Whether you are taking the Holiday Challenge for the first time or you are a veteran nutritarian, rich holiday foods packed with oils, animal products, white flour, and sugar may look tempting to you. Maybe tempting enough for you to say to yourself “It’s just for today, just this one meal. I’ll go back to my healthy nutritarian diet tomorrow – one unhealthy meal can’t possibly harm me.” Is that true?
Aside from the fact that a single low-nutrient meal may awaken old addictive drives that could then lead to many more low-nutrient meals, a single meal is enough to cause damage to your cardiovascular system. As Dr. Fuhrman mentioned in his recent Twitter chat , there are more cardiac deaths on December 25, 26, and January 1 than any other days of the year.1 This sobering observation suggests that overindulging at a holiday meal can be extremely hazardous to your heart.
First, I’d like to define the phrase “ endothelial function ,” which will be used frequently in this post: The endothelium is a specialized layer of cells that forms the inner lining of all blood vessels. Endothelial cells produce nitric oxide and other substances that regulate blood pressure, maintain balance between pro-thrombotic (blood clotting) and anti-thrombotic mechanisms, and act as a selective barrier between the blood and surrounding tissues. The functions of the endothelium are crucial; endothelial dysfunction is an early event in atherosclerotic plaque development and cardiovascular disease.2
Meat, cheese, and oils. Fifteen years ago, a study reported that eating a high saturated fat, high animal product meal impaired endothelial function for four hours following the meal, and this effect has been confirmed in the literature over and over.3,4 For example, a study presented earlier this year reported the detrimental effects of a sausage, egg and cheese breakfast sandwich on endothelial function.5 In addition to impaired endothelial function, single low-nutrient, high fat meals have been reported to induce insulin resistance, increase circulating adhesion molecules (which allows excess LDL and inflammatory cells to enter the vessel wall – a contributor to atherosclerosis), induce oxidative stress, and deplete the body’s circulating antioxidants.6-8 The detrimental effects of a high saturated fat meal on endothelial function are believed to occur via oxidative stress and activation of pro-inflammatory pathways.4,9 Although most of the studies have focused on high saturated fat meals, there is also evidence that animal protein and excess oils (high in omega-6 fatty acids) may also negatively affect the endothelium and induce oxidative stress.10,11
Bread, pasta, and sugary desserts. For a refresher on some of the harms of added sugar, revisit Dr. Klaper’s post from last year’s Holiday Challenge. In addition to those effects, refined carbohydrate is just as harmful to endothelial function as saturated fat. Refined carbohydrates cause dangerous spikes in blood glucose – repeated spikes over time promote diabetes and other chronic diseases, but what about a single high glycemic meal? Acute hyperglycemia (short term elevated blood glucose after a single refined carbohydrate-rich meal) has been shown to impair endothelial function, promote blood clotting (which increases heart attack risk), induce oxidative stress and deplete circulating antioxidants, increase blood pressure, increase circulating adhesion molecules, impair the body’s ability to fight infection, and decrease blood flow to the heart.7,12-17
Salty snacks , beer, and wine. A single high salt meal impairs endothelial function, just like high saturated fat or high sugar meals, and alcohol magnifies the increase in blood glucose from a refined carbohydrate-rich meal.18,19
When I see a fatty, sugary dessert, I try to think up some scary images to deter myself from indulging – here are some examples:
…and I stick with my G-BOMBS . But that doesn’t mean that I have to choose between excellent health and tasty food. I get the best of both worlds - I enjoy preparing and serving a special dish for the holidays, while sharing health-promoting foods with my friends and family. And if I bring a nutritarian dessert, I don’t have to conjure up scary images of what an unhealthy dessert will do to my body; the nutritarian option is always far more appetizing! For the past few family holidays, I’ve made apple pie, key lime pie , raw chocolate pudding pie, and pumpkin chai ice cream. Trust me – no one missed the sugar, oil, or white flour!
Layered Sweet Potatoes with Rosemary Cream Sauce
1 medium sweet potato
1 small winter squash, such as butternut or dumpling
1 large red onion
16 ounces cremini mushrooms
1.5 cups cooked white beans
2 tablespoons raw tahini or cashew butter
5 cloves garlic
1/3 cup nutritional yeast
1 cup water
2 teaspoons dried rosemary (or 1-2 Tablespoons fresh rosemary)
1/2 teaspoon dried sage
1/4 teaspoon black pepper
1. Preheat oven to 350 F
2. Slice the sweet potato, squash, red onion, and mushrooms thinly (preferably with a mandoline).
3. Combine the remaining ingredients in a high-power blender and blend until creamy.
4. Spread a thin layer of rosemary cream sauce on the bottom of a 9x13 pan.
5. Layer one-third of each ingredient, and repeat to make three layers.
6. Bake at 350 for 40 minutes, then turn down heat to 300 and bake an additional 30 minutes.
1. Kloner RA. The "Merry Christmas Coronary" and "Happy New Year Heart Attack" phenomenon. Circulation 2004;110:3744-3745.