It's the season for giving, and it's time to think about the gift of health -- or at least some presents that can help friends and family lead a healthier life.
One approach is holiday health baskets. These can be quickly assembled and tailored to your relatives' and friends' waistlines, aching feet or stress levels. Here are some ideas for starters, but don't be afraid to mix and match or throw in your own favorites.
Start with an array of used or new straw baskets, raffia for filler, rolls of cellophane or wrapping paper, and plenty of red and green ribbon for big holiday bows.
A FRUIT BASKET
In a pinch, the fastest, cheapest basket is a bounty of fruit from your local market. The overall health value of fruit is unsurpassed, providing a low-calorie, high-fiber, nutritious breakfast, snack or dessert. Many fruits are rich in antioxidants, the compounds that are believed to combat molecules called "free radicals" that can damage the body's cells. Fruit appears to play a protective role against heart disease, cancer and stroke. National health groups urge Americans to eat five or more servings a day of fruits or vegetables.
* Fill a straw basket with a colorful arrangement that includes apples (80 calories and four grams of fiber in a medium one), pears (about 100 calories and four grams of fiber per Bartlett pear), plums (36 calories and less than one gram of fiber each) and perhaps some vitamin-C-rich citrus, such as a ruby-red Florida grapefruit or two (37 calories and 1.4 grams of fiber each). Add a container of blueberries and some brilliant red pomegranates--both have high levels of antioxidants--or a package of tasty dried cranberries. But go lightly, since dried fruits are a more concentrated source of sugar and calories. (A serving--one-third of a cup--of dried cranberries has 130 calories).
* If you're in a hurry, wrap a five-pound wooden crate of clementines for a quick gift. These small, sweet oranges are a great source of vitamin C and have as little as 40 calories each.
* For far-flung friends and family, consider a catalogue or on-line order from a specialty food company, such as Harry and David (1-800-547-3033 or www.harryanddavid.com) or Mission Orchards (1-800-289-4114 or www.missionorchards.com).
A TEA PARTY BASKET
Novelist Henry James wrote, "There are few hours in life more agreeable than the hour dedicated to the ceremony known as afternoon tea." Now, an added benefit is that tea has been found to be rich in antioxidant compounds called polyphenols.
The evidence of health benefits is strongest for regular or decaffeinated green tea, but black and oolong (a cross between green and black tea) also appear to have high levels of antioxidants. Consumer Reports recommends steeping tea bags in boiled water for at least five minutes to get the most antioxidants. (Instant and bottled teas also have antioxidants, but at lower levels.)
* Start with some popular blends of rich black teas, including the classic English Breakfast or aromatic Earl Grey. Add a soothing and delicate green tea, such as Tazo's Zen Green Tea and Herbal Infusion. The more common Lipton or Bigelow green teas are good, too. Although herbal teas don't have the polyphenols, you might want to throw in some Celestial Seasonings's Lemon Zinger for a caffeine-free option. Decaffeinated brands of black and green tea can also be bedtime beverages.
* To round out the basket, add a silver-plated tea infuser to brew loose tea leaves, dainty tea cups or hearty mugs and perhaps a special teapot. Restoration Hardware has an elegant, silver-plated, stacked Raj teapot of the style designed for service on India-bound steamers (1-800-762-1005 or www.RestorationHardware.com).
* Or order a complete "Afternoon Tea Box" with all the fixings from Harrods, the famed British department store started by a tea merchant in 1849 (1-800-427-7637 or www.harrodsonline.com).
AN INFORMATION BASKET
Information is power, particularly when it comes to taking care of your health. Look for books, magazines or Web sites on health from authoritative institutions or individuals. Stay away from publications promising "cures," "miracles" or other improbable claims. Remember, such propaganda can be hazardous to the reader's health.
* Family health books from academic institutions generally offer sound advice on preventing disease and changing lifestyle, a comprehensive look at common diseases and practical information on everything from first aid to dangerous drug interactions. Many sell for about $40 and have well over 1,000 pages, so you might want to look before you buy. New this year are the "Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide" (Web site www.health.harvard.edu/fhg for free updates); the "American College of Physicians Complete Home Medical Guide"; and "The Johns Hopkins Family Health Book." Old standards are put out by the American Medical Association and Mayo Clinic.
