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This time of year it seems like temptation is waiting around every corner. There are homemade cookies in the office break room, tables full of party snacks, and enough home-cooked meals to fill a sleigh. But amid the sugary sweets and treats, the holiday season also brings back a few festive favorites that boast some pretty impressive health benefits. So the next time you’re tempted, reach for one of these good-for-you alternatives.

The Almighty Almond: When it comes to healthy nuts, almonds are at the top of the heap. Last month the New England Journal of Medicine published new research that praised the health benefits of almonds, saying these humble nuts can actually help us lead longer, healthier lives. As tree nuts go, almonds boast the most protein and fiber, and they are an excellent source of calcium, vitamin E and riboflavin (vitamin B2). In studies, almonds have also been shown to support heart health and weight management.

An Apple a Day: First, apples are loaded with fiber, which we all know can help keep those cravings to a minimum when the cookies start rolling in. Fiber supports balanced blood sugar levels and has been linked to healthy weight management—not to mention heart health and better digestion. Apples are also rich in the nutrient quercetin, which has antioxidant benefits to help support your immune system and even promote eye health!

Did Someone Say Cranberries? Sure, they look nice on the tree, but this tiny superfood is also a great addition to your holiday plate. Cranberries are low in calories and loaded with vitamin C and fiber—not to mention they have more immune-supporting antioxidants than nearly any other fruit or vegetable. Cranberries have also been shown to promote urinary tract health as well as a healthy yeast balance in women. (Just remember to steer clear of the high-sugar juices and sauces, as too much sugar can counteract the natural urinary health benefits of cranberries.)

Pass around the Power Greens: According to experts, greens are the #1 food you can eat regularly to support optimal health—and kale is definitely a top performer. Loaded with calcium, folate, potassium, and vitamins A, C and K, kale is considered the powerhouse of leafy greens, and did we mention it comes in yummy chips?? (Take that, potato chips.) Other super green contenders are spinach, collards, turnip greens, mustard greens, Swiss chard, and red and green leaf romaine.

Squash, Sweet Potatoes and Carrots, Oh My! When you think about antioxidants, it’s not just all about the berries. Holiday favorites such as pumpkin, butternut and acorn squash, sweet potatoes and carrots are all high in beneficial carotenoids—powerful antioxidants shown to support immunity and optimal health.

Of course, these are just a few of the healthy foods you may see at the holiday table, but making the choice to eat healthy all year long will help you enjoy the gift of better health. Whenever you reach for a snack or prepare a meal, remember to opt for plenty of high-fiber fruits and veggies, healthy fats, legumes, nuts, and lean meats and protein. Experts also recommended at least 30 minutes of exercise three times a week—yes, even during the busy holiday season!

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Here are two not-so-sweet facts to contemplate:

  1. We all know we should “eat less sugar.” Yet sugar and its ubiquitous co-sweetener, high fructose corn syrup, are in so many of the foods crowding our supermarket shelves.
  2. Most people could not tell you how much sugar they eat each day, or what this sugar intake might be doing to their health.

For some time now, nutritional scientists have known that excessive sugar consumption undermines our health. Just how sugar does this depends on the type of sugar we eat, how much we eat, genetic predispositions to certain conditions, and other factors.

A recent TIME article, “How Sweet Can Become Toxic,” highlighted some new research on sugar conducted at the University of Utah and published in Nature Communications. In the study, mice ate a diet approximately equal to our average diet (figuring on about 3 sodas a day) of 25% sugar. 25% sugar is a high amount, but many people might be surprised that their diet falls into this category. After 58 weeks, the sugar-inundated mice had a twice as high mortality rate as the mice who had not been fed this extra sugar. The 25% sugar diet wreaked havoc on their life span.

What’s more, the extra sugar significantly affected the male mice, dropping their reproductive rates. Scientists reported that the male mice had a harder time competing in their environment. We know that increased sugar/high fructose corn syrup consumption contributes to obesity, fatty liver conditions, insulin resistance, diabetes risk, and heart health problems, but this report also points to hormonal problems caused by sugar.

The long and short of the new research on sugar is that we are still uncovering what this major part of the Standard American Diet (SAD) does to our overall health and longevity. We have come to understand that cigarette smoking and alcohol consumption will damage our health and shorten our lives, but could sugar be similarly toxic?

Knowledge is Sweet
A big step in managing your and your family’s health is to know how much sugar you’re eating every day. That’s easy, right? Just check the “sugars” line on the back of your food package…right? Unfortunately, no. Other carbohydrates in our foods are processed as sugars in the body, making the “sugars” line only part of the equation.

Here is the new, fool-proof equation you can use to quickly uncover just how much sugar your foods contain:

Total Carbs minus Total Fiber… divided by 5 = Number of teaspoons of sugar

Aim to keep your sugar intake about 10-15 teaspoons a day (do the math and many of us are consuming closer to 30 teaspoons!) by increasing the amount of lean protein, nuts, vegetables, fiber-rich grains/seeds such as flax and chia you eat. And the easiest way to cut down on sugars? Cut way down on processed foods, or the number of foods you buy that come in a box, can, or package.

Source: “How Sweet Can Become Toxic,” TIME Health & Family, Aug 2013.

Alcohol Consumption, American Diet, Cigarette Smoking, Diabetes Risk, Excessive Sugar, Fatty Liver, Fructose Corn Syrup, Genetic Predispositions, High Fructose Corn, High Mortality Rate, high-fructose corn syrup, Insulin Resistance, Liver Conditions, Male Mice, Nutritional Scientists, Sugar Consumption, Sugar Diet, Sugar Shock, Supermarket Shelves, Sweet Facts Hide

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