From mama’s baked mac and cheese to grandaddy’s famous smoked turkey and ham, indulging during the holidays can mean plate after plate piled with all the fixings. The average person gains one pound during this end-of-the-year season. And according to researchers, this only becomes a problem when that pound is gained year after year.
That’s why Greg Hall, a Clevland, Ohio-based doctor who specializes in the healthcare of African Americans — particularly the prevention and care of obesity-related conditions like high blood pressure, diabetes, heart disease, and stroke — says it’s critical to take advantage of easy ways to manage your health during the holidays (and beyond).
1. That grease pot on the stove? Throw it out.
The infamous grease pot isn’t hard to miss in many Black households. It sits on the back of the stove and whether it’s a cast iron pan or some other pot, it’s filled with old, dark grease that’s been reused time and time again for frying foods… cornmeal-covered fish one day and flour-coated chicken the next… you name it.
As painful as it might be, Hall suggests breaking the habit of reusing old grease. Instead, start with fresh oil during each frying session.
“You probably shouldn’t have a permanent grease holder…because that would mean you’ll be reusing it over and over again,” he told Word In Black in a video interview.
Reusing old grease can come with serious health consequences.
“Every time you use the oil, it degrades into the things that we don’t want it to be, like those little fatty acids that they outlawed. You know, those trans fatty acids,” he says. “There may not be any when you start, but once you’ve used it really over twice, you’ve broken [the fats] down, because heat breaks those fats down.”
Trans fatty acids — also known as trans fat — raise the level of “bad” cholesterol in the blood. The chemical compounds occur naturally in animal products like milk, butter, and meat, but artificial trans fat arises in processed foods during the manufacturing process. Consuming artificial trans fat can lead to heart disease, a major cause of death in the Black community.
The Food and Drug Administration (FDA) deemed trans fats unsafe and banned the fats from being used in food in 2018. However, items like vegetable shortening, canned frosting, and microwavable popcorn may still contain some trans fatty acids.
Fast food fries could also contain trans fat because they’re cooked at high temperatures for long amounts of time. Hall says even if you start with fresh oil, beware of frying foods for long periods of time.
“Your oil should not be hot for more than two hours,” he says. “… The more it’s exposed to heat, the darker it gets, the more it breaks down.”
2. When choosing an oil to cook with, choose wisely.
There are many oils on the market, but they’re not all good for the body depending on how they’re used in the kitchen.
Hall recommends using olive oil when not frying. The oil contains fair amounts of vitamins E and K. And it’s also packed with antioxidants, compounds that can protect the body against heart disease, type 2 diabetes, and cancer.
“Olive oil is a very good oil,” he says. “But you can’t cook everything in. You can’t fry chicken in olive oil or fry fish.”
For frying, Hall suggests using peanut, canola, or corn oil. These oils have high smoke points and are considered good for cooking over medium to high heat.
“Those are good oils to use. And they’re resistant to degradation. That’s why you could probably use it for a couple hours,” he says.
3. Ditch the table salt.
It’s true. Salt is helpful for the body — in moderation. Small amounts of sodium, a chemical in salt, support the nervous system, help contract and relax muscles, and balance water and minerals. The body needs salt to thrive, but too much of it can cause heart issues, high blood pressure, and stroke.
That’s why Hall says to kick the dining room salt shaker to the curb.
“You should not have salt on your table,” he says. “Salt belongs in the cabinet by the stove.”
Additionally, consider that “everybody’s going to cook with a little seasoning,” so “there’s no reason why you should be putting salt on anybody’s food.”
For people living with heart problems, he recommends using salt substitutes when cooking. The products are low-sodium alternatives that taste like salt but are made from potassium chloride, instead of sodium chloride (salt).
Some “salt substitutes” on the market are made from monosodium glutamate, which still carries sodium and “will drive your blood pressure up,” so be mindful of the ingredient list when purchasing.
4. Feeling sleepy after eating? Don’t lie down! Bust a move!
It doesn’t take long for drowsiness to set in after eating a hefty meal. This large amount of food increases blood flow to the stomach — the organ that digests food — while less blood flows to the brain.
And when it comes to turkey, the science says it all. The meat contains L-tryptophan, an amino acid that travels in the blood after leaving the digestive system and later enters the brain. Once it makes it to the brain, L-tryptophan changes into serotonin — a chemical that relaxes the body and regulates sleep.
Before you pass out on the couch after eating the bird and all the other fixings, Hall recommends getting active while your food digests.
“Why not do some line dancing? Or play some kind of a game that involves — not a video game — but something that involves some sort of activity so you can burn some of the calories that you shouldn’t have all consumed [at once],” he says.
Calling everyone into the living room for a round or two of the electric slide could help, or pulling out the cards for an intense game of spades could do the trick.
“If you’re playing anything like how I play, yeah, they’ll be hollering and slobbering and everything,” Hall says.
5. The great debate is over — sweet potato pie is better for you than pumpkin pie.
Hall admits that he’s one of the people that “cannot tell the difference between pumpkin pies and sweet potato pies.” They’re both orange-colored, rimmed with crust, soft, and sweet to taste — but he says the body knows the difference.
Sweet potatoes are naturally sweeter than pumpkins, Hall explains, so sweet potato pies require less sugar than pumpkin pie when making the desserts.
“With sweet potato pie, you’re actually eating sweet potatoes,” Hall says. “You’re getting the nutrition, the fiber — all that stuff associated with the sweet potato.”
However, adding brown sugar, and other measures to a sweet potato pie gives it a similar calorie range as pumpkin pie, he says.
“If you were gonna [bake] your purest sweet potato pie, it’s probably better for you,” he says.
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