When you have a chronic illness, traditional holiday meals can affect how you feel. If you have kidney disease, you may need to watch your protein and salt intake. For other conditions like heart disease or diabetes, you may need to limit refined sugars. Still, other conditions like multiple sclerosis and Parkinson’s disease may require a low-fat, gluten-free diet. Regardless of your condition, navigating the holidays while adhering to your diet can be difficult.
While it may be tempting to abandon your healthy routines around the holidays, doing so would be harmful to your health. Instead, do your best to prepare ahead of time so you can prevent your symptoms from getting worse and have an inclusive holiday meal.
Communication is key for proper preparation. Make sure to tell your host, or if you are the host to notify your guests, of your dietary needs. Hosts may not need to make an entire meal specific to dietary restrictions, but small changes and adjustments here or there can make a huge difference.
Here are a few holiday recipes and meal recommendations for people with chronic illness:
The best appetizers are not usually accommodating for people who follow restrictive diets and are often heavy with cheese, bread and may even be fried. While they may be tasty, dairy, gluten, and foods high in fat can make chronic illness symptoms worse.
Holiday appetizers that make for a delicious, chronic-illness friendly treat are going to be low in carbohydrates and saturated fats, and are gluten and dairy-free. Though it sounds like a hard recipe to find, there are many options out there:
- Vegan Spinach and Artichoke Dip
- Roasted Vegetable Flatbread
- Stuffed Zucchini Boats
- Avocado Egg Salad Phyllo Bites
Another option is to make a charcuterie board with vegan options. Snack boards are always a fun way to add variety and let people sample a few different things without feeling stuffed by the time the main course comes. It’s also an easy way to make sure there is something for everyone to enjoy.
The Main Event
Most meats eaten during the holidays are generally safe and can be tolerated by people with chronic illnesses. Unfortunately, they are usually laden with extras that aren’t well tolerated. When preparing the main event for your holiday dinner, be cautious of adding extra butter, oil, and seasonings that may cause an unwanted reaction for your guest.
An easy way to add flavor to your dish without causing harm to others is by using natural, anti-inflammatory seasonings such as cinnamon, clove, allspice mustard seeds, and garlic. Cinnamon is commonly used in many breakfast dishes and desserts, and it makes for the perfect addition to your holiday ham.
Some benefits of cinnamon are:
- Helps prevent blood sugar fluctuations
- Down-regulates inflammatory cytokines
- Promotes digestion and nutrient absorption
- Alleviates pain
Fruits and natural sugars are a great way to add the perfect amount of sweetness to your meal without making your guests’ blood sugar spike. Apples and pineapple, along with small amounts of honey and natural maple syrup are all ingredients that can add the final touch to your roasted pork loin.
Apples, in particular, have been associated with numerous health benefits like:
- Improve gut health
- Reduced risk of heart disease and metabolic illnesses
- Stronger immune system
- Protects the brain
If you do want to prepare the meat with your traditional seasoning, butter, or oil, simply leave a portion unseasoned for your guest (or yourself). This way there is something everyone can enjoy. And while most meats are generally safe, always be sure to check with your loved one in case they are following a vegan or vegetarian diet. If they are, try one of these festive recipes!
A balanced assortment of side dishes is vital to rounding out your perfect holiday menu. Like many other dishes, they are often loaded with cream, butter, or oil. Research shows that consumption of dairy consumed over time can help prevent multiple chronic diseases including heart disease, certain cancers, and even diabetes. In the study, researchers found that consuming low-fat milk and yogurt can:
- Protect against muscle loss due to aging
- Lower risk of coronary heart disease
- Reduce the risk of type 2 diabetes
- Lower risk of colorectal and bladder cancer
In addition, the studies concluded these types of dairy did not have an inflammatory effect in people who are overweight or obese.
However, dairy included in most holiday side dishes are full fat, which means they are high in saturated fat. Saturated fats are the top contributors to chronic diseases like heart disease, type 2 diabetes, Alzheimer’s disease, and certain types of cancer.
If there are some traditional side dishes you want to keep on your holiday menu, like mashed potatoes or green bean casserole, try swapping full-fat dairy products for their healthier counterparts:
- Low-fat milk for regular milk
- Low-fat cottage cheese for cream cheese
- Greek yogurt or plain low-fat yogurt for sour cream
- Olive oil for butter
- Low-fat cheese or cheese substitute for full-fat cheese
If you are looking for something new, try one of these chronic-illness friendly side dishes:
- Vegan Cauliflower Mashed Potatoes
- Green Bean Almond Gremolata
- Healthy Sweet Potato Casserole
- Ginger-Turmeric Butternut Squash Soup
- Shaved Brussel Sprout Salad with Apples and Dates
The Finishing Touch
What are the holidays without a delicious dessert to end the night? But, traditional desserts are likely going to do some damage, and not just to your waistline. It’s no secret that cookies, cakes, and pies are high in added sugar. Added sugars have been linked to an increased risk of chronic diseases like obesity, cardiovascular disease, diabetes, and cancer, as well as cognitive decline.
High amounts of sugar can overload the liver, which is responsible for sorting carbohydrates and converting excess carbohydrates to fat. Over time, this can cause a greater accumulation of fat which increases the risk of heart and metabolic diseases.
In addition, too much sugar can raise blood pressure and increase chronic inflammation. Both of which are precursors to many chronic illnesses. Excess sugar can cause chronic inflammation by:
- Increasing gut permeability
- Elevating LDL
- Weight Gain
- Excess production of AGEs (advanced glycation end-products)
Instead of using refined white sugar, artificial sweeteners, or refined flour in your desserts, try one of these anti-inflammatory desserts to end your perfect holiday meal:
- No-Bake Turmeric Bars
- Ginger Spice Cookies
- Chocolate Cranberry Mini Cakes
- Vegan Gingerbread Cheesecake
Cooking and eating are a huge part of the holiday that is meant to be enjoyed and bring people together. When you have a chronic illness, it can be tricky to find joy in eating if dishes don’t accommodate your dietary restrictions. Instead of focusing on food, try to remember the true purpose of the holidays – spending time with loved ones and celebrating the joy of the gifts we have received.
If you’re struggling this season, know you are not alone. There are thousands of patients at PatientsLikeMe who understand exactly what you are going through and know how difficult the holidays can be. Join the conversation today to connect with them and learn how they are navigating the holiday season.