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The hidden health benefits of your Christmas dinner

From plenty of protein through to heart-friendly fats, we explain how your Christmas meal can boost your health

The hidden health benefits of your Christmas dinner

Many of us are worried about eating too many unhealthy snacks and takeaways this lockdown festive season, as well as the prospect of gaining weight, according to new research from the British Nutrition Foundation.*

But you shouldn’t feel stressed about sitting down and tucking in to your Christmas dinner with all the trimmings.

Christmas isn’t just the culinary highlight of the year for many of us, it’s also packed with a range of health benefits. Read on to find out more.


Find out the best place to buy your turkey and trimmings this Christmas


Turkey

Roast turkey Christmas dinner on the dining table

This traditional Christmas bird is packed with important nutrients: it’s high in protein, B vitamins, selenium, zinc and phosphorus, and is low in fat.

Dietitian Dr Sarah Schenker says: ‘It’s also rich in the amino acid tryptophan – a precursor to feelgood hormone serotonin that makes you feel relaxed and sleepy.’ Which is perfect for Christmas afternoon in front of the TV.

Expert view:

  • The white meat is lowest in fat but is also vitamin rich, ‘so it’s worth fighting over the breast’, says Dr Schenker.
  • Avoid the skin if you’re watching your fat consumption as this is where most of the fat is – even when it’s crispy.

How to cook a turkey crown: our top cooking tips


Potatoes

Roast potatoes - everybody's Christmas dinner favourite

What would Christmas lunch be without roast potatoes? Dr Schenker says: ‘Not only are they delicious, but potatoes contain vitamin C as well as some starch and fibre.’

Two small or one large potato per person is an average serving size for roasts, but as it’s Christmas no one is likely to be counting.

Expert view:

  • Enjoy goose or duck fat as a rare treat ‘Roasting them this way makes them higher in saturated fats than if you used vegetable oil, so really make the most of it at Christmas,’ says Dr Schenker.
  • Use a portion checker like one created by UK potato growers Seasonal Spuds – to work out how many potatoes (and other seasonal veg) you need to help you get it right.
  • Use an air fryer as an alternative way of getting the roast effect without the full fat immersion. Find out the top five air fryers in our lab tests.

The best roast potatoes: find out the best ready made roasties


Brussels sprouts

Love them or hate them, Brussels sprouts are a nutritious Christmas dinner staple

Love them or loathe them, there’s no denying it – this Christmas meal staple is good for you.

Like other cruciferous vegetables, such as cabbage, kale and watercress, sprouts also contain a specific flavonol compound called kaempferol that has both antioxidant and anti-inflammatory properties.

A 2020 study published in the journal Neurology linked flavonols including kaempferol with a 48% decreased risk of developing Alzheimer’s disease, compared with those eating diets with the least flavonol content.

Expert view:

  • Sprouts are a good source of vitamin C, beta-carotene and vitamin K ‘as well as being high in the sort of fibre that helps to stimulate healthy gut bacteria,’ says Dr Schenker.
  • Vitamin K can interfere with how blood thinners like warfarin work, ‘so it’s best to check with your health professional if you want to eat sprouts’, says Dr Schenker.
  • Chuck some chestnuts in with your sprouts to boost nutrients, including folate, fibre and vitamin C levels.

Find out how to cook sprouts perfectly


Carrots

Cooked carrots

Dr Schenker says: ‘With high levels of beta-carotene and other carotenoids including zeaxanthin, carrots have antioxidant properties to help your cells stay healthy, including those in your eyes.’

They also contain the B vitamins biotin and B6, as well as potassium which helps to balance blood pressure.

Expert view:

  • Eat carrots to counteract your salt intake ‘Christmas is a time when we often eat excess sodium from salt in snacks, so the potassium in carrots is a good counterbalance to this,’ says Dr Schenker.
  • Roast carrots in a splash of olive oil to help break down their cell walls in order to release the beta-carotene. The fat will help to aid its absorption, too.

Nuts & nut roast

Nut roast as a vegan centrepiece for Christmas dinner

Dr Schenker says: ‘Nuts are one of the healthiest Christmas foods going. They are rich in essential fatty acids for heart health, vitamins including vitamin E and the B vitamins. They are a good source of vegetarian protein and the husks are high in fibre, too.’

Studies have linked eating nuts with lower rates of cancer risk, especially breast, bowel and prostate.