* A reference book on prescription and over-the-counter drugs is a must. One of the most comprehensive is the 1999 edition of "Consumer Reports Complete Drug Reference," a 1,753-page hardcover tome done in cooperation with the United States Pharmacopeia. The "PDR Pocket Guide to Prescription Drugs" is a consumer-friendly paperback version of the authoritative "Physicians Desk Reference." "The Pill Book" is another handy pocketbook reference.
* Print out suggestions of some of the best Internet health sites. A sampling might include www.healthfinder.gov (a definitive entry into the federal government's best health sites); www.intelihealth.com (Johns Hopkins' Web site); www.drkoop.com (a site developed by C. Everett Koop, the former surgeon general); and www.healthatoz.com.
* Add a gift subscription to a health newsletter or magazine, such as the University of California, Berkeley, Wellness Letter (1-800-829-9170); Consumer Reports on Health (1-800-234-2188); The Johns Hopkins Medical Letter Health After 50 (1-800-829-0422) or the Harvard Mental Health Letter (1-800-829-5379).
A WINE AND WATER BASKET
The holidays and the New Year are a traditional time for toasting "to your health." That toast may itself be healthy, as evidence mounts that moderate alcohol consumption may help reduce the risk of several leading killers, including heart disease and stroke.Red wine has received the most attention. But a Harvard School of Public Health study published this month found equal benefit for wine, beer and spirits in reducing the risk of heart attack. The Harvard analysis of about 75 previous studies found that moderate alcohol consumption may help reduce the risk of heart disease by increasing blood levels of the good form of cholesterol (high-density lipoprotein or HDL) and reducing the level of clotting in the blood.
However, too much alcohol can increase the chance of high blood pressure, heart disease and stroke, as well as a host of other problems, from drunk driving accidents to cirrhosis of the liver. Health experts stress that moderation is the key and that nondrinkers, pregnant women or those with a history of alcohol problems should not take up drinking on health grounds. The federal government's official "Dietary Guidelines for Americans" define moderation as no more than one drink per day for women or two drinks per day for men, preferably with meals. A single drink is equivalent to 5 ounces of wine, 1.5 ounces of 80-proof liquor, or a 12-ounce beer.
Complement the wine in the basket with calorie-free, refreshing bottled water. To replace normal water loss, most people need to drink at least eight glasses of water each day, and even more if they are exercising. Consuming alcohol and caffeine may increase the risk of dehydration.
* Start with a bottle or two of red wine. How about a Clos du Bois cabernet sauvignon from California's Sonoma County (about $12 for the '97) or a Napa Valley Markham Merlot (about $20 for the '97)? Ask your local wine or liquor store for suggestions of other wines that fit your budget. Add a bottle of white wine. Consider a California Kendall-Jackson chardonnay (about $15).
* To fill out the basket, add some bottle stoppers to keep the wine fresh (and discourage the impulse for one too many drinks just to finish off the bottle).
* Select some festive sparkling waters, such as San Pellegrino, Perrier or flavored Poland Spring (raspberry lime is nice). Fresh lemons and limes are a tart addition. Throw in a bottle of nonalcoholic sparkling cider for the nondrinkers or children.
A RELAXATION BASKET
While the holidays can be a time of happiness and good cheer, they can also raise stress levels if the demands of decorating, shopping, cooking and entertaining become overwhelming. Holidays also can be depressing for those who have lost a loved one, ended a relationship or are just downright lonely.
A relaxation basket may help warm the mind, body and soul of a relative or friend. Relieving stress will make you feel better now and can perhaps have long-term health benefits. Studies have found that high levels of stress in some people can weaken immune systems and may increase risks of heart disease or other problems. The prospects for this basket are endless. While each of these items may not have a specific health effect, they can contribute to a relaxing day.
* Bath products, whether bubbly, moisturizing or scented, can be nice. Consider a "healing oat bath" from the Self-Care products catalogue (1-800-345-3371 or www.SelfCare.com) or a box of soothing tea bags for the tub filled with lavender, herbs and sea salts (Femail Creations, 1-800-969-2760 or on the Web at www.femailcreations.com).
