The holiday season seems to bring on not only cheer and general merriment but an abundance of sweet foods as well. This is the time that most choose to throw away any remnants of a “diet” and indulge until the New Year brings forward a new set of aspirations. If you are sitting among fine company and the jingle of bells suddenly seems replaced by the jingle of guilt-ridden thoughts, remember these equally fine points:
- Winter is a time for nourishment. Ayurveda advocates eating foods which balance the body as it takes on the qualities of the season of your environment. For instance, winter is cold, dry, and depleting. At this time your body needs foods which counter this- sweet foods. Sweet is the taste which is made up of the elements of earth and water, the elements which are the most stable, heavy, and smooth. These qualities are directly opposite to the season of winter and, therefore, balancing.
- Food is medicine. In the west we are generally of the opinion that sugar is “bad for you.” However, in Ayurved, no one food or substance is “bad” or “good”. Every food has its use. Even chili pepper, generally considered to be an irritant, can be used in certain instances for its medicinal properties. Sugar, likewise, has specific qualities which can indicate its use in given circumstances. Additionally, the “unhealthiness” associated with sugar may not so much come from its nature as a food substance as the processing that it undergoes during which time it is laden with chemicals and all of its nutritional value is removed
- Moderation wins the race. Though sugar has often been connected with many a western diseases such as diabetes, it may only be the culprit when your sweet tooth gets the better of you and you use in excess. Also, leaving room (actual, physical room, not just “thought” room) for dessert will ensure that your stomach has space to digest your holiday food. Leaving ¼ of your stomach empty (yes, after dessert, not before) allows digestion to take place properly and gives you energy to enjoy the next day.
If you are looking to make your sugary-sweet holiday a bit healthier, you might try considering a few alternatives which would enable you to keep sugar in moderation while also providing added health benefits:
- Jaggery- Jaggery is likewise a sugar cane product but spared from the same processing as sugar. It contains a surprising amount of nutritional value versus what would be generally expected from sugar: calcium (4-5mg), magnesium (8 mg), potassium (48 mg), and trace amounts of other minerals.
- Honey- There are many different kinds of honey with all sorts of natural flavors from which to choose, depending on the source. Honey offers a number of benefits, being anti-carcinogenic, antibacterial, and an immune-system booster. However, from an Ayurvedic perspective, honey which has been cooked is harmful to the body, causing blockages, while raw honey can be healing and rejuvenating.
- Maple Syrup- A Northeast staple product, maple syrup is a good source of manganese which is a trace mineral important in energy production and antioxidant defense. It also benefits the immune system and the heart due to its zinc and manganese content.
- Stevia- Stevia acts as an antioxidant and is being researched for its use in a number of illnesses and diseases such as high blood pressure and diabetes. However, this is a taste to get used to so try it out first before you make your holiday cookies with it.
- Blackstrap Molasses- Blackstrap molasses (versus regular molasses) has a high manganese, copper, iron, and calcium content, to name a few. Due to its high nutritional value, blackstrap molasses provides many health benefits including increasing energy and ensuring adequate muscle and nerve functioning.
- Medjool Dates- High in fiber, potassium, and manganese, and numerous vitamins, medjool dates ensure heart health and may help to prevent cancer. For instance, consumption has been linked to decreased risk of stroke.
Though these benefits have been explored from a modern biomedicine perspective, it is important to remember that moderation is key. Too much of a good thing can be bad. Food is medicine and it is important not to overdose. Each of these foods have properties just like any other substance. For instance, they are all heating in nature and therefore not ideal to be consistently consumed by people of Pitta constitution or during the summer time. But given that summer is a long way away, that is another story for another day. In the meantime, enjoy your holiday cheer and the sweet tooth that comes with it!