Holiday Super Foods

Don't feel guilty for indulging this time of year -- as long as you stick to super foods! Registered Dietitian and author of "Eat Your Way to Happiness," Elizabeth Somer, stopped by to show us the best of the bunch.

Let's face it. Starting at Thanksgiving and continuing through to New Year's Day, you are constantly tempted by the most enticing treats under your most vulnerable circumstances. You may have dodged the fudge at the office party only to succumb to a second helping of whipped cream on apple pie. The holidays may get a bad wrap when it comes to indulgence and weight gain, but many of the foods this time of year are super healthy, superfoods. Here are Elizabeth's 8 top choices.

1. What truly makes a food super?

#1: It must have a ton of nutrients for only a few calories. Think of it as a super-low “cal-a-nut” ratio, for each calorie you get a whopping dose of waist-slimming fiber and mood-boosting vitamins and minerals.

#2: There must be proof that this food speeds weight loss, revs metabolism, aids in burning body fat, and/or fills you up on few calories thus helping you stick with your diet.

#3: It must be loaded with antioxidants. These are the nutrients and up to one million phytonutrients in unprocessed foods that protect the brain from little oxygen fragments, called free radicals, that otherwise speed aging, clog memory, dampen your mood, increase stress, and even drain energy.

A food must have all of these qualities to make the grade. Granted, other foods are good sources of antioxidants or they have a low cal-a-nut ratio, but since they don’t meet the other criteria, they fall short on being a super mood food. For example, cucumbers or head lettuce have few calories, but their nutrient, antioxidant, and fiber contents are low compared to super foods.

Super Food #1: Pumpkin, Butternut Squash, and Sweet Potatoes

Even a small serving of deep-orange vegetables, such as pumpkin, supplies five times the Daily Value for beta carotene, an antioxidant that protects the brain from damage. The more richly-colored vegetables you eat, the more brain protection you get and it’s hard to get more colorful than pumpkin. Bright orange veggies also supply hefty amounts of vitamin C, potassium, and iron, and more fiber than a slice of whole wheat bread or a bowl of oatmeal.

Besides, the more colorful fruits and vegetables you eat, the sharper your mind and the easier it is to lose weight and keep it off. Ask anyone successful at permanent weight loss and they will tell you, the absolutely, tried-and-true habit along with exercise is to load the plate with produce! The more produce you include in the daily diet and the longer you eat that way, the longer you will live healthy and the sharper your mind. For example, one study found that sweet potatoes contain a protein that breaks down fat, helping with weight loss (at least in animals).

Aim for at least a one-cup serving (just not in pumpkin pie!). How? Microwave and top sweet potatoes with drizzle of maple syrup and a sprinkle of pecans. Puree cooked pumpkin and add to soups as a thickener. Use sweet potatoes instead of potatoes in salads. Slice sweet potatoes into wedges, salt, and bake at 425 degrees for 15 minutes for golden fries. Cook, mash, and use winter squash instead of noodles or rice as a base for any dish. Add roasted butternut squash cubes to canned soups. I roast butternut squash cubes and toss into salads. Or steam and use pumpkin or squash as a base for risotto.

Super Food #2: Figs

Figgy pudding. It doesn’t get more holiday than that! Fresh or dried, Black Mission, Kadota, Calimyrna, or Adriatic, figs are rich in both soluble and insoluble fiber, which improves blood flow and helps balance blood sugar levels. The soluble pectin in fruits, such as figs, lowers cholesterol nearly as well as some medications. Figs are good sources of vitamins A, E, and the Bs, as well as magnesium, potassium, calcium, iron, and manganese. Only fresh figs are high in vitamin C. Their claim to fame is their high antioxidant content, A serving is 1 /2 cup raw or 1/4 cup dried. Some dried fruits are processed with sulfites to preserve color. Choose sulfite-free, organic figs if you are in the 1% who are sensitive to these additives.

Stuff figs low-fat cheeses and nuts for a snack or appetizer, add to fat-free cottage cheese or oatmeal, poach in red wine and serve with yogurt. Add to rice dishes, desserts, batters, smoothies, and salads. Puree and use as a replacement for fat in baking.

Super Food #3: Pecans

Many people are more successful at sticking to their diets when they add a few healthy fats, such as nuts and olive oil, to their weekly menu, than if they try to stick with very-low-fat diets. There are three reasons why nuts, such as pecans, help you stay happy and skinny.

