Eating clean can be especially difficult during the holidays, when your friends, family and colleagues inevitably bombard you with a stream of delicious but decidedly-unhealthy meals, treats and drinks. The good news is that choosing to live a healthy lifestyle doesn’t have to mean skipping the season’s traditional delicacies.
In my previous article, I wrote about how to stick to your paleo lifestyle during the holidays. Today, I’ll share some specific tips and tricks for making some of your favorite seasonal dishes paleo-friendly by using healthy ingredients as substitutes for their more problematic counterparts.
If you haven’t read my earlier post, I’d highly recommend you do so — it covers all the basics that you’ll need to succeed with the information below.
The Rationale Behind Substituting Ingredients
Most metabolic diseases are caused by our modern lifestyles and our disregard for the types of food the human body has evolved to utilize over millions of years of development. Evolution is a constant process, but we can’t expect our bodies to adapt to a dietary lifestyle that humans adopted only a few hundred years ago.
As a result, the two major factors that contribute to the rampant rate of chronic diseases in our society are:
– Inflammation and
– Insulin sensitivity
Therefore, if you want to cook healthier meals you should avoid ingredients that are inflammatory or that cause a spike in blood sugar. While that sounds simple enough, it can be tricky in practice.
Why? Because what people eat most are highly-processed carbohydrates, grain-fed animal meats, and vegetable oils. That’s a bad combination that becomes especially dangerous over the holidays, when the already-crappy standard American diet (SAD) takes a nosedive and people consume even more junk food than usual. But you can escape that vicious circle by substituting certain foods for healthier alternatives.
Top Unhealthy Foods and Healthier Alternatives
Here’s a list of some of the most common unhealthy foods and their healthier alternatives. Keep in mind that some of the ingredients “work” differently than the ones you might be used to. For example, almond flour behaves differently than wheat flour. So it pays to get a few good paleo or keto cookbooks to better understand how to manage those ingredients. I’ll share some book recommendations at the end of this article.
Grains — including wheat, rye, oats, corn and others — contain highly-inflammatory proteins and addictive carbohydrates that can raise blood sugar levels faster than table sugar.
Fortunately, you can cook and bake with a combination of nut flours (such as almond flour) and paleo-friendly starches (such as tapioca starch) that raise blood sugar levels much slower than their grain counterparts.
My wife and I have made breads, cakes and numerous pastries using different nut flours and lower-glycemic starches. We even make our pizza crust using those ingredients. Riced cauliflower is an excellent alternative for rice (and even for pizza crust). Seasoned well, it doesn’t taste like traditional rice; I’d argue that it tastes much better! Plus, it contains virtually no (net) carbs.
Sugar is poison for the body and it provides zero benefits. So I recommend avoiding sugar and sugary fruits, and using honey or healthy, non-caloric sweeteners (such as stevia or monk fruit extract) as substitutes.
(Hydrogenated) Vegetable Oils and Margarine
The term vegetable oils is misleading because you can’t extract oil from vegetables. What manufacturers do instead is use high heat or harsh chemicals to extract oils from vegetable seed.
Those oils — including canola oil, safflower oil and grape seed oil — are highly inflammatory because they contain damaged fatty acids and a lot of pro-inflammatory omega-6 fatty acids. My recommendation is to use pastured animal fats (such as tallow, lard or duck fat) and carefully processed fruit oil (such as avocado oil or extra-virgin olive oil).
By the way, I know what you’re thinking and yes — both avocados and olives are fruits, not vegetables. You can also use extra-virgin coconut oil, which is an excellent source of medium-chain triglycerides (MCTs).
Everyone knows that vegetables are healthy, right? As much as I hate to be the bearer of bad news, the truth is that veggies aren’t the superfoods parents want them to be. While it’s true that most veggies are packed with nutrients, including vitamins and minerals, it’s also true that the human body isn’t very good at absorbing the nutrients from plants.