Expert view:

  • Calorie-wise, you can eat around one third more nuts than you think Dr Schenker says: ‘The calories on the pack are effectively out by about 25 to 30% because 25 to 30% actually don’t get absorbed, unless you chew them into a paste, such as with smooth peanut butter.’
  • Stick to uncoated, unsalted nuts Fresh from the nut-cracker if possible – to avoid bumping up sodium or sugar intake. Choose a selection for maximum nutrient intake, including Brazil nuts for selenium and almonds for a vitamin E boost.
  • Nut roast is higher in calories than turkey ‘Slice for slice it’s also lower in protein,’ says Dr Schenker. However, it’s packed with minerals from nuts, too.

Nut roast and turkey substitutes and pastry pies: we reveal the best vegan Christmas dinner mains


Salmon

Smoked salmon

Dr Schenker says: ‘Whether it’s smoked or fresh, salmon is one of the richest sources of omega-3 long-chain fatty acids – DHA and EPA. These have been shown in studies to decrease the risk of a range of conditions including diabetes and heart disease.’

Salmon is also a great alternative protein source for your Christmas meal, providing ample protein, but less saturated fat than other traditional protein sources such as beef and pork.

Expert view:

  • Smoked salmon is higher in sodium than fresh baked salmon (1184mg per 100g compared with 49mg per 100g). But remember your portion size is likely to be less with smoked salmon than fresh (20 to 40g per serving compared with around 100-120g), so you can still enjoy this festive treat.
  • Don’t forget to factor in saturated fats from pastry if you’re eating salmon en croute or any other pastry-based dish.

Discover Which? Best Buy champagne you should pair with your salmon


Cranberries

Cranberries are rich in nutrients including vitamin C

The strong purply-red colour of cranberries comes from water-soluble pigments called anthocyanins.

These compounds hold a wealth of nutritional powers and are anti-inflammatory and antimicrobial – they have been shown in studies to lower the risk of urinary tract infections by stopping bacteria sticking to the bladder wall.

Research has also shown they have a role to play in the prevention of cardiovascular disease.

Expert view:

  • Make your own cranberry sauce using fresh cranberries ‘Either that or simply crush some fresh ones into your shop-bought sauce to boost vitamin C levels lost during manufacturing,’ says Dr Schenker.
  • Freeze any leftover fresh cranberries that don’t go in your sauce Experts at Michigan State University say that frozen cranberries can retain their quality for eight to 12 months, so you might even be able to use them next Christmas.

Wine

Red wine is rich in polyphenols, which have numerous health benefits

Dr Schenker says: ‘Red wine contains wine polyphenols, including anthocyanins, catechins and resveratrol. These have an antioxidant effect and studies have shown they could help prevent cardiovascular disease.’

Compared with other types of antioxidants, resveratrol can cross the blood-brain barrier, thereby helping to protect the brain and nerve cells, too. It also helps to counteract the formation of blood clots.

Expert view:

  • Alternate wine with water Enjoy wine over the festive season, but do your liver a favour by alternating a glass of wine with a glass of water to accrue health benefits without putting your liver under strain.
  • Know your units.The NHS there’s no ‘safe’ level of alcohol consumption, but drinking less than 14 units of alcohol a week (equivalent to seven medium-sized 175ml glasses of wine) is considered low risk. Use Alcohol Change UK’s unit calculator to check how many units are in a particular drink and how much you’re drinking.

Dried and fresh fruit

Dried fruit, such as figs and dates, are a nutritious alternative to Christmas chocolates

Dried fruits such as dates and figs are high in soluble fruit fibre that is great for feeding good gut flora, as well as helping to prevent constipation.

Although they’re high in sugar, they’re low in fat and also contain some important minerals – for example, a 100g serving of dried figs contains 191mg of calcium, which is more than one quarter of an adult’s daily calcium needs.

Seasonal favourites such as clementines and satsumas are also a nutritious addition to your Christmas eating.

Expert view:

  • Nutrient levels in dried fruit are more concentrated than in fresh This is because it’s dehydrated and as a result it’s more nutrient-dense, so you don’t need much to reap the benefits.
  • Dried fruit counts as one of your five a day and is a good alternative to chocolate ‘Although dried fruit can be calorific, its associated nutritional benefits mean it’s probably a better choice than munching your way through handfuls of Quality Street,’ says Dr Schenker.
  • Put clementines or satsumas within easy reach of guests at Christmas ‘This might be the only fresh fruit or veg they’ll be consuming at this time of year,’ Dr Schenker adds.

Find out the best affordable red wines for Christmas 2020


*Survey of 2,002 adults across Britain in November 2020, conducted by YouGov on behalf of the British Nutrition Foundation (BNF).

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