1. Nuts are fiber-rich, so even an ounce is enough to take the edge off hunger. (Their phytochemical and antioxidant scores are high, too.

2. Nuts raise the metabolic rate by up to 11%, thus helping to burn more calories.

3. Nuts help regulate blood sugar. They have a low glycemic index (GI). Compared to potatoes or corn flakes, which rank in the 80s on the GI scale, peanuts and other nuts rank as low as 14, meaning they don’t raise blood sugar levels, so don’t stimulate appetite or fat storage. Peanuts also contain a compound called arginine, that helps regulate the hormone, insulin, which helps maintain normal blood sugar levels. When people keep their blood sugar steady, they typically consume fewer calories, because their energy level and mood are stable and they aren’t as hungry. The more you control blood sugar, the easier time you’ll have managing your weight, which explains why an ounce of nuts a day helps slim waistlines. A recent study from Purdue University found that adding an ounce of almonds to the diet helped with weight management, reduced hunger, and boosted nutritional status.

Speaking of peanuts. These nuts are weird, since you think of them as a nut, but they really are a bean. In fact, they straddle the fence between nuts and legumes, which is a good thing. That means they have all the good stuff of a nut, such as the healthy fats, magnesium, and vitamin E, but they also have all the nutrition advantages of a bean, such as folic acid, potassium, and phytonutrients (called saponins and sterols). All of those nutrients improve mood, aid in sleep, and/or help us better cope with stress. They even have something in common with red wine - resveratrol - an antioxidant that helps keep your arteries elastic and squeaky clean. (Roasting destroys resveratrol.)

A serving is one ounce. Eat nuts plain or toss them into salads, cereals, or yogurt. Add nuts to meatless stir frys or to pancake and muffin batters. Make homemade trail mix with equal parts nuts and dried fruit (such as dried cherries). Replace pine nuts with other nuts, such as pistachios, when making pesto sauce. Add nuts to salads or to desserts. Combine nuts with yogurt, apples, and celery to make a quick Waldorf salad. Dip baby carrots in peanut butter. Coat fish or chicken with a nutty flavor before cooking. Mix equal parts seasoned whole wheat bread crumbs and finely chopped or toasted mixed nuts. Top favorite casseroles or soups with finely chopped nuts. Add nuts to grain dishes.

Super Food #4: Pomegranates

Pomegranates are rich in potassium, vitamin C, fiber, B vitamins, and phytonutrients like polyphenols, anthocyanins, and procyanidins (A cup of pomegranate juice has more than ten times the polyphenols of apple juice, 639 versus 61 milligrams!) They have three times the antioxidants of green tea, and help lower the risk for inflammation, heart disease, dementia and Alzheimer’s, cancer, damage to the genetic code, risk for erectile dysfunction and male infertility, and high blood pressure; improve blood flow to all parts of the body including genitals; and even help regress atherosclerosis, the underlying cause of heart disease and erectile dysfunction. A phytonutrient, called punicalagin, speeds healing and builds collagen and elastin that plump and firm the skin.

Sprinkle a tablespoon or more into foods from Fall through Winter when these fruits are available, or use pure pomegranate juice throughout the year. Packaged seeds (POM Wonderful Arils) are available in the refrigerator section of select stores from October through January. Sprinkle seeds into salads, desserts, and fruit, rice, and pasta dishes. Add juice to sauces, dressings, and marinades. To seed, put in a bowl of water, peel away the white and allow seeds to sink, which makes separating the pith from the fruit easier.

Super Food #5: Dark Green Leafies

As a dietitian, it’s difficult to understand how anyone can be happy and healthy without dark green leafies in the daily diet. From spinach, chard, and collards to romaine lettuce and broccoli, these are the very best sources of the B vitamin, folate. Your brain cells won’t turn on without it. It’s no wonder that poor intake of folate increases the risk for depression, fatigue, cancer, poor memory, and possibly even more serious mental problems like schizophrenia. People battling the blues who boost their intake of greens say they feel better and happier as a result. People who are clinically depressed only respond to antidepressant therapy if their blood levels of folate are high. Need I say more?

