'Tis the season when cheese, butter and pastries are everywhere. And as we celebrate the holidays during the COVID-19 pandemic, it can be hard not to overindulge in unhealthy foods — even if we aren't going to the usual parties or having large gatherings with our loved ones.
But the holidays can actually be a great time to jump-start your New Year's resolution to eat healthy. How? By incorporating the MIND diet into your holiday meals.
The MIND diet blends two heart-healthy diets — DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) and Mediterranean — but focuses on foods that aid in brain health. The MIND diet is rich in vegetables, berries, whole grains, fish, olive oil and nuts but low in red meat, cheese, pastries and sweets.
Research conducted at Rush shows that those who strictly followed the MIND diet lowered their risk of Alzheimer's disease by as much as 53% and delayed cognitive decline by 7.5 years. Even those who followed the guidelines only moderately well lowered their Alzheimer's risk by 35%.
"MIND is about changing your lifestyle, not following a fad diet," says Jennifer Ventrelle, MS, RD, CPT, lead dietitian for the MIND Diet Intervention to Prevent Alzheimer's Disease at Rush. "Because it is a set of guidelines instead of strict rules, the MIND diet allows for special days."
Here, Ventrelle offers seven holiday tips based on MIND diet principles:
1. Keep actual holidays special ...
"I'm a big proponent of saying the actual holidays should be special, and on those days — like Thanksgiving, Christmas, Hanukkah or New Year's Eve — you do not need to make substitutions," Ventrelle says. "Go ahead and eat some of your family's traditional foods."
In fact, preparing family favorites is a good way to feel closer to loved ones if you have to celebrate apart this year.
2. ... but think ahead.
Because the MIND diet calls for limiting— but not eliminating — certain foods, save your weekly allotments of foods to avoid, like red meat and pastries, for the specific holiday days.
For instance, if you typically make prime rib on Christmas Day, count that as one of your three portions of red meat for the week. However, that might mean not having a roast beef sandwich from your favorite restaurant the week before.
The "eat what you want, it's a holiday" mindset doesn't have to extend to the entire holiday season. "Remember, not every day is an actual holiday," Ventrelle says.
3. Pace yourself.
If you are planning to prepare a huge spread as you celebrate at home this year, weigh your options, Ventrelle suggests.
"Because the MIND diet calls for daily servings of vegetables, make a plate with salad and veggies first," she adds. "Fill up a bit on that before you go for the casserole or rolls. And pace yourself. It takes your brain about 20 minutes to realize you've eaten."
4. Plan your holiday meals MINDfully.
Make sure your holiday meal includes options that adhere to MIND diet guidelines.
- Include starters like hummus, which can count for weekly bean portions, or a spinach salad with walnuts, dried cranberries and a balsamic and olive oil dressing.
- Add a bowl of deeply-colored berries — like blueberries — to the dessert offerings. Dark berries are chock full of antioxidants, fiber and vitamins.
- Since poultry is encouraged twice a week, roast a turkey or game hen as the main course. But instead of basting the bird in butter, brush it with extra-virgin olive oil, a MIND diet staple.
- Serve fish, like salmon, as either an appetizer or main course. Fish is on the MIND menu at least once a week..
The 'eat what you want, it's a holiday' mindset doesn't have to extend to the entire holiday season. Not every day is an actual holiday.
6. Banish leftovers
With too many leftovers around, foods to avoid can become too available and easy to eat, Ventrelle says.
Try to prepare or purchase just enough decadent foods for that one day of celebration. It's OK to have an abundance of veggies, poultry or fish, but minimize the amounts of leftover starchy foods and sweets by starting with smaller batches.
7. Be kind to yourself
Remember, it's hard to change your behavior. Allow yourself to ease into the MIND lifestyle as you welcome in the new year.
"All of this self-control is easier said than done, so be patient. Don't beat yourself up if you have a bad day," Ventrelle says. "When your reprimand yourself, that can make you want to give up. Making small changes goes a long way toward helping you achieve your goal."