* Scented body products, from lotions to massage oils, are another quick fix for a stressed-out body. Scented candles (vanilla, cinnamon and pine are good seasonal choices) can provide a soothing effect.
* Portable massagers range from the electric types to the simpler mechanical ones. The store Origins has a Thumb-ease mini-massager that can be used to massage the temples or neck (1-800-ORIGINS or www.origins.com).
* Soothing instrumental music can help reduce stress levels. Buy a Windham Hill sampler of California's New Age music or something classical such as the familiar Pachelbel Canon. Your gift recipients can listen with closed eyes under a soothing gel eye mask.
A WEIGHT WATCHER'S BASKET
Extra pounds gained in the end-of-year holiday food rush inevitably lead to a New Year's resolution to diet. But despite a national preoccupation with weight, Americans of all ages are fatter than ever. Those extra pounds can put them at risk for a host of health problems, including diabetes, high blood pressure, heart disease, stroke, respiratory illnesses and gallbladder disease.
Crash or craze diets tend to promote yo-yo weight loss and gain. Instead, health experts stress the need for a slow but steady long-term weight loss program that involves reducing calories and eating healthful foods that are low in fat and sugar and high in fiber, vitamins and minerals. Regular exercise can help control weight.
Give a "weight-challenged" friend (presumably someone you know really well) a shove in the right direction with a dieter's care package.
* A new scale that combines style with readability may help provide some motivation.
* Forget the hyped diet books. Get a convenient reference book like "The Complete Book of Food Counts" by Corinne T. Netzer, which has in-depth food lists with calories, carbohydrates, protein, sodium, cholesterol, fat and fiber. For balanced information on a confusing subject, you don't have to be a dummy to buy "Nutrition for Dummies" by Carol Ann Rinzler or "Dieting for Dummies" by Jane Kirby for the American Dietetic Association.
* Try "The New American Heart Association Cookbook: 25th Anniversary Edition," which has 600 healthful recipes or "The Mayo Clinic Williams-Sonoma Cookbook," which won the 1999 Julia Child cookbook award for best health and special diet book.
* Add some healthful snack food, such as red and green apples. Include a few snack bars, such as Slim-Fast peanut butter crunch energy snacks (130 calories each).
* Put in a water bottle or a six-pack of Poland Spring.
* Give a subscription to a newsletter such as the Tufts University Health and Nutrition Letter (1-800-274-7581) or a magazine such as Cooking Light, which can be found on the Web at www.cookinglight.com.
* Throw in an incentive for a more active lifestyle--a jump rope, perhaps.
AN EXERCISE BASKET
Exercise is the perfect antidote to holiday-induced stress as well as the flab added by too much sitting and eating. Research suggests that regular and sustained exercise should have a key place in the lifestyle needed to promote short- and long-term health. In the right doses, it can improve lung function, strengthen bones, muscles and joints and combat heart disease, osteoporosis and even some types of cancer.
* A pedometer can help walkers and runners to keep track of mileage. A waist pack that holds a water bottle or two also is helpful.
* Music makes exercise more fun. Buy a lightweight portable radio, tape or CD player for runners and walkers. Swimmers might enjoy a small waterproof radio.
* Inexpensive hand or ankle weights can help build arm or leg strength. A jump rope is a fun aerobic workout. Portable tension bands help in stretching, strengthening and toning. Consider the compact Powerflex tension system or a Mini Stepper with pull-up bars for an upper and lower body workout (SelfCare catalogue, 1-800-345-3371 or www.SelfCare.com).
* Buy an exercise video for at-home workouts. Or look for an easy-to-follow book, such as Bob Anderson's "Stretching" or the new "American Yoga Association's Easy Does It Yoga: The Safe and Gentle Way to Health and Well-Being" by Alice Christensen.
* Choose some appropriate exercise clothing: a college T-shirt or sweat shirt, nylon shorts or warm-up clothes.
A FIRST AID BASKET
The best medicine is prevention--keeping electrical cords out of harm's way, putting poisonous mistletoe out of a toddler's reach, installing a night light in the dark hallway. But since the unexpected may still occur at the worst times, everyone can use a first aid basket to combat emergencies. A trip down the aisles of a pharmacy can give you inspiration. Then organize your offerings in a convenient, easy-to-use storage container like a fishing tackle or sewing box.
