The holidays are a time to celebrate with family and friends. Then there’s the food. Whether it’s pumpkin pie or peppermint bark that's your favorite, there are plenty of treats that you may not get to enjoy year-round, making these items seasonally special.
While many people look forward to making their grandma’s famous cookies or trolling the dessert table at the company holiday party, diet culture encourages us to think about things other than the celebratory aspect of food: We’re taught not to indulge too much, or else to find effective ways to work off all the calories we’ve consumed.
Rarely are we taught that all foods can fit into a healthy lifestyle — and that even the items thought of as unhealthy by diet culture may have some health benefits.
Instead of considering all the ways in which your favorite wintertime treats will wreak havoc on your body or health (which, if you are eating an otherwise healthy diet and moving regularly, should not happen), here are some popular holiday staples and the surprising benefits they can deliver.
You may be eating pumpkin pie just for the cozy vibes, but dietitian Marlyne Perez tells Yahoo Life that pumpkin itself is a “nutritional powerhouse,” containing potassium for heart health, vitamin C as an immune booster, fiber for aiding digestion and antioxidants for overall well-being.
Plus, according to Marissa Meshulam, a New York-based dietitian, “one of the main health benefits of pumpkin is their beta carotene content.” And the red-orange pigment — which gives pumpkin its distinctive color — turns into vitamin A in our bodies.
“Just one cup of cooked pumpkin has almost 250% of the recommended dietary allowance of vitamin A,” she explains. “Vitamin A acts as an antioxidant in our bodies, keeping our cells healthy, our immune systems strong and our eyesight up.”
Yes, mashed potatoes are often known for being filled with butter and cream, which can increase their saturated fat content. But potatoes are one of the most underrated — and often maligned — foods out there.
“We need to reclaim the white potato — there is so much nutrition in there,” says Meshulam. “White potatoes are great sources of potassium and vitamin C.”
She suggests adding Greek yogurt while mashing for a protein boost, or even layer in some frozen riced cauliflower for a fiber/antioxidant boost.
Perez adds that potatoes also contain iron, the nutrient choline for muscle movement and brain function, and folate (vitamin B9) for cancer prevention.
Meshulam also says that leftover mashed potatoes are even better for you: Cooked, then cooled potatoes, build up in something called “resistant starch,” which helps lower your blood sugar and builds a healthy gut.
Peppermint, according to Perez, “acts as an anti-inflammatory and antioxidant, offering pain relief, improving focus, having antibacterial effects, promoting dental health and reducing stress and anxiety.”
The plant-derived extract that gives candy canes their bite may also help settle your tummy, says Meshulam, and that it can “soothe stomach upset, like nausea or pain.” She also recommends having peppermint tea after a holiday meal.
If chocolate is your go-to stress reliever during the holidays, you might be happy to learn that there’s a biological reason for it. “Cacao [which refers to the raw, unrefined bean as opposed to cocoa, which is the bean after it has been roasted] is naturally high in magnesium, which is our de-stress, chill-out mineral that is involved in over 300 processes in our bodies,” says Meshulam. “Cacao also provides a very high antioxidant punch, helping keep our cells healthy and fight off chronic disease.”
The higher the cocoa percentage in chocolate, the more nutrient-rich it is, which is why dark chocolate tends to have more benefits than milk. Perez says that high-cocoa chocolate “may have cardiovascular benefits, and cocoa flavonoids may enhance brain function.”
That iconic gingerbread smell and taste comes from a combination of different spices, including ginger, cinnamon and cloves. And each spice has health benefits, says Meshulam.
“Ginger is very anti-inflammatory and can help promote healthy digestion,” she explains. “Clove packs an antioxidant punch. Cinnamon is known to help manage our blood sugar and may improve insulin sensitivity.”
The bottom line
While there are definitely some health benefits to common holiday treats, Meshulam says that the holidays are about “so much more than the food,” and that “we can find so many more areas of nourishment around the holidays,” even when what we’re eating isn’t the most physically nutritious.
That includes going to holiday parties and spending time with friends and family, as well as doing traditions that bring you closer to loved ones — providing you with social and emotional nourishment along the way. “Even if a meal is less physically nourishing, you can get nourishment out of it in a different way,” Meshulam says.