The holiday season is known as a time for giving and gaining – weight that is. With food at the center of many family holiday traditions, eating turns into indulging and leads many people to deviate from their normal diets.
Tweaking the holiday menu to be both healthy and appetizing is challenging and adding a vegetarian or a gluten-free relative to the mix complicates the menu even more.
“We eat for a lot of different reasons, and many of those reasons are strongly linked to health. It’s the main reason why all animals eat. But we are also social beings so it is important that we enjoy the wonderful foods and tastes and smells that are around during the holidays,” MSU food science and human nutrition professor Patricia Thurston said.
For supply chain management junior Julia Parks, gluten-free meal items are as common as Christmas cookies at her holiday family gatherings.
“It’s actually easier eating gluten-free during the holidays than it is when I’m at school,” Parks said. “Whenever I’m at home it’s easy because for my entire life my mom has cooked this way with everything gluten free. And even if we go to other family members they usually know, too.”
Parks has Celiac Sprue disease, an intolerance to gluten where ingesting gluten deteriorates her intestines so nutrients cannot be absorbed.
“My grandma had the same disease, so I was tested for it in kindergarten because I couldn’t build muscle. I was really skinny with a stomach that stuck out really far and I was getting sick all the time,” she said.
The genetic disease leads to muscle wasting and forces Parks and others with the disease to follow a strict diet completely abstaining from gluten, an ingredient in everything, from soy sauce to Starbursts.
“More people are being diagnosed with Celiac in recent years and even more people are being found to have a sensitivity to gluten,” Thurston said.
Fortunately many of Parks’ holiday traditions do not involve gluten.
“The main dishes are usually gluten-free, but the desserts are not, but my mom or other family members who are cooking will usually make one special dessert for me,” she said.
While her family makes their holiday food as accommodating as possible for Parks, the holidays also become a showcase of some of the unhealthy foods Parks avoids because they contain gluten.
“It is really hard for certain things like basic sugar cookies with frosting and white cupcakes that I see around a lot during the holidays,” Parks said.
While Parks does miss out on certain menu items there are many that can be substituted to replace what she misses in the ones that contain gluten. Most of the main dishes at Park’s holiday gatherings are gluten-free salads, potatoes, meat and vegetables. Parks says it is easy to eat those things at home because she is assured gluten is not an ingredient while elsewhere it could be incorporated as a binding agent.
“My mom is a great cook she makes elaborate things. At Christmas time she makes tons of batches of cookies—she would make like five or six and two of them would be gluten-free macaroons, but when I was little I would always want to eat the other ones, but I understand how sick it would make me,” Parks said.
According to Thurston, even when a person with Celiac Spur disease feels like they are doing well, splurging could potentially ruin their progress and cause greater health problems. With more people being diagnosed with disease in recent years people have been responding better.
“There is now a gluten-free bakery my family orders from during the holidays, and it’s not just holidays restaurants are developing gluten menus or additions to menus. I was surprised when I went to PF Chang’s they had a gluten-free dessert I could eat and Chili’s had a gluten-free menu,” Parks said.
Maintaining usual eating habits throughout the holiday season is as difficult as it is important. While turning down homemade treats from persistent family members can be difficult, declining the foods they offer is essential when maintaining usual non-holiday season diets.
James Madison junior Kristy Sparks, a vegetarian, similarly struggles remaining healthy and meat free throughout the holidays.
“I personally don’t like meat; I’ve never been a fan. I feel better physically and emotionally when I don’t eat it, but every year the holidays are really hard,” Sparks said.
Sparks’ family is accommodating to her vegetarian lifestyle. With two family members also being vegetarians, she is not the only one around the table avoiding the turkey.
“The vegetarians in my family just mostly eat the sides because one year we had a tofu turkey but we didn’t like it,” Sparks said.
Sparks and her vegetarian relatives have no problem participating fully in the holiday feast, with the exception of specific unforeseen challenges.
“The stuffing is my favorite part of Thanksgiving and this year my cousin Jackie put bacon in it, so I was so bummed I couldn’t eat it. She just married into the family so she didn’t know about us vegetarians,” Sparks said.
With numerous meat-oriented holidays, including Thanksgiving, vegetarians like Sparks learn to improvise while being careful to not make up for their lack of meat in sweets. Although plant based diets do offer multiple health benefits including a reduction in saturated fat intake, vegetarians have to be careful to not overeat other unhealthy foods instead, Thurston said.
Whether gluten-free or vegetarian, the holidays make sticking to pre-season diets a difficult task. However, taking the focus off of food allows you to enjoy the season regardless of what is on your plate.
“Instead of sitting down on the couch after a large meal we will go for a family walk, especially if it’s a sunny day, and remember the holidays are really all about family and friends, not just food,” Thurston said.
Check out one of Julie’s favorite gluten-free dishes:
Julia Parks’ Favorite Gluten-Free Macaroons
1/2 teaspoon salt
2 cups sweetened shredded coconut
4 egg whites
1 teaspoon vanilla extract
1 1/2 cups granulated sugar
1) Heat oven to 350 degrees.
2) Beat egg whites and salt until stiff.
3) Add sugar, a tablespoon at a time, until sugar is dissolved into egg whites.
4) Combine the coconut and vanilla extracts with the egg whites and sugar, but do not beat.
5) Cover cookie sheet with parchment paper and drop by teaspoonful onto paper.
6) Bake for approximately 20 minutes.
7) Allow cookies to cool before removing from sheet and enjoying.