Health Matters…Creating a new tradition

by Dr. Max Hammonds

‘Tis the season for families and family traditions. Part of that holiday tradition is tables laden with food of all kinds made from recipes passed down from passed generations. Usually, these recipes were created when hard work dusk to dawn burned off 1000’s of calories in a single day. 

With today’s sedentary life style (running desks, not lumber mills; counting ledgers, not threshing grain) and the addition of sugar and fat to most items on the grocery store shelves, sixty percent of Americans are overweight or obese. One result of this abundance of food is the gaining of at least 5 or more pounds over the Thanksgiving/Christmas holidays by a large percentage of the population.

This year create a new tradition. Adopt a new approach to the usual anxiety of the approaching holiday treats and the guilty regret and New Year’s resolutions to lose the extra weight in January. 

The two-step process for this miracle of restraint involves the cook and the consumer. First the cook. If you have the good fortunate to know the cook personally and even better have some influence with him or her, request the following: Please avoid the following big three culprits of weight gain – sugar, saturated and trans-fats, and salt.

Sugar is the not-so-hidden nutritional sin of today, the accepted culprit causing inflammation in the small blood vessels of all critical organs. At 4 calories per gram, sugar adds calories without nutrition. In fact, in most recipes, the sugar can usually be cut in half without damaging the cooking results or the final taste of the product. In addition, excess sugar is stored away as fat to be burned off on some rainy day in the future (when catastrophic famine descends – which never materializes.) Or the sugar is consumed in the building of excess cholesterol, another known destructor of blood vessel walls. 

The second ingredient to avoid is saturated fat or trans-fat. Both saturated fats and trans-fats are implicated in inflammation that increases cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and some cancers by raising the levels of LDL cholesterol (the bad kind) and in lowering the levels of HDL cholesterol (the good kind) and increasing insulin resistance (the beginning of type-II diabetes.) These fats are present in animal fat and even more so in those cooking oils made with trans-fats specifically to extend their shelf live. Tell the cook to use only olive oil or canola oil in cooking and baking to decrease these risks. Besides, whatever the type of fat, all fats are 9 calories per gram – 2 ½ times what carbohydrates contribute to the pounds added to the holiday diet. Therefore, request the judicious, cautious use of fats of all kinds in meal preparation – baked rather than fried, sauteed rather than marinated.

So far as salt is concerned, encourage the cook to avoid foods from a can in the preparation of your holiday meal. Most soups, packaged baked goods, and canned vegetables are salted beyond all good sense. Excessive salt is, of course, implicated in the current epidemic of high blood pressure – the silent killer of many Americans.

Now for the consumer. The consumer bears responsibility to control these three culprits in weight gain and poor health. While sugar isn’t usually added – except to hot drinks – by consumer, read the labels of those things consumed from a package – yogurt, crackers and cookies, supposedly “healthy” protein bars, and snacks. The high sugar content of most of these only creates more pounds.   

Hidden fats added by the consumer are in the sauces and the dressings. A 90-calorie potato or sweet potato can become 270 calories or more with added butter, sour cream, buttermilk and salt (mashed potatoes), and sauces. Be cautious and judicious in adding these fat calories to otherwise healthy foods.

As for salt, add it to enhance flavor, not to taste or out of habit. 

And as for candy – just avoid it altogether, if you can’t control the portion size. No nutrition here; just added calories.

The consumer can also decrease calories by these four cautions: 1) Choose a normal plate and not a platter (like one receives in most Mexican restaurants). 2) Eat for color; half the plate should be covered with roots/tubers (potatoes, carrots, beets) and vegetables (greens/salad vegetables and legumes (peas and beans.) 3) One helping and one pass through the food choices. Make them all fit on the normal-sized plate, taking smaller portions – like tapas – rather than mountains of food. 4) Eat slowly to allow your sense of fullness to catch up with your appetite.

Creating new traditions that follow these simple guidelines will ensure a normal waistline, no pounds to lose in January, and a good fit for the clothing gifts received at Christmas. Happy Holidays and good health in the New Year.

Dr. Max Hammonds, MD, MPH, MHA, DABA is a retired anesthesiologist and public health lecturer.

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