Friday, December 24, 2004

Holidays can help unwrap healthy meal choices

Editor's note: the following is a free-lance Christmas feature that appeared on a local news Web site.

By Frances Y. Spencer

"Merry Christmas" has long been associated with "what are we eating next?" Holiday parties and meals while fun, can easily throw merry-makers off course in their efforts to curb weight gain. Local bariatric surgeon Dr. Karl Leblanc points to reasons why the tree isn't the only thing in desperate need of trimming.

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Obesity, Leblanc said is an epidemic in the United States. It is defined as a disease because of "the long term effects of the problem such as hypertension, diabetes, arthritis, increased cholesterol and triglycerides. Also the fact that there is a significant increase in death rates in the morbidly obese," he said.

The holidays are as good as time as any to focus on healthy eating choices because anyone wanting to succeed in weight loss must commit to a change in lifestyle -- not occasional fasts and gimmicks. Leblanc's Minimal Invasive Surgery Institute aids patients by providing surgical intervention to initiate weight loss, but no matter where one starts the process, it comes back to lifestyle and healthy food choices.

"Overweight individuals typically do not have the sensation of satiety (fullness with meals). Consequently, most will eat until there is nothing left on the plate or when they are stuffed," Leblanc said. "Some of this is learned behavior from when parents tell the child to 'eat all your food', remember the starving people that would love to have this ... One must limit the amount of food intake and alter the types of food, such as low fat and high carbohydrates."

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Good food, however, isn't the Grinch that stole the holiday fun and a local chef and nutritionist is ready to step in with tips that can keep one merry and munching through the yuletide season. Chef Edward Rhinehart said planning and choice is a big part of healthier holiday meals.

"Replace key things," Rhinehart said, such as using extra virgin olive oil instead of the fattier butters for cooking and sauteing.

Rhinehart, an executive chef and instructor at the Louisiana Culinary Institute, identifies a direct link between convenience and unhealthy holiday choices. Individuals watching their weight during the holidays should be wary of over-processed, pre-packaged and canned items. Single-processed oils and fats are healthier and fresh fruits and vegetables will help one avoid added salt and chemicals, he said.

The young chef can rattle off a long list of healthy tips for the holidays and they include:

  • Early eating is better -- The body will process food better earlier as opposed to late at night.
  • Reach for coniferous vegetables -- like broccoli -- and don't over cook them.
  • Raw is better -- Keep parties stocked with raw veggie trays and don't shy away from putting 'live foods' on your dinner menu.
  • Use more crackers and less bread.
  • Alcohol makes it worse -- Even if you have achieved food moderation, don't forget to limit alcohol intake. Red is the healthier wine choice.

Leblanc echoed that the holidays are difficult for many because it's traditionally linked to lots of unhealthy practices. "... the holidays are the very worst. People are not really concerned about this at this time. As we know, most gain a few pounds around this time because of all the sweets and all the alcohol that is consumed. This is a very difficult time for anyone to diet unless they are unusually strong with their diet."

Weight-loss surgery patients may have the same holiday temptations as the general public, but Leblanc doesn't see a lot of weight gain among his patients. "Most are afraid of gaining weight, unless they are prone to cheat," he said.

What may help anyone trying to lose weight is a favorite-foods transformation. Rhinehart performs his own version of Extreme Makeover in his suggestion to make holiday meals healthier. A Festive Veggie Saute involves julianne green beans and other vegetables sauteed in butter and wine. He urged that the butter be replaced with extra virgin olive oil and a butter substitute spray could be added at the end of preparation if a buttery taste is desired.

Pre-cut green beans can be purchased canned or frozen, but Rhinehart notes that fresh, blanched beans will have a more vibrant color with no preservatives or added salt and "you know where it's been." Finally, he suggests that the vegetables be lightly sauteed so that the crispiness and nutrients are maintained.

Moving to main courses and meats, Rhinehart leans toward low fat/low carbohydrate dishes such as his Boston Pork Cup. While it might seem untraditional, what he called "local protein" offers a great alternative for holiday feasting. Meals containing crawfish, tuna, crabmeat and shrimp are lean, high protein options. His one warning, "keep it swimming in water, not in oil!"

Lemons, limes and herbs provide great flavor alternatives, but do not add fat or carbohydrates to the dishes.

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