Healthy Holidays or Sugar Overload?
From October through December, the store shelves are full with specialty food products celebrating Halloween, Thanksgiving and Christmas. It starts with the overflow of candy and then transitions to baked products and holiday desserts. We can’t forget about pumpkin lattes or egg nog cocktails. These foods highlighting the fall and winter markets and saturating our bellies are rich in sugar and fat. Now some would argue that this is no different than the traditional Western diet. The Western diet is highly processed, rich in saturated fat and sugar and deficient in fruits, vegetables and dietary fiber. Is holiday time different from the rest of the year? The holidays are a time of indulgence, and I am not here to preach abstinence from all these foods. I think the difference between the holiday months and the remainder of the year is that people indulge in sweets and alcohol with a foundational diet that is already steeped in fats and sugar. No wonder people choose to cleanse during January. If the foundational diet was cleaner and balanced year-round, I expect the practices for a couple of months would have a less significant impact and we would have more truly healthy holidays instead.
The holidays are a time of indulgence, and I am not here to preach abstinence from all these foods. I think the difference between the holiday months and the remainder of the year is that people indulge in sweets and alcohol with a foundational diet that is already steeped in fats and sugar.
You might be wondering why you should even care about this topic… It’s all about your gut. Food passes through the gut to nourish other parts of your body. We need to address the effect of high fat and sugar dense diets on the intestines and its domino effect on other organs.
Studies have shown that the Western diet is linked with increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders and inflammation. (1,2,3) Let’s analyze how this happens so we can prevent disease and improve health. For years, dietitians have been promoting the intake of plant-based foods with an emphasis on vegetables. Studies show that high fat diets change the microbiota (aka bacteria) content and, therefore, gut performance. (4,5) A recent study found sugar dense diets also change the type and variety of microbiota. Researchers noticed an increase in a particular bacteria (proteobacteria) that, when out of balance with other bacteria (bacteroidetes), can lead to inflammation and change the integrity of the gut lining. This unbalanced gut environment results in increased intestinal permeability aka leaky gut. (6)
Studies have shown that the Western diet is linked with increased risk of obesity, cardiovascular disease, metabolic disorders and inflammation.
The take home message for the general public is avoid excessive fat and sugar intake in order to maintain health and prevent disease. This is not a diet for weight loss or for a person diagnosed with pre-diabetes or diabetes. These ingredients when consumed consistently and in excess deprive the gut of the nutrients it needs to function and thrive. Living with an unbalanced gut is like traversing the dessert without water. Your body will not function optimally without it. Even if your laboratory studies look good now and you are a healthy weight, gut function may be compromised. NOW is the time to modify your diet to heal the intestine and prevent other health complications. ‘Tis the season to consider your overall health, as well as healthy holidays.
Three Steps to Transform Your Dietary Habits
Let’s talk about three steps to start the diet transformation process. Your gut deserves more than a Western diet and a holiday sugar bender.
- Limit processed foods such as fast food and the shelf stable products located in the middle of the grocery store.
- Eat fruits and vegetables. Make sure to include one plant food with each meal or snack. Try to consume a 2:1 ratio of vegetables to fruits each day.
- Drink water.
This three-step process leads to reduced sugar cravings, increased energy, and improved cognition. Additional gut support may be necessary to help you heal your intestines. Consider working with a dietitian who specializes in gut health (You can view my Services here). These integrative and functional dietitians will teach you how to support your diet year-round and enjoy the food traditions for a healthy holiday season.
This three-step process leads to reduced sugar cravings, increased energy, and improved cognition.
Three Steps to Have Healthier Holiday Parties or Meals
If you are hosting a holiday party this year, make an effort to include fruits and vegetables as part of your buffet. The meal should have different colors and should not be limited to beige or brown protein, stuffing and potatoes. Here are three easy ways to incorporate colorful plant foods that everyone will enjoy eating for your healthy holidays parties.
- Make a fruit plate or fruit kabobs.
- Roast green beans and/or carrots.
- Include a green salad. See below for my favorite holiday salad recipe.
Broccoli Salad Italiano
- 2 bunches broccoli
- 3 jars marinated artichoke hearts
- 1 box cherry tomatoes, halved
- Italian dressing
- Cut broccoli florets and tender stems. Wash and cook in a steamer about 3 minutes.
- Run under cold water to stop the cooking process.
- Cut tomatoes in half, lengthwise.
- Clean up artichoke hearts to minimize choke.
- Just before serving, toss the vegetables with the salad dressing.
Serves 8-10 people.
Note: You can prepare the ingredients the day before and store vegetables separately in airtight containers.
I hope you have happy, healthy holidays!
- Zinöcker M.K., Lindseth I.A. The Western diet–microbiome-host interaction and its role in metabolic disease. Nutrients. 2018;1010:365. doi: 10.3390/nu10030365. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]
- Cordain L., Eaton S.B., Sebastian A., Mann N., Lindeberg S., Watkins B.A., O’Keefe J.H., Brand-Miller J. Origins and evolution of the Western diet: Health implications for the 21st Century. Am. J. Clin. Nutr. 2005;81:341. doi: 10.1093/ajcn.81.2.341. [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]
- Rastelli M., Knauf C., Cani P.D. Gut Microbes and Health: A focus on the mechanisms linking microbes, obesity, and related disorders. Obesity. 2018;26:792. doi: 10.1002/oby.22175. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]
- Daniel H., Gholami A.M., Berry D., Desmarchelier C., Hahne H., Loh G., Mondot S., Lepage P., Rothballer M., Walker A., et al. High-fat diet alters gut microbiota physiology in mice. ISME J. 2014;8:295. doi: 10.1038/ismej.2013.155. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]
- Do M.H., Lee E., Oh M.J., Kim Y., Park H.Y. High-glucose or -fructose diet cause changes of the gut microbiota and metabolic disorders in mice without body weight change. Nutrients. 2018;10:761. doi: 10.3390/nu10060761. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]
- Saffouri G.B., Shields-Cutler R.R., Chen J., Yang Y., Lekatz H.R., Hale V.L., Cho J.M., Battaglioli E.J., Bhattarai Y., Thompson K.J., et al. Small intestinal microbial dysbiosis underlies symptoms associated with functional gastrointestinal disorders. Nat. Commun. 2019;10:2012. doi: 10.1038/s41467-019-09964-7. [PMC free article] [PubMed] [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]