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The surprising nutritional benefits of Christmas dinner.

The Christmas season is often associated with gluttony and over indulgence - and why not too? It's probably my favourite time of the year, we're all allowed to go a bit wild now and then.

Thankfully, your tale of Christmas nutrition need not be one of bulging eyes matched by expanding waistlines. There are some seasonal staples around at this time of year that have some great hidden health benefits. Make sure you include them in your Christmas food wish list and the Yuletide season need not be as damaging as some will have you believe.

Sprouts of hope

First on the list is the humble brussels sprout. You may groan at the thought of them, but the evidence suggests that brussels are far from the nation's most hated vegetable: over the Christmas period, Britains supermarkets sell almost 650 tonnes per week.

Sprouts have the same chemistry as all of the brassica’s (like cabbage and broccoli) but with super concentrated levels of key nutrients. The most important is the isothiocyanates, a chemical group that has antimutagenic activity. This means they help cells correctly metabolise certain compounds that could otherwise trigger mutations leading to cancer.

Brussels sprouts are also a wonderful source of beta carotene and several important minerals like magnesium.

'Probiotic' parsnip

Next, and one of my firm favourites, is the parsnip. These gorgeous root vegetables are a great food for digestive health.

The power of the parsnip is all down to a large indigestible sugar called an oligosaccharide, which lends the vegetable its distinctive sweet flavour. Oligosaccharide essentially acts as a food source for the good bacteria in the gut, which ferment the compound as they feed on it. During this process, the bacterial colony can grow and strengthen.

During fermentation the bacteria also release beneficial compounds such as butyric acid, which helps to protect the gut from damage.

Red cabbage relaxant

A good helping of spiced balsamic red cabbage will always adorn my Christmas dinner plate. As well as adding an amazing colour contrast to your meal, red cabbage can give your body a nutritional boost.

The deep colour in red cabbage comes from a group of compounds called flavonoids. These have been well studied in recent years, and are known to deliver a broad array of antioxidant and anti-inflammatory activity.

Recent discoveries about the properties of flavonoids by researchers at the University of Reading are particularly interesting. They found that flavonoids can enter the cells that make up the inner lining of our blood vessels. Once inside these cells, they seem to have a slight irritant effect, causing the cells to secrete more of one of their normal products - something called nitric oxide. The main role of nitric oxide is to relax the muscular walls of the blood vessels. As the muscle relaxes, the blood vessels widen, and blood pressure goes down. So, long story short: flavonoid rich foods can have a transient lowering effect upon blood pressure.

Sleep-inducing turkey

This list wouldn't be complete without the inclusion of turkey. Now, whilst it may not be the most exciting meat in the world, turkey does have one very interesting property: it's a rich source of the essential amino acid tryptophan.

Tryptophan is used to create the neurotransmitter serotonin, which then goes on to form another neurotransmitter called melatonin, which helps induce a deep sleep. So eating turkey can help you sleep!

However, one thing you need to remember is that tryptophan rich foods must be consumed with a carbohydrate source, in order to get the amino acid accross the blood brain barrier where it can be converted. Which could explain the post-Christmas dinner coma (I'm sure eating your own bodyweight and drinking a gallon of champagne has nothing to do with it).

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