Christmas can be a time of overindulgence – but several of our favourite festive foods have impressive health benefits, says nutritionist Rob Hobson.
The whirlwind of social engagements over the festive season can take their toll on our waistlines as well as our health – but this time of year also offers an abundance of nutritious seasonal food to support our health.
This is even true of the traditional Christmas dinner, from roasted turkey to the array of winter vegetables (beetroot, Brussels sprouts, parsnips, turnips, swede, kale, Jerusalem artichokes, and purple sprouting broccoli are all in season.)
From easy ingredient swaps to cooking tips, here's how to get the maximum nutritional value from one of the nation's favourite meals of the year.
There are many food swaps you can make to ensure your Christmas dinner is a healthy one – but it's also about how you cook your food.
These tips will increase the health benefits of your Christmas dinner, while still maintaining plenty of delicious flavour.
- Choose olive oil over goose fat for your roast potatoes
- Serve low-fat Greek yoghurt or crème fraiche instead of cream with your Christmas desserts
- Ditch the bacon on your sprouts for garlic, chilli and olive oil
- Choose just the turkey crown for a leaner cut of meat
- Skim the fat off your gravy
- Make healthy stuffing balls using wholemeal bread, dried fruit and nuts
What are the health benefits of your Christmas dinner?
From sprouts and potatoes to aromatic Christmas spices, here's the nutritional breakdown of some of our favourite Christmas foods.
Good source of: potassium and vitamins B1, B6, C, K and folate
The most infamous Christmas vegetable, Brussels sprouts are rich in many nutrients, including folate which is required for healthy red blood cells.
How to use leftovers
Brussels sprouts can be used with other veggies to make breakfast hash cakes topped with poached eggs for Boxing Day.
They can also be eaten raw and work well finely shredded in salads, combined with leftover turkey and clementine segments.
Vegetables like Brussels sprouts can leave you feeling bloated and windy after Christmas lunch. Try drinking mint tea to ease the bloating (but not if you also suffer from indigestion.)
Good source of: fibre, potassium, vitamins B6, C and folate
No Christmas dinner is complete with a roast potato or two. These root vegetables are a good source of fibre, especially if you eat the skin.
They also contain high amounts of the antioxidant vitamin C, which is good for immunity and healthy skin. You can preserve the vitamin C content by avoiding soaking your potatoes before cooking them.
Potatoes are also a good source of potassium, which is essential for healthy blood pressure. For something different and slightly more beneficial, switch to sweet potato mash, which is rich in the antioxidant compound beta carotene.
How to use leftovers
Leftover potatoes can be mashed with leftover root vegetables and greens to create patties for breakfast the following day, which you can serve with a poached egg.
Roast turkey takes centre stage on many Christmas dinner tables – and not just because it's tasty.
Turkey is a source of lean protein (which helps with the growth and repair of the body's tissues) and tryptophan, an amino acid which is taken up into the brain to make the hormone serotonin. As well as influencing mood, serotonin is also involved in melatonin synthesis, which helps regulate the sleep / wake cycle.
How to use leftovers
In many instances, plenty of turkey is left, which can be used to make curries, salads, stews, and soups (my favourite leftover dish is nasi goreng, a fried rice dish.)
Good source of: fibre, magnesium, potassium and vitamin B6
This classic nut is another food that most people only eat at Christmas, often in stuffing, fried with the sprouts, or roasted in the oven.
Chestnuts have the lowest fat content of all nut varieties. They are also a good source of magnesium, often referred to as a natural relaxant, as it is involved in muscle contraction. Low intakes have also been associated with increased anxiety.
These nuts are also rich in the fibre that helps to maintain good digestion and cholesterol levels, and reduces the risk of heart disease.
Good source of: vitamin C and antioxidant polyphenols
Cranberries are far too tart to eat alone, which is why they are made into a sauce with sugar and spices. Shop-bought cranberry sauce is often high in sugar, so it's usually better to make your own.
The best thing about cranberries is that they are high in vitamin C and antioxidant polyphenols that may help to reduce the risk of heart disease by preventing platelet build-up and lowering blood pressure.
There are healthier ways to enjoy your Christmas favourites. Check out nutritionist Rob Hobson's healthier Christmas snacks.
Good source of: fibre, omega 3, iron, magnesium, potassium and vitamins B1, B6, E and folate
A popular snack over Christmas and often included in stuffing to serve with the turkey, walnuts are a great Christmas food.
They are rich in heart-healthy monounsaturated fats that help reduce LDL (harmful) cholesterol levels and increase HDL (good) cholesterol. These nuts are also rich in the omega-3 fatty acid alpha-linolenic acid, and are a valuable source of these essential fats for people who don't eat oily fish.
Good source of: calcium and iron
Nothing smells more like Christmas than cinnamon, which is normally used alongside cloves and nutmeg.
This spice is a valuable source of calcium and iron, which are required for good immunity and healthy red blood cell production. Research suggests that this spice may also help to lower blood sugar levels.
Cinnamon can be added to puddings and festive drinks such as eggnog or an apple martini.
Good source of: calcium, iron, magnesium and potassium
Dried fruit has fallen out of favour at Christmas, but adding a little to your diet in place of some chocolate is a good Christmas health hack.
Dried fruits such as apricots, figs, and cranberries are good sources of essential minerals, including potassium, iron, calcium, and magnesium. Together, these nutrients help to support many different areas of health, including immunity, red blood cell production, energy metabolism, and bone health.
Aside from snacking, dried fruit can also be used in Christmas stuffing, vegetarian roasts, and Christmas pudding.
How to use leftovers
To make a tasty boxing day salad, you can combine dried fruits with leftover turkey and shredded seasonal vegetables such as Brussels sprouts, beetroot, and kale.
Dark leafy greens
Good source of: calcium, iron, potassium and vitamins A, B6, C, E, K and folate
Dark green leafy vegetables are some of the healthiest on offer, especially kale and other varieties of cabbage. Kale excels on the nutrient front, so is well worth including on your Christmas dinner plate.
If boiled kale doesn't float your boat, then try using it raw and shredded in winter salads, stir-fried alongside leftover shredded turkey, or slow-roasted in the oven to make kale chips. Seasoned with spices such as smoked paprika, kale chips can be served as a healthier snack during the festive season.