Although the festive season is a time of overindulgence, many of the foods that make it to the dinner table at this time of year are super-healthy and provide a nutritious source of vitamins, minerals and plant compounds that can support your immune system, maintain healthy skin and even help with the stress and sleepless nights, which are typically challenged this time of year. Here are my top ten seasonal superfoods.
1. Brussels sprouts
Brussels sprouts are not just for the Christmas dinner table and can be shredded into a raw salad, stir-fried, added to curries. These veggies are also mouth-watering when partnered with the umami taste of parmesan and even fish sauce. These little cabbages are high in sulphur-containing compounds that are responsible for their distinctive smell. Such compounds have long been recognised for their protective effects on cancer. Brussels also contain a good source of vitamin C, K, folate and iron. Avoid cooking sprouts for too long to retain their vitamin C content.
Turkey is a lean, high-protein food that is synonymous with cozy Sunday lunches and Christmas Day. This meat is a good source of B vitamins (including B6 and B12) that are required to convert food into energy and also selenium and zinc for immunity. Turkey is also a rich source of the amino acid tryptophan, which is taken up by the brain to make the hormones serotonin (influences mood) and melatonin (influences the sleep/wake cycle). Team with a carbohydrate-rich food for maximum effect (such as leftover turkey on wholegrain bread).
This classic nut is mostly served up at Christmas time and works well when used to make stuffing or fried Brussels sprouts with pancetta. Chestnuts have the lowest fat content of all nut varieties and contain a good source of magnesium, which is often referred to as nature's relaxant as it is involved in muscle contraction and low intakes have been associated with increased anxiety. These nuts are also rich in fibre that helps to maintain good digestion, cholesterol levels and reduces the risk of heart disease.
These fruits are available during the winter but are too sour and tart to eat raw. Traditional cranberry sauce is often high in sugar so try making your own at home, which will help you to control the amount of sugar you put into the recipe. Cranberries are high in vitamin C and antioxidant polyphenols that may help to reduce the risk of heart disease by preventing platelet build-up and reducing blood pressure.
These bright jewel-like fruits can be eaten alone or added to savoury dishes such as curries or tagines that make great winter-warming meals. Pomegranates are rich in vitamin C and also contain folate, vitamin K and potassium. There is some research to suggest that pomegranate may have heart health benefits by improving your cholesterol profile and protecting LDL (bad) cholesterol from oxidation.
Nuts are a popular snack over Christmas and seem even more enjoyable when you buy them in their shell. Walnuts are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats that help to reduce levels of LDL (bad) cholesterol and increase HDL (good) cholesterol. These nuts are also rich in the omega 3 fatty acid, alpha-linolenic acid, which is a useful source of these essential fats for people who don’t eat oily fish. It is difficult to get enough omega 3 without including oily fish in your diet so you may wish to try a supplement such as Healthspan High-Strength Omega 3 (£8.99 for 120 capsules).
7. Smoked salmon
Oily fish are one of the richest sources of omega 3 fatty acids that help to maintain a healthy heart and moisturise winter-ravaged skin. These fish are also rich in vitamin D, which research shows 40 per cent of us are lacking in during the winter months. Vitamin D is essential for healthy bones, immunity and also helps to prevent seasonal affective disorder that can dampen mood. Whilst the main source is sunlight you can glean a little from foods such as smoked salmon and other oily fish. Two servings per week can add around 30 per cent of you daily requirement for vitamin D.
This spice definitely drums up memories of winter and is commonly served alongside cloves, nutmeg and other warming spices. Ground cinnamon is a good source of calcium and also iron, which is required for good immunity and maintaining health red blood cell production. Research suggests this spice may also help to lower blood sugar levels.
9. Dried fruits
These fruits often receive bad press for their sugar content but a single 40g serving is still classed as one of your five-a-day. They are traditionally used during Christmas to make puddings and stuffings but also work really well in salads using the leftover turkey meat. Dried fruits such as apricots are a good source of vitamin A, which helps to maintain healthy skin and immunity. They are also a good source of iron, which is lacking in a significant number of women’s diets and low intakes can lead to tiredness and fatigue.
10. Winter greens
Dark green leafy vegetables such as kale are some of the most nutritious vegetables to include in your diet. Kale is rich in many minerals including magnesium and iron. This popular green is also a rich source of calcium, making it a great addition to the Christmas dinner table for vegans and those who don’t eat dairy foods. Kale and other dark greens are also a rich source of the antioxidants, lutein and zeaxanthin that have been shown to help maintain good eye health. Try my kale chips with cashew nut cream and paprika recipe below.
Try to balance out the Christmas excess by loading up your dinner plate with plenty of winter superfoods that can help to boost your nutrient intake and offset the damage done by overdoing the booze and mince pies over the festive season.
Rob Hobson, is a registered nutritionist, head of nutrition at Healthspan. His book The Detox Kitchen Bible is available to buy now, £25.
For something different try baking these kale chips as a healthy snack when entertaining guests over the Christmas period.