Holiday Feast Foods With Surprising Epigenetic Benefits
Enjoying a hearty feast with friends and family is part of the fun over the holidays. Thanksgiving, Christmas, and New Year's meals aren't the time to be ultra-restrictive about your diet, but simply adding a second helping of roasted Brussels sprouts to your plate instead of another candied yam can alter how you feel the next day and beyond.
The food we eat can bring about changes to our epigenome (the chemical tags attached to our genes), making us more or less likely to develop certain diseases. Some foods contain methyl donors, containing nutrients that are involved in methylation, which typically function less efficiently as we age. While scientists are still researching how methylation works, eating foods that are good methyl donors can help reduce your risk of heart disease, Alzheimer's and other age-related diseases. Other foods contain epi-bioactive nutrients, which regulate the modeling of histone proteins within our DNA, potentially lowering one's risk of cancer.
Naturally, some popular holiday entrees and sides have more benefits than others. These holiday foods can help you feel your best in the new year. Or partially counteract some of that pie and ice cream, at least.
Dr. Lucia Aronica is a lecturer at the Stanford Prevention and Research Center within the Stanford University School of Medicine and is an expert on how diet, genetics and epigenetics interact to impact our health and longevity.
Turkey is a staple of most holiday meals, and there are plenty of reasons to love it. It's rich in several nutrients with epigenetic benefits, including the following:
- Methionine, a methyl donor that helps the breakdown of fats so they don't build up in the arteries, and facilitates the removal of heavy metals from the body
- Choline, a methyl donor that improves memory, muscle control and mood
- Vitamin B, a methyl donor that helps support metabolism and the creation of new cells
- Tryptophan, which improves sleep quality and mood
People often think turkey is the reason everyone falls asleep after Thanksgiving dinner, but the real reason is that we've eaten enough to look like Garfield after he's had his way with an entire lasagna.
Another tip from Dr. Lucia: "If you skip the gravy, which is rich in starches and refined carbohydrates, you can avoid spiking your glucose and insulin, gaining additional metabolic benefits."
Obviously, it's better for you if you don't fry the turkey. Here's a healthy holiday turkey recipe.
Salads are often the side dish with the most leftovers at the end of the day, but try breaking the mold and adding at least one heaping scoop of leafy greens to your plate.
Leafy veggies are high in folate, a methyl donor that helps reduce homocysteine, which can damage our blood vessels and increase the risks of plaques. It also promotes heart health and reduces the likelihood of several birth defects, which is why folate or its synthetic form folic acid is one of the key ingredients in prenatal vitamins.
Salads don't have to be boring. This farro and kale salad includes heart-healthy grains, dried cherries and fresh goat cheese, and preparing it only takes a few minutes.
Foods That Are Good Methyl Donors
The details of how certain foods influence our health on a metabolic and genetic level is complex, but knowing the basics of how our food affects us can make it easier to make healthier choices.
Each microscopic element found in our food performs unique actions on a cellular level.
SAM, for example, stands for S-Adenosyl-Methionine. It's used by the body's metabolic pathways to keep cells functioning properly. Methionine is an amino acid needed for a multitude of cellular and biosynthetic functions.
Synthesis is the process by which these important biological components are created. Put simply, foods that contain these ingredients help our bodies to function as they should, providing a protective effect against the influence of environmental factors and aging.
Cranberries are high in corosolic acid, which help regulate histone modifications and prevent cancer. They're often considered a superfood thanks to these properties, plus their ability to reduce inflammation, raise good cholesterol, improve insulin sensitivity and manage blood pressure. Unsweetened cranberry juice also reduces the likelihood of getting a urinary tract infection.
Most cranberry sauce recipes include white sugar, but this one uses Stevia. We recommend tossing in diced pear, apple, unsweetened chopped, dried fruit and chopped nuts for added texture.
Brussels sprouts are often the side dish left behind, but when they're cooked well, they're just as delicious as they are nutritious. Unless you really can't stand them, add a few to your plate.
Brussels sprouts contain sulforaphane, a superhero epi-bioactive, which turns on anti-cancer genes. This is reason enough to gobble down a few. Plus, making them is super easy.
It's not just Brussels sprouts that contain sulforaphane and reduce your risk of developing cancer. Other cruciferous veggies will do the trick too, including broccoli. Broccoli is also high in fiber, antioxidants, and bioactive compounds that lower inflammation.
Broccoli salad is often prepared with mayo, but this recipe swaps the mayo with Greek yogurt. Try it before you turn it down.
Spinach is another side dish that gets a bad rap, but it can be both healthy and delicious. Spinach is high in both betaine, a methyl donor with possible heart and muscle health benefits, and carotenoids, which are powerful antioxidants known to lower the risk of certain cancers and eye diseases.
Usually, spinach dishes are made with cream or mayo, but this healthy spinach artichoke dip is high in protein, lower in sodium, and it's keto-friendly.
Pumpkin is another excellent source of carotenoids, plus vitamin A, vitamin C and vitamin E. Carotenoids have been shown to act as epi-bioactives and support a healthy epigenome.
Pumpkin also has plenty of potassium, which can help manage blood pressure. It's also rich in fiber, which is particularly welcome during a season known for sweet treats laden with refined sugar and dairy products.
We usually think of pumpkin in pie form, but it can easily be used in savory dishes, like this creamy roasted pumpkin soup.
Epi-Bioactives and Their Epigentic Role
Epi-bioactive ingredients work by performing actions in the body that are likely to promote good health. Each ingredient plays a different role, but one of the most common benefits is reducing the likelihood of developing cancer.
Other bioactive compounds cause changes in our epigenome to slow down the negative effects of aging and increase lifespan. Basically, eating foods with these components will help you feel your best, even when you have to check your driver's license to remember how old you're turning.
Garlic Green Beans
Green beans themselves are high in folate, vitamin K and calcium, but if you prepare them with garlic, they have even more epigenetic perks. Garlic contains diallyl sulphide, an epi-bioactive that effectively turns on anti-cancer genes.
The aromatic vegetable, a member of the onion family, also has antimicrobial and anti-inflammatory properties, plus benefits for heart and brain health. The Italians definitely got this one right.
Whip up some perfectly crisp garlic green beans in under 15 minutes.
Drinking any kind of alcohol in excess is bad for your health, but drinking a glass of red wine alongside Christmas appetizers might actually be a good thing. Wine contains resveratrol, an epi-bioactive that may increase the levels of "good" cholesterol and prevent damage to blood vessels.
The only rule here is to go with red wine instead of white, as white wine doesn't come with nearly as many epigenetic perks as a nice pinot noir.
If you're fully committed to keeping your holiday feast a healthy one, skip the cookies, cakes and pie and opt for some rich, silky smooth dark chocolate instead. Extra dark chocolate (85 percent or higher) has polyphenols, flavanols and catechins, epi-bioactives that help slow down epigenetic aging. In fact, cocoa and dark chocolate has more polyphenols than any other fruit, including blueberries and acai berries.
If you're going to try out ultra-dark chocolate, spring for the good stuff. Cheaper brands are more likely to be bitter or grainy, rather than smooth and full.
Dr. Lucia Aronica is a lecturer at the Stanford Prevention and Research Center within the Stanford University School of Medicine and specializes in educating others on how to understand their unique genetic makeup to live their best lifestyle.FamilyMinded is partnering with Dr. Lucia Aronica for health and wellness news. To learn more about how you can take control of your health using science, check out Dr. Lucia's free webinar, her website and YouTube channel.
For more tips on living well all year round, keep reading our previous collaborations with Dr. Lucia Aronica on FamilyMinded: