Holiday Gift Guide
Is your holiday gift list stumping you? The holidays are quickly approaching and it seems like each year they creep up with little warning, leaving me stressed about gift ideas (and often at the eleventh hour)! If you have a busy schedule, thinking about what to get your family and friends this holiday season can sometimes seem less joyous and more hectic, which is not what these gifts (or the holidays) should be about!! I rounded up some of my favorite go-to gift ideas to make the holidays a little less stressful. I added homemade gifts from the heart, as well as options for a larger budget so you can find that perfect gift that fits your lifestyle and shows your loved ones how much you care, no matter your financial situation. Plus, each gift idea keeps health and wellness in mind, because really, what better gift is there than the gift of health?
A class pack for their favorite fitness studio
A lot of fitness studios run specials this time of year, allowing this often pricey gift to be more budget-friendly. Some of my favorites include Pure Barre, Soul Cycle and Exhale! This can fit a range of budgets depending on the studio and the amount of classes you choose to purchase.
A new workout outfit
Sometimes motivation comes from within, and sometimes it comes from extrinsic factors, like being able to wear a new workout outfit! Also, for your fitness-minded friend, there’s a good chance s/he lives in activewear (athleisure, anyone??) and would love an extra outfit as a gift! Make this gift big (a whole ensemble, or a few!) or small (a headband, barre socks, a simple tank, etc.) based on your budget.
A gift card for their favorite activewear store (or any store, for that matter)
If you are unsure of their size or style, simply giving a gift card to their favorite store is an easy way to brighten their spirits, so they have some spending money to put toward something they love. Also, if your friend is a fitness instructor, they may receive a discount at some activewear stores, so they would probably prefer to utilize their discount and pick out an outfit that’s perfect for them! Even if they aren’t a fitness fanatic, this gift works well for those beginning on their fitness or health journey, so they can pick out a fun outfit for them to begin to reach their goals.
A homemade treat
I believe that food is love, and what better way to show someone you love them than to cook or bake a treat from the heart? One of my favorite baked goods to gift is my goji berry chocolate bark with roasted walnuts and white chocolate drizzle– for a sweet holiday treat with some health benefits (and it’s delicious, colorful, and so easy to package either in a mason jar or with a bag and a ribbon)!
For your friend who is also a chef (or is at least trying to navigate the kitchen better), a cookbook is always a heartfelt gift. It’s one of my favorite gifts to give, because it often adds to someone’s home decor (on a coffee table or in a kitchen hutch) and is so useful. Plus, your foodie friend will find it so thoughtful, and it can be personalized by choosing a book that matches their goals or interests.
This popular fashion accessory is also a great tool for fitness motivation and is perfect for your tech savvy friend (or even your not-so-tech-savvy friend, since it’s so user friendly)! Plus, there are so many cute styles since the first generation, so there’s sure to be one that fits your friend’s style.
A gift card to their favorite restaurant or a wine tasting event
I love this idea because it focuses on an experience rather than a material item and it also gives this person something to look forward to after the holiday season. This can be budget-friendly or pricey depending on your gifting needs, but it’s always a thoughtful gift!
There are so many fun headphones on the market now, and this gadget is a fitness lovers’ best friend, especially if they enjoy running or hitting the gym over studio classes. This is a gift they will utilize everyday and there are so many great options within a reasonable price range. My favorite are the beats wireless headphones – they stay in my ears throughout a tough sweat sesh, they don’t get tangled or hinder my running – plus, there are so many fun colors!
A spa treatment
The holidays are stressful – a massage, a mani/pedi or a facial helps to combat holiday (or post-holiday) stress and give your friend/family member some quality “me time” to enjoy at their leisure. You can usually purchase a gift card for either a specific service, or a specified amount – just be sure to include gratuity in your total!
An at-home spa gift basket
This is probably one of my personal favorite gifts to receive, because there is nothing I love more than lotions, scrubs, face masks and other beauty goodies! I like to pick and choose each item and put together my own gift basket to fit the person best. Lush is one of my favorite stores for this type of gift, and I’ve also been known to shop at local farmer’s markets and pick up body lotions made with essential oils and other feel-good beauty products. For a pricier item, Diptyque also has some amazing skin products and their famous candles are the perfect addition to round out any gift!
A kitchen gadget
Whether you gift a Nutribullet, another high-quality blender, an immersion blender, a juicer, a coffee gadget, or a gift basket that combines a few of these ideas, your foodie loving friend will likely be so excited to use their new kitchen gadget. This gift can also fit budgets large and small depending on what you choose. One of my favorite recent gifts is my Nespresso milk frother – its about $100 and allows me to make latte-style coffee and tea drinks in about 30 seconds, so I use it every morning! Plus, you only need to use about 1/4 C milk or milk substitute to create a creamy coffee.
Wishing everyone a wonderful holiday season and a healthy, happy New Year!
Thankful for Health
Thanksgiving is my favorite holiday – being surrounded by family, friends and food and acknowledging the many things for which we are thankful. While it’s okay to indulge (it is a holiday, after all), it’s important to be thankful for our health, our ability to reach this season, and treat our bodies well so that they can continue to care for us. This year, I have a lot to be thankful for! I’m thankful for my fiancé, who keeps me strong, challenges me and loves me unconditionally. I’m also thankful for the fact that I’ll be gaining an additional family in a few short months, and thankful for my own family who has always supported me, through college and grad school, my initial endeavors as a dietitian, and always playing the role of guinea pig when I want to try out a new recipe! I’m thankful for my new home in Florida, all of my new friends, my old friends who continue to stay close regardless of being miles apart, and the ability to do what I love everyday.
