The holiday meals are here! This time of year can be a culinary minefield for chronic pain patients. With all the sugar, extra fat, and many processed foods on the table and given as gifts, inflammation and pain may be the worst “gift” on offer. Never fear; in this edition of Eat This, Not That, we look at easy swaps or switches for your favorite holiday meals.

Holiday meal: Main course

Instead of: Factory-farmed holiday ham

Ham may be a tradition at the holiday table, but many are preserved with nitrates and feature a sticky-sweet brown sugar or fruity, jammy crust. Factory-farmed food is not only harmful to our bodies, but is terrible for the environment.

Try: Organic meat

While a plant-based diet is often recommended for those with chronic pain, it can be difficult to stay vegetarian when cooking dinner for a crowd. If you do plan to serve meat as a main dish, look for organic beef, turkey, or ham. Even better, find those options from a local farmer and support the expensive work of humanely raising and processing animals.

Local Harvest is a great resource to find local farmers and farmer’s markets, or order your organic meat online. Because organic meat is more expensive, follow portion sizes that are reasonable (instead of loading your plate with meat) and offer a variety of fresh, delicious side dishes to round out the meal.

Holiday meal: Sides

Instead of: Green bean casserole

We have all seen this popular side dish: green beans (sometimes canned but usually frozen and occasionally fresh) smothered in canned cream of mushroom soup and topped with French-fried onions and then baked until everything is bubbly. It may taste good, but the preservatives, wheat (in the soup), dairy, and excess sodium can wreak havoc on inflamed joints.

Try: Spicy greens and beans

Mix it up a little by keeping your green beans fresh and lightly steamed, then adding this powerhouse of a side dish. Kale is packed with nutrition, including antioxidants, calcium, iron, and vitamins A, C, and K. Cannellini beans are a great source of protein and fiber, and the capsaicin in the jalapenos and red pepper flakes work to soothe inflammation. For more of a soup, add more stock, or use less stock for a side dish.

Instead of: Mashed white potatoes

They are an indulgent part of a holiday meal for anyone, but they aren’t doing any favors for chronic pain patients. Too much fat, salt, and dairy can leave you feeling overloaded (like the potatoes themselves!).

Try: Mashed sweet potatoes

In perhaps the easiest swap ever, mash sweet potatoes with a dollop of Greek yogurt and some cinnamon and ginger. This easy side dances right on the edge of sweet and savory, managing to satisfy both cravings while being high in antioxidants, fiber, and vitamins A and C.

Holiday meal: Drinks

While alcohol can exacerbate chronic pain and may not be safe in combination with some medications, some patients, in consultation with their doctor, may feel that a drink every now and again is okay. Check with your doctor first.

Instead of: Martini, straight up

Shaken or stirred, olives or a twist, martinis are a glass of pure alcohol. While a crisp cocktail or two may seem harmless, you may feel differently the next morning.

Try: Make your drink “long.”

Nearly any drink can be made “long” (served in a larger highball glass) with the addition of club soda but not extra alcohol. Instead of a straight martini, try a vodka and soda with fresh citrus garnish. The club soda helps to counteract the dehydrating effects of the vodka, and the citrus adds a bit of vitamin C.

Instead of: After-dinner coffee

While the connection is not clear, people with chronic low back pain consume twice as much coffee as those without it. There is no clear evidence that caffeine causes or contributes to low back pain, but it may contribute to poor quality sleep. Adding cream and sugar isn’t doing your chronic pain any favors either.

Try: Green tea with ginger

The antioxidants in green tea help clear the body of free radicals, and the hint of ginger aids in digestion and reduces inflammation. There is a bit of caffeine in green tea, so choose decaffeinated varieties for a more restful sleep later on.

Holiday meal: Dessert

Instead of: Every candy, cookie, and cake you can shove in your mouth

This may be the hardest part of holiday eating. Sweets. They are everywhere. You are surrounded. Eventually, you feel like you might crumble like the proverbial cookie and overindulge, but you know you will feel horrible. And the additional weight gain over the holidays can be traced directly back to one too many snickerdoodles. Is there any way to indulge without increasing pain?

Try: Dark chocolate peppermint bark

For many people, the appearance of peppermint bark on store shelves signals the true beginning of the holidays. While sugar can be inflammatory and should be eaten in moderation, dark chocolate peppermint bark can satisfy your sweet tooth and offer some antioxidant benefit. As a general rule, the higher the cocoa percentage, the less sugar and the more benefit. You may find that you are satisfied with a smaller serving as the cocoa percentage rises. Avoid white and milk chocolate bark, as one is not actually chocolate (white) and the other has minimal, if any, antioxidants (milk chocolate). Use the best-quality dark chocolate you can find, and go easy on the crushed peppermint candy.

This holiday season, what are your best ideas for holiday meals to ease chronic pain?


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