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How to Enjoy a Healthy-ish Holiday Meal

Holiday meals provide the perfect setting to connect with our loved ones and enjoy family foods.

These social events are very beneficial for our sense of connection and overall brain health. While I advocate that you savor the traditional foods that you truly enjoy this holiday season, overindulgence can lead to sleep disturbance, feelings of stress, and get in the way of your typical healthful behaviors, such as physical activity.

When it comes to nutrition and cognitive health, research shows that diets high in saturated fat (from full-fat dairy, red meats, and coconut) and refined carbohydrates (from sugar, sweet beverages, and white flour/rice/pasta) are associated with worse cognitive function. Alternatively, diets with high intakes of vegetables and fruit, limited meat consumption, moderate intake of alcohol, and use of olive oil as a primary fat source are associated with decreased risk of cognitive decline. So how do we create some balance this season?

Try these tips for healthy-ish holiday meals:

1. Include low carbohydrate vegetables: Holiday meals have an excess of carbohydrates with desserts, sweetened beverages or alcohol, bread products, and starchy vegetables like potatoes. Crowd out some of these choices by offering vegetables which are low in carbs and high in nutrients. It’s simple to do! Start your gathering with a crudité platter of fresh vegetables and your favorite dip. Carrots, snap peas, cherry tomatoes, and small cucumbers are popular and require very little preparation. Include a green salad with your meal using prewashed greens, fruit, and nuts. Pear wedges, hazelnuts, and pomegranate arils are a festive combination. And, swap one of your high carb sides with a roasted vegetable like Brussels sprouts.

2. Eat your typical meals prior to the event: Avoid temptation to skip your regular meals. Breakfast or lunch prior to a holiday gathering is the perfect time to include brain healthy foods. In addition, showing up ravenous may result in less control over your appetite. Eating a nutritious meal with protein and fiber before you arrive allows you to be more discriminating in your food and beverage choices.

3. Stay hydrated: Recent studies have shown that water plays a crucial role in maintaining brain function. Even mild dehydration can affect mood, concentration, and reaction time. If you’re hosting, have a water pitcher available and sparkling water as a beverage choice. For those drinking alcohol, have a glass of water in between each serving of wine, beer, or liquor.

4. Focus on family and friends: Holiday meals are about so much more than the bounty of food. It’s a time to cherish the people in our lives. So, eat slowly while enjoying conversation. Plan a group acti-vity to keep you moving. Capture memories by taking photos. Savor all the joy this season can bring!

By Molly Rapozo,


Molly Rapozo, MS, RDN, CD, is the Senior Nutrition & Health Educator at the Brain Wellness & Lifestyle Program at Pacific Neuroscience Institute. With years of experience counseling individuals and families, she provides nutrition coaching for those seeking to improve their cognitive wellness and overall health. /213-566-1270.

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