked goods and nutrient-void white sugar, many people do fine eating nut-flour desserts made with modest amounts of more nutritious natural sweeteners, such as organic honey, pure maple syrup, or coconut sugar, on special occasions—especially when they eat a well-balanced meal beforehand. (This is the Paleo or Primal diet strategy.) Others, such as those who are addicted to sugar or those who have diabetes, experience better health when they make baked goods sweetened with pure stevia extract, monk fruit, erythritol, xylitol, or chicory root inulin. (This is the low-carb diet approach.) Some people, however, experience adverse effects such as intestinal cramps or gas from some of these sweetener alternatives. Weigh this information, and decide which sweeteners are the best choices for you, then make holiday desserts with the ones you choose.

If you’re new to avoiding sugar and aren’t sure how to substitute sugar in a recipe, try coconut sugar or very-low-carb Swerve, whose main ingredient is erythritol. Each one measures cup-for-cup like sugar. (See recipe for Pumpkin Dream Bars.)

Pick your side dishes

Understand that wheat- and gluten-free bread, corn, grain-based stuffing, potato dishes, and candied sweet potatoes all rank high on the glycemic scale and pack on the pounds when overeaten. Skip grains altogether, then make a choice about starchy vegetables such as butternut squash and sweet potatoes. Either totally avoid them (the low-carb approach), or limit the amount you eat and find healthy ways to reduce the types and amounts of carbs that you eat (the Paleo approach). If you want butternut squash soup as a holiday treat, make a sugar-free version with butternut squash, coconut oil, onion, cinnamon, nutmeg, and chicken stock. If you’d like sweet potatoes at a holiday meal, bake them plain, and top them with coconut oil and cinnamon. If you opt for potatoes as a side dish, use red new potatoes, which are lower-glycemic alternatives to Russet potatoes, and limit yourself to a small serving. Better yet, try my Mashed Low-Carb Root Vegetables, pictured above, instead. (See recipe.)

“Veg” out

Make low-carb veggies your go-to staples before, during, and after the holidays

Low-carb vegetables, including green beans, asparagus, broccoli, leafy greens, and salad greens, are your friends: They can steady blood-sugar levels and promote weight control even in generous serving sizes. Make these foods your go-to staples on the days before, during, and after the holidays; hang out by the crudité table at parties; and look for creative ways to fix vegetables—e.g., mushroom, vegetable, and nut stuffing—at holiday meals.

Try fermented foods

Eating high-sugar, high-carb holiday foods promotes the development of unhealthy intestinal flora, which causes digestive discomfort. Fermented foods, including kefir, yogurt, kimchi, miso, and sauerkraut, can help. They’re loaded with beneficial bacteria that aid digestion and support immunity. Also consider trying live fermented drinks, such as Farmhouse Culture Gut Shot, or low-carbohydrate probiotic drinks such as KeVita Hibiscus Berry Sparkling Probiotic Beverage.

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