Our Paleolithic ancestors got most of their nutrients from animals, which they ate head-to-toe, including the organs — the best source of nutrients there is. The problem is, most of us don’t eat organ meat as much as we should (if we eat it at all) and so we have to bridge that gap by eating veggies.
When you do, try to stick to veggies that grow above the ground because they generally have fewer carbs than their below-the-ground counterparts. Your preparation method is also a nutritional factor. For example, steamed or boiled sweet potatoes have a lower glycemic index than baked sweet potatoes.
Fun fact: boiled sweet potatoes — despite their higher sugar content — raise your blood glucose levels slower than boiled white potatoes. So if you’re a meat and potatoes person, try sweet potatoes instead of regular potatoes.
Much like veggies, the health benefits of fruits are overrated. Most fruits contain a ton of sugar that raises blood glucose levels just as much as table sugar. So I recommend sticking with fruits that have lower amounts of sugar, including raspberries, strawberries, cantaloupe and watermelon.
Grass is the natural diet of cows. Yet humans started feeding cattle grains so they would gain weight quicker — you should take a clue from that. Meat from grain-fed animals is fatter and thus tastes better. The problem is that feeding cows an unnatural diet negatively impacts the fatty acid composition of the final meat products. In particular, grain-fed meat has a much higher omega-6 to omega-3 ratio than the meat from grass-fed cows.
Why is that important? Omega-3s are anti-inflammatory and omega-6s are pro-inflammatory. So by eating predominantly grain-fed meat, you increase your risk of systemic inflammation in your body.
My recommendation is to eat grass-fed meat when possible, despite its higher price tag.
Dairy, including regular milk and cheese, contains a lot of sugar (lactose) and inflammatory proteins (casein). That’s why I recommend staying away from milk and substituting for it with high-quality alternatives, such as almond milk or coconut milk. Just make sure you pick brands that don’t add sugar or other inflammatory ingredients. For example, Malk is my favorite almond nut milk and you can find it on Amazon or at Whole Foods. As far as cheese is concerned, I recommend aged cheese that has less or only residual amounts of lactose. I also encourage you to pick cheeses that contain a much less-inflammatory version of the protein casein.
Regular cows’ milk has casein beta-A1, which is highly inflammatory. Milk from goats, sheep and camels has casein beta-A2 — the less inflammatory version of that protein. There are also A2 cows, but finding products from those animals in grocery stores is next to impossible.
Thanksgiving and Christmas at The Kummer House
Here at The Kummer house, we celebrate Thanksgiving and Christmas with delicious, home-cooked meals that we often prepare as a family.
To us, eating healthy means enjoying delicious meals that taste as good as (or better than) their traditional counterparts. I’m already looking forward to the pecan pie and peach cobbler my wife makes, both of which are based on recipes from Danielle Walker’s “Celebrations” cookbook.
While all of the meals we cook are free of inflammatory ingredients, some of them — mostly the deserts — contain caloric sweeteners, such as honey, maple syrup or coconut sugar. Those healthier cheat meals constitute exceptions we’re willing to make, considering that we eat a very low-carb paleo diet the rest of the year.
Below are links to a few books we use to cook at home:
– Daniella Walker’s Against All Grain Celebrations
– Against All Grain: Delectable Paleo Recipes to Eat Well & Feel Great
– Fat for Fuel Ketogenic Cookbook
– The Keto Reset Diet
If you just recently jumped onto the healthy eating bandwagon, I encourage you to take the holidays as an opportunity to kickstart and fully commit to your new lifestyle. If you can make it through the tempting time that is the holiday season, I’m convinced you can make it through the rest of the year as well. If you use the tips and tricks from this and the previous article to make adjustments to your eating habits, I’m confident that you’ll achieve long-lasting results.
About the author: Michael Kummer was born and raised in Austria. He speaks German, English, and Spanish. Since moving to the U.S., he has lived and worked in the greater Atlanta area. In his 20s, he was a professional 100-meter sprinter. These days, he’s an avid CrossFitter and an advocate for healthy living on his blog, which reaches over 150,000 monthly readers.
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