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Holiday eating without the guilt

Consumer Reports on Health: November 2008

Photo: Meremy Frechette

By Robin Miller, host of the Food Network’s“Quick-Fix Meals” and author of “Robin to theRescue,” (Taunton Press, 2008).

Is overindulgence inevitable?
No, as long as you don't skip meals in anticipation of stuffing yourself at dinner. Instead, have a few snacks throughout the day; fruits and vegetables will keep you full because they have a lot of water. Or have a small cup or bowl of broth-based soup before the big meal. People who do that consume fewer calories and are less likely to overindulge. When you're at a party, nibble a few nuts instead of the chips or pretzels. And stay hydrated, since you may reach for food when you're really thirsty.

How can you fill your plate healthfully at a buffet?
Think tapas—powerful mini-bites. When the flavors are good, you don't need a lot. Get a small plate, if you can, and pile it with salad, which will fill it up. Choose the turkey but go easy on the mashed potatoes and gravy, unless they're low-fat. If you want to find out how healthy a dish is but don't want to offend your host, say: "This looks so delicious. What's in it?" It's a polite way to find out how it was made.

Are there ways to make holiday classics healthier?
Definitely. Use reduced-fat cheese, mayonnaise, milk, and sour cream. You won't compromise on taste. They can go in all the casseroles you make during the holidays. Or try fat-free whipped topping. If you like sausage stuffing, turkey or chicken sausage is an excellent compromise. Reduced-sodium fat-free broths are so good now, and are excellent in gravy. I also use them in my stuffing, in all my stews, and as a base for my salad dressing instead of oil. Substitute olive oil for butter in cases where you won't be able to tell. (It's a healthier fat.) I'll still use butter in my piecrust, for example, but I serve bread with olive oil for dipping. For dessert, you don't need to offer brownies and cookies and pie. Try a sorbet and fruit platter instead. Or do a fruit plate with reduced-fat cheddar cheese and some almonds, which looks beautiful too.

What if you do overindulge?
Let's face it, you'll probably overeat at least once. Take a walk after the meal or add an extra 10 minutes to your walk the next day. Look for a 5K on Thanksgiving Day. Many communities have these—and you can choose to walk, not run.

What's your eating style?

Researchers with the Framingham Nutrition Studies have identified several characteristic eating patterns, for men and women, that reflect different dietary preferences—and different health risks. Check the chart below to see what category best describes you. Then consider how you can satisfy your palate and still make healthier choices.

Eating style
Ways to improve
Empty calories. You like your meat well-marbled, your milk whole, and have a weakness for snacks and sweets. Substitute fruits for sweets, and try to eat more vegetables and whole grains. Fry less, bake more. Decide what you can live without and enjoy treats in moderation.
Low variety. You’re not one to overindulge, and find comfort in your routine, sticking with just a few favorite fruits and vegetables. Although your choices are mainly healthy, add variety in your produce selection and whole grains to get the full complement of nutrients.
Average guy. You eat moderate amounts of whatever is put in front of you, and don’t usually go for lean protein or low-fat dairy. The good news is that you enjoy a variety of foods, getting a wide range of nutrients. A few more thoughtful choices could bump you up to heart-healthy status.
High starch. You prefer lean protein but like to butter everything. Refined starches and desserts are a weakness. You can keep your carbs as long as most are whole grain. Buy spreads and sprays that are free of trans fats and have little or no saturated fat.
Heart healthier. You have a varied diet that includes fruits and vegetables, some leaner meat and low-fat dairy, and at least some whole grains. Most of your food choices are healthy, but you could still reduce your saturated fat by consistently choosing low-fat dairy and swapping some animal protein for beans and legumes.
Empty calories. Sweets and sugary drinks are your downfall and you’re not big on vegetables. You’re not much of a drinker, though, and don’t go for high-cholesterol foods such as full-fat cheese. You have a higher risk than men for abdominal obesity. But there are many ways to satisfy your cravings without going overboard on fat and sugar. Focus less on restriction and more on bringing healthier fruits and vegetables back into your diet.
Hight fat. You’re apt to skip snacks in favor of a hearty meal: fried chicken and potatoes, buttery white rolls, and dessert. You’re not big on low-fat foods, legumes, or fruits. It’s time to explore the abundance of flavorful, low-fat menu options and recipes. Satisfy your sweet tooth with lower-fat, lower-sugar fruit desserts such as a scoop of frozen yogurt with fresh strawberries.
Moderate eater, not-so-moderate drinker.You don’t overeat and you limit desserts and sweet drinks. But you do indulge in wine, fatty or salty snacks, and cholesterol-rich foods such as eggs. You get lots of calories from alcohol, mostly wine. Limit yourself to one drink daily and check your serving size (5 ounces can look like a splash in the bowl of a red-wine glass.) Look for ways to reduce animal and trans fats, and substitute healthier snacks.
Light eater. You keep your weight down by eating smaller portions and limiting choices. Your weight tends to fluctuate, though, and you follow periods of indulgence with strict dieting. If you’re frequently on a diet your eating style is too restrictive. Stick with heart-healthy choices, but try to eat a bit more. Repeated weight fluctuations might increase your cardiovascular risk.
Heart healthy. You base your diet on fruits, vegetables, lean protein, whole grains, and low-fat dairy. You’re not into diet drinks or snack foods. Sweets and fatty foods are an occasional indulgence. Keep up the good work. You’re in the healthiest group overall, but there’s still room for improvement. The ability to convert protein to muscle may decrease with age in women, so make sure you get plenty of lean protein.

Tasty low-fat, low-cal pumpkin pie

Photo: Alexandra Grablewski

To come up with a healthier holiday pie, Consumer Reports food testers tried several variations of the recipe found on the label of Libby's canned pumpkin, with a commercial frozen piecrust. The one we came up with has 70 fewer calories per slice (190 vs. 260), 4 fewer grams of total fat (6 vs.10), and 2 fewer grams of saturated fat (2 vs. 4) than the standard recipe. And our volunteer tasters, who weren't involved in developing the recipe, liked it and didn't even ask if it was low-fat or low-cal.

Our recipe uses Libby's canned pumpkin, but any similar product—even roasted sugar pumpkin—would probably work as well. The cooks used Domino Pure D'Lite, which combines sugar with the artificial sweeteners acesulfame potassium and neotame. It contains two-thirds the calories of regular sugar, performed well in our previous baking tests, and doesn't appear to pose health risks. Look for a frozen piecrust that has no more than about 90 calories, 5 grams of total fat, and 2 grams of saturated fat per serving.

(One 9-inch pie, eight servings)

½ cup Domino Pure D'Lite sugar-blend substitute
1 tsp. ground cinnamon
½ tsp. salt
½ tsp. ground ginger
¼ tsp. ground cloves
1 large egg plus 2 egg whites
1 15-oz can Libby's 100% Pure Pumpkin
1 12-oz can evaporated fat-free milk
1 9-inch commercial frozen piecrust

To make pie:

1. Preheat oven to 425° F.
2. Mix sugar blend, cinnamon, salt, ginger, and cloves in a small bowl. Beat egg and egg whites in a large bowl. Stir in the sugar-spice mixture and pumpkin. Gradually add milk.
3. Place crust on baking sheet (to catch drips). Pour filling into the pie shell.
4. Bake in the center of the oven for 15 minutes. Reduce temperature to 350° F; bake for 35-40 minutes more or until a toothpick inserted in the center comes out clean. Let the pie cool before slicing.

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