When you celebrate Thanksgiving later this week, go easy on the cranberry sauce, gravy and stuffing -- but have an extra serving of turkey and indulge in a handful of nuts.
Why? Because a new study finds that these great-tasting foods can not only help reduce blood pressure and blood cholesterol, but also help increase feelings of fullness and satiety, important for maintaining your weight.
And speaking of maintaining your weight, welcome to the fifth annual Lean Plate Club Holiday Challenge.
For those new to the Holiday Challenge, it's not about dieting or deprivation. In fact, diets often fail during this time of year. So for the next six weeks, the goal is simply to maintain your weight. If you do manage to keep your weight the same, you'll be a step ahead when the new year starts, according to a study by scientists at the National Institutes of Health (NIH).
The study, published in 2000, found that people at a healthy weight put on about a pound during the holidays. But overweight participants -- and let's note that 66 percent of U.S. adults are now overweight or obese -- gain an average of five pounds during the holidays and don't take it off in the spring. Over time, that kind of weight gain could add up fast.
So each week until the new year, the Holiday Challenge will provide tips to help you navigate through one of the most joyous and stressful times of the year without adding unwanted pounds.
But first, back to the latest findings: They point to the importance of boosting lean protein, found in turkey without the skin, low-fat dairy products and healthy fat, such as that found in olive oil and nuts. Published last week in the Journal of the American Medical Association, the study pitted a diet known as DASH (Dietary Approaches to Stop Hypertension) against two similar diets providing either more lean protein or more healthy fat. All three diets were low in sodium and rich in fruit, vegetables and whole grains. They all included low-fat dairy products, lean meat, poultry and fish. As the researchers expected, all three significantly reduced blood pressure and blood cholesterol levels in a group of 164 adults 30 and older.
But the diet highest in lean protein -- 25 percent of total calories, half from vegetable protein -- outperformed the other two in reducing blood pressure and blood cholesterol and kept participants feeling fuller and most satisfied. "This is a way to have a higher-protein diet and do it in a healthy way with some documented benefits," said Lawrence Appel, a professor of medicine at Johns Hopkins School of Medicine in Baltimore and the lead author of the study.
There were different benefits from eating the regimen highest in healthy fat, which included seafood, avocados and nuts. This diet beat the regular DASH diet in controlling blood pressure and outperformed both other diets in maintaining levels of beneficial blood cholesterol -- high density lipoprotein (HDL).
"Here's the evidence for people to pay attention to what they are eating and to make wise choices" based on their particular health needs, said Ed Roccella, coordinator of the National Heart, Lung, and Blood Institute's high blood pressure education program. So if blood pressure control alone is the goal, the high-protein approach is best. But if lowering blood pressure and achieving healthy blood cholesterol levels are both important, then the diet higher in healthy fats is best.
Either way, Roccella said, "it's really nice evidence that people can tailor their diets."
Here are some of the take-home messages from this study and other research to help you enjoy a healthful Thanksgiving. Each week, the Lean Plate Club will provide additional tips to help you make it through the holidays unburdened by additional pounds. Look for more information and printable weight-recording charts and other aids for the Holiday Challenge at www.washingtonpost.com as well as in the free weekly Lean Plate Club e-mail newsletter.
Eat breakfast. It's so easy to get busy stuffing the turkey that you don't take time to have breakfast. But studies show that when you skip the first meal of the day, you're more likely to boost your appetite and overeat later. Plus, there's good evidence to suggest that eating breakfast helps boost your brain power -- and that can come in handy when you're coping with shopping lists and extended family. And breakfast is the meal that most members of the National Weight Control Registry -- a group of some 3,000 successful weight losers -- don't skip.
Make time for activity. Go for a walk daily, even if it's just for 10 minutes. Not only does it help burn a few of those extra calories you consume on Thanksgiving, but it helps alleviate stress. And if bad weather keeps you indoors, just put on some music and dance. Everybody can get into the act.
Plate it. This is a trick of the trade used by chefs tempted to eat their way through the workday. Get a small plate. Fill it with healthy foods. Some possibilities: olives, baby carrots, hummus, slices of sweet red pepper, whole-grain crackers, thin slices of smoked fish or low-fat cheese. Make it food that you like. Eat only from this plate while cooking or doing kitchen duties. When it's gone, well, it's gone.
Indulge in a first course. In fact, have a second course, too. Johns Hopkins's Appel advises to first "pile your plate high with vegetables." They're filled with flavor and fiber and are low in calories. Make your second course soup, preferably a broth rather than high-calorie, cream-based varieties. Both courses will help fill you with fewer calories.
Count to 1,000. As in 1,000 calories for the Thanksgiving meal. That gives you plenty of wiggle room to enjoy the feast without overdoing it.
Save a little room for the holiday treats. Yes, the pecan pie has nuts, which are healthy, but a slice has 450 calories, more than twice the amount found in pumpkin pie, twice the unhealthy saturated fat and twice the sugar. And to be sure that you skip any trans fats that may be in either pie, skip the crust on both pies.
Online chat 1 p.m. today at www.washingtonpost.com; e-mail firstname.lastname@example.org.