* A digital thermometer, as well as fever-reducing medicine such as acetaminophen, aspirin and ibuprofen (these are also good for aches and pains), are essential for every household.
* Other helpful drugs for the medicine chest include antacids for upset stomach; anti-diarrhea medication; a nasal decongestant; hydrocortisone skin cream for itching rash, insect bites or poison ivy; antihistamine for allergic reaction; hydrogen peroxide or other skin cleansers for wound-cleaning; antibiotic ointment.
* For cuts and scrapes, buy a selection of adhesive bandages and pads, sterile gauze pads, rolled gauze, nonstick pads, butterfly bandages and waterproof tape, and consider a small scissors for cutting the tape and other uses. Get elastic bandages for wrapping injured joints and muscles. Add a triangular bandage or cloth for a sling.
* Tweezers have a variety of uses.
* An old-fashioned hot water bottle and an ice bag or disposable ice pack come in handy for a number of small emergencies.
* Syrup of ipecac should be on hand for accidental poisonings in children (not to be administered without a recommendation from a doctor or poison control center) and an emergency eye cup for washing out hazardous chemicals.
* A quick first aid reference chart or manual could be a lifesaving reminder. But first aid certification is crucial. Give a gift certificate to a local course.
A HEALTHY FEET BASKET
The human foot is an "engineering marvel," notes the "Harvard Medical School Family Health Guide." To provide stability, flexibility and mobility, it is equipped with 26 bones, more than 100 ligaments and 19 muscles. But unfortunately feet are one of the first casualties of the holiday shopping season. They ache. They swell. They rub. They rebel against shoes. In fact some shoes, particularly high heels or ill-fitting ones, are a major culprit in foot problems.
Feet can be pampered back into a good health with a little care. For the foot-weary friend or relative, the ultimate luxury is a basket devoted exclusively to this indispensable extremity.
* Electric water-massage foot machines are available from a variety of stores and catalogues. These machines can help soften calluses and ease muscle fatigue.
* Reusable moisturizing gel socks, lined with healing oil and moisturizers, are a great way to repair dry skin; otherwise, buy some soothing, thick foot balm or lotion and some cotton socks for a self-administered version.
* Spa booties can be heated in a microwave to warm tired feet (Inner Balance, 1-800-482-3608 or www.gaiam.com).
* A gift certificate for a foot massage or pedicure offers a welcome post-holiday break.
* A nail care kit is a practical unisex gift. To soften skin, add a Dr. Scholl's beauty stone and some peach-scented rough skin cream from your local pharmacy.
* Look for padded or gel insoles to fit men's and women's shoes.
* Find some warm, comfortable slippers--furry, fuzzy, terry or whatever you might like to have. For a laugh on the mind-body connection, consider some plush Freudian slippers featuring a bespectacled version of you-know-who (Celebration Fantastic, 1-800-CELEBRATE).
A FUN BASKET
Ultimately, laughter is the best medicine. It helps melt away worries and cares. It relieves stress. It brings good cheer. And it can be catching, especially at family or group gatherings over the holidays. Let your imagination run wild as you remember your own favorite toys, games, movies or old television shows.
Sharing a bit of nostalgia is a great way to get the generations in touch, especially when you find something that a 5-year-old and a 75-year-old can actually do together.
* Family games such as bingo, checkers or dominoes are perennial favorites. Card games, from Go Fish to poker, are cheap and fun. Game shows are making a big comeback on television, so it's time to resurrect some old favorites, such as Concentration, Password or Family Feud.
* Brain puzzlers offer a challenging form of entertainment. Look for a Rubik's cube, brain-twisters, crossword puzzles, jigsaw puzzles or a wooden labyrinth. Magic tricks are another challenge.
* Get a video of your favorite comedians: The Three Stooges; Marx Brothers; Peter Sellars's "Pink Panther" movies; Jackie Gleason and "The Honeymooners"; or anything by Lucille Ball. For holiday watching, try "Burns and Allen Christmas," "A Bewitched Christmas" or "I Love Lucy--Classic Christmas Card" (order online from www.amazon.com). And for a light-hearted moment during the holiday frenzy, watch one yourself while you wrap gifts.