Packed with vitamins and minerals, one serving of dark greens supplies an entire day’s requirement for vitamin A, more than 3 milligrams of iron, almost a third of your daily need for folate, and hefty amounts of calcium and B vitamins, all for about 20 calories. A one-cup serving of cooked Swiss chard supplies more than half of a woman's daily recommendation for magnesium, a mineral that helps her cope with stress, curbs symptoms of PMS, and aids in sleep. Phytonutrients, such as sulforaphane in broccoli and the carotenoids in dark leafy lettuce, clear toxins from the body and strengthens your resistance to colds and infections.

You need at least one cup raw or ½ cup cooked every day. During the holidays, replace head lettuce in salads and sandwiches with leaf lettuce or spinach, layer greens into casseroles, lightly steam chopped collards and mix into mashed potatoes, and add greens to stir frys

Super Food #6: Cranberries

Cranberries are an excellent source of antioxidants like vitamins C and E, the berries also are packed with health-boosting phenolic compounds that may help reduce the risk of chronic diseases like cancer, stroke, and heart disease. It’s well know that cranberries help prevent urinary tract infections. Ditch the canned cranberry sauce, which has the sugar equivalent of a candy bar. Opt for the lower calorie and easy-to-prepare fresh variety, which cooks up in 5 minutes.

Sneak them into your diet this holiday season by adding semi-dried cranberries to your breakfast cereals, cakes, muffins and cookies, drinking cranberry juice either on its own or mixed with fresh orange juice and don’t forget to make your own cranberry sauce by boiling fresh cranberries with a little sugar, fresh orange juice and a bit of freshly grated ginger.

Super Food #7: Tart Cherries

You know they make a great pie, but you might not know that this ruby-red fruit is a rich source of a wide array of nutrients, including fiber, potassium, magnesium, iron, vitamin A, vitamin C, vitamin B6, vitamin E, and folate. They have a low glycemic index (GI) score of 54 (any score less than 55 is considered low), thus producing a mild rise in blood sugar levels associated with lowered risks for diabetes and weight gain. 1

Just slightly more than three ounces of tart cherry juice concentrate supplies a hefty dose of antioxidants. In fact, a study from the University of Minnesota found that cherries, with their high amount of anthocyanins, were in the top 33 foods for highest antioxidant content, surpassing well-known leaders, such as red wine, prunes, and dark chocolate. These anthocyanins protect brain cells from oxidative damage associated with nerve damage, thus lowering the risk for memory loss, dementia, and even Alzheimer’s disease, and even helping reverse brain aging. (While tart cherries are rich sources of anthocyanins, maraschino cherries are not, since the delicate phytochemical is lost in process and replaced with food coloring.)

Add dried tart cherries to tossed salads, fruit salads, and slaws. Include dried tart cherries in baked items and rice pilafs.

Super Food #8: Dark Chocolate

Believe it or not, chocolate started out as a medicine, not a vice. Thanks to the Greeks, chocolate was soon catapulted to heavenly status when named Theobroma, or “Food of the Gods.” It was used since the Aztecs to treat hundreds of ailments. Chocolate is one of Mother Nature’s best sources of polyphenols, which are antioxidants, anti-inflammatories, anti-cancer, and anti-viral and anti-fungal. Polyphenols protect cholesterol from oxidation by free radicals, so they are less likely to stick to arteries, so decrease the risk for atherosclerosis. They protect the genetic code within each cell, lower skin cancer and wrinkling, and reduce dementia risk. Compounds in chocolate lower blood pressure and strengthen blood vessels. Caffeine, arginine, phenylethylamines (PEA), and a host of nutrients, from B vitamins to magnesium and iron all tickle brain chemistry to improve mood and calm the body. Anandamides (meaning “bliss” in Sanskrit) targets cannabinoid receptors in the brain, much like marijuana, to give a mild pleasurable high. And chocolate releases morphine-like compounds in the brain, called endorphins, that produce lusty, pleasurable feelings.

How much to include in your holiday fare is the tricky part. No more than one ounce a day of dark chocolate with at least 70% cocoa powder. Avoid Dutch processed cocoa, since alkaline compounds destroy the polyphenols.

In Conclusion:

This is just the tip of the iceberg. Other foods this time of year, from carrots, beets, fresh herbs and spices like cinnamon and nutmeg, and red wine to apples, black potatoes, and Brussels sprouts, all have a wealth of nutritional assets that can curb your waistline, boost mood, and keep you healthy. Bon appetit!