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Marilu Henner Driven By Healthy Holiday Foods

By Mike Falcon, Spotlight Health
With medical adviser Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

Actress and author Marilu Henner played a cab driver in the hit television series Taxi, but in real life it's Henner who is driven - to stop holiday weight gain with healthier, tastier food.

Just in time for your Christmas office party or holiday house-warming is Henner's seventh book, Healthy Holidays, Total Health Entertaining All Year Round. Virtually all of Henner's recipes will help keep your waistline from duplicating old St. Nick's.

"It's not just the holiday parties and entertaining from Thanksgiving through Superbowl Sunday that promote packing on the pounds," observes Henner. "Overeating and the generally poor nutritional choices associated with holidays goes on from Easter and Earth Day to birthdays and bar mitzvahs."

"Many of us do tend to eat more during the holidays and on special occasions," says Carrie Peterson, a registered dietitian and instructor at the University of Minnesota Department of Food Science and Nutrition. "That can become a problem, particularly if you do not exercise regularly in the winter."

Most experts have pegged the average November through January weight gain as between 5 and 10 pounds, although one study conducted two years ago showed smaller increases.

"Do your own reality check," advises Henner. "For most of the people I've spoken with, it's closer to 10-12 pounds."

But don't blame the holiday season, she advises. "Holidays and special occasions occur throughout the year, so you really can't avoid them, nor should you," she says.

A better approach, advises Henner, is to embrace special occasion eating and festivities by preparing healthy, satisfying holiday meals yourself. Henner's guide to creating healthy foods for 24 special holidays begins with recognizing that people should celebrate, and that they will not do well in adhering to healthy dietary guidelines if the food isn't satisfying.

"The food has to taste great," says Henner, "or people might opt for foods that just taste good, regardless of their health implications."

Holiday plans

If you're dreaming of a 'light Christmas', here are some of Henner's general tips for healthy holiday entertaining:

  • Plan ahead - "Whether you're throwing a party or going to one, make sure there is healthy food available to you," advises Henner. "Bringing your own healthy dish to a potluck means you'll always have something healthy to eat."

  • Eat ahead - Henner suggests that you do not fast before going to, or hosting, an event. "It doesn't hurt to eat something healthy before going to a party," agrees Peterson. "That will help decrease your appetite and you can concentrate on the people at the party, rather than immediately focusing on the food."

  • Shop ahead - Henner advises shopping before you need items or are hungry, and concentrating first on the fresh foods that usually are relegated to the store perimeter.

"That could help resist putting those high-calorie snacks into your shopping cart," says Peterson. "When you don't at least try to limit impulse food purchases, people can wind up buying and eating far more than they need. But it's important to give yourself some leeway too."

In choosing and preparing specific foods - central to Henner's plan outlined in Healthy Holidays - she suggests the following:

  • Use better quality foods - "Generally, if you take care with the quality of your foods, the quantity takes care of itself," says Henner. "For instance, remove the fiber from whole-grain breads, and eat highly processed cooked foods instead of whole foods, and you've stripped them of what makes them healthy and what makes them filling. As a result, we eat more."

  • Hydrate - "Spend hours cooking in a hot kitchen and you are going to lose fluid," says Henner. "In an effort to replace those fluids we can tend to eat what we're preparing, rather than recognize we need a glass or two of water."

  • Make satisfying substitutions -- Integral to Henner's 400-page recipe-filled book is the concept of healthy and tasty substitutions in recipes traditionally heavy with animal fats and sugars. Instead of red meat, Henner suggests chicken and fish. Replacing animal fats with non-hydrogenated natural fats like olive oil, dumping refined white flour for natural whole-grain versions, and substituting soy products for dairy foods are Henner staples. For example, sour cream onion dip can be made with soy cream cheese or soy sour cream.

Using soy-based items may not work for everyone, no matter how tasty. But you can minimize or eliminate milk fats. "Think of substituting skim milk or 1% fat milk for whole milk," suggests Peterson.  

For the estimated 50 million in the USA who have some degree of lactose intolerance -- including 75% of African-Americans and Native Americans and 90% of Asian-Americans -- milk with neutralized lactose enzymes, such as Dairy Ease, also are available.

Some holiday favorites are difficult to replace, so she suggests mixing those with less fattening substitutes. Although the avocados used in guacamole dip contain loads of healthy vegetable fats, they're still high in fats.

So what's Henner's recipe for Christmas greenery? Blend frozen sweet peas with the avocado to retain the color, taste, and texture of the original - but with far fewer calories.

Sugar fix

"Let's face it," says Henner. "When we think of the holidays we think of cakes, cookies, candies, and every form of dessert imaginable. Each is typically just loaded with refined processed sugar, and that's a very strong lure." To get around that, Henner spent months trying out what she calls "traditional" holiday sweeteners, including maple syrup, maple sugar, fruit juices, raw honey, barley malt, and raw cane juice.

Her most often recommended substitute for baking holiday treats is Sucanat, a granulated cane juice combination of the two sweeteners typical sugar processing separates - unrefined sugar and molasses.

Another suggestion from both Henner and Peterson: "If you've got a baked goods fanatic in your house, serve desserts that have fruit in them," says Peterson. "Apple pie, peach cobbler, fruit bars and cookies with fruit fillings satisfy just about everyone."

Once you've prepared your holiday food - or are at a party - the last step is negotiating the table.

"Pace yourself," says Henner. "Start with small portions, rest a while, and ask yourself if you're still hungry before going back for seconds."

"You might also try using the smaller salad-sized plate," suggest Peterson. "Instead of piling on mounds of food, spread the foods to fill the plate."

Henner and Peterson both urge monitoring alcohol intake. "It can lower inhibitions, which could encourage overeating," notes Peterson.

"In any event, don't drink and drive," she adds. "Call a taxi. That's what they're there for. Remember? - We did an entire series about them!"

• The Diet, Nutrition, and Exercise Center

• Marilu Henner

• Mowry twins stay trim during holidays

• Kiana helps trim the holiday feasting

Spotlight Health is the leading creator of celebrity-featured health-issue awareness campaigns, connecting consumers with impassioned celebrities whose personal health battles can open eyes, dispel myths and change lives. Spotlight Health helps sufferers and caregivers meet the challenges of difficult health circumstances with understandable, in-depth medical information, compassionate support and the inspiration needed to make informed healthcare choices.

Click here for information about weight management.

Created: 12/21/2002  -  Mike Falcon & Stephen A. Shoop, M.D.

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