I’m also thankful for my attitude toward food, as I’m aware that it does not come easy to many people, and it didn’t always come easy to me, either. Food should be enjoyed, not villainized, and celebrated for all that it can do for us, and we should aim to choose foods that will provide nutrition, as well as joy. In the midst of casseroles, cookies and pies, it can be difficult to navigate the Thanksgiving table with health in mind. Below are some tips so that you can eat your turkey (and pie), and enjoy it too!
- Start your day with some physical activity. Most of us consume more calories on Thanksgiving than on an average day, so burning some extra calories will help to offset the caloric intake to come. Also, exercise can allow you to burn some additional calories following your workout, although this amount is often small.
- Focus on veggies. That may seem difficult on Turkey Day, but there are so many seasonal veggies to choose from right now and they’ll help you to fill up with fiber, water and give you a good dose of vitamins and minerals! Some in-season veggies to consider making the star of the show include Brussels sprouts, kale, winter squash, cauliflower and cabbage. My favorite Brussels sprouts recipe is just as tasty as it is pretty!
- Turkey is a relatively lean protein, especially if you choose the breast meat (white meat). If you’re a turkey lover, feel free to enjoy the festive protein, keeping in mind that one 3 oz serving of poultry is approximately the size of a deck of cards.
- Stay hydrated. Drinking a glass of water and choosing foods that contain large amounts of water (like fruits and vegetables) can help you to feel more full, which means you may indulge less and keep portions reasonable. Also, if you’re drinking alcohol, make sure to alternate each drink with water and skip any high-sugar mixers.
- Choose whole grains over refined grains for side dishes. Try a recipe that features farro or quinoa (okay, so quinoa is technically a seed, but it’s consistency and properties are similar to a whole grain) for increased protein and fiber! Farro is my favorite, with a hearty, chewy texture that stands up to sauces and is also great on it’s own with some oil and veggies.
- Consider serving a veggie-based soup before the meal, such as my pureed roasted cauliflower soup. This seasonal soup tastes creamy and hearty, but it’s relatively low in calories and will fill you up so you don’t overdo it during the main event.
- Go for an evening stroll with some guests after dinner, which can help to stabilize blood sugar levels and add to your overall step count that day.
- Don’t be fooled by desserts with a health halo – an avocado brownie is still a brownie, although it is likely to be a better alternative since it will have increased monounsaturated fatty acids, vitamins, minerals and fiber. Even if you offer some “healthified” dessert options, keep portions in check. Interested in sampling a few desserts because there are so many great options? Take small portions of a few and choose your favorite to possibly indulge in a larger piece. My favorite fall dessert? Pumpkin pie! Enjoy my favorite recipe here. More into chocolate? My chocolate goji bark is always a crowd pleaser!
Setting the Record Straight on Coconut Oil
Recently, the wellness community has been up in arms over the presidential advisory released by the American Heart Association (AHA) – it turns out coconut oil may not be the wellness superstar many people thought. The AHA advised that people limit sources of saturated fat, including coconut oil, because it may increase the risk of developing heart disease. However, the funny thing is – the news that sparked headlines and shook up the wellness community wasn’t really news at all.
Coconut oil is known to be a source of saturated fat. While it has been recommended for a long time to limit sources of saturated fat, the issue isn’t necessarily so clear cut. The AHA recommends limiting saturated fat to 6% or less of one’s daily caloric intake. Typically, it is recommended to consume approximately 30% of one’s calories from fat, meaning over 20% of fat consumed should be in the polyunsaturated and monounsaturated forms (although individual recommendations may vary). While saturated fat isn’t necessarily all bad (it does raise HDL cholesterol – the “good” kind of cholesterol, and we do need some in our diet because it plays an important role in the structural component of cells), it should be consumed in moderation, since it also increases LDL (the “bad” cholesterol) and has been linked to an increased risk of heart disease. Diets rich in monounsaturated fatty acids and polyunsaturated fatty acids are typically referred to as “heart-healthy” due to the cardio protective effect of these fats (for example: the Mediterranean style diet, which emphasizes leafy green vegetables, fruits, nuts, seeds, fish and olive oil).
Coconut oil is touted to be helpful for weight management, digestive woes and everything in between. It’s known for it’s medium chain triglycerides (MCTs), which are digested and absorbed differently than other fats. MCTs are absorbed quickly and bypass the long process typically required to break down and absorb fats, so they may be used clinically for patients who have malabsorption and have even been used as an ergogenic aid for athletes due to it’s perceived quick energy. However, the research that supports the use of MCT oil typically has used an oil that is far more rich in MCTs than traditional coconut oil. While coconut oil contains more MCTs than many other oils, it is not pure MCT oil. Additionally, the link between coconut oil and weight loss is not causative – that is, we do not have any evidence that proves that increasing coconut oil intake causes weight loss. There are many confounding variables that prevent this conclusion from being drawn. It is most likely that people who start using coconut oil and lose weight do so because they are
a) making many other dietary and lifestyle changes, as well
b) feeling satiated from the calories provided by the coconut oil, which can also be provided by other fat and food sources, and possibly limiting their overall caloric intake, which can aid in weight loss.
So, to consume coconut oil or not consume coconut oil – that is the question. Coconut oil is one type of many oils that can be incorporated into an overall healthy diet. In moderation, it can certainly be enjoyed. However, do I recommend loading it up in all of your meals, snacks and coffee? No.
So, unless you plan to lather it all over your body and hair, enjoy it in moderation .
Will Going Gluten Free Cause Weight Loss?
We all know someone who “lost weight when they went gluten free”, so you should probably try it too, right? Not so fast. In order to understand this complex topic, we should first understand some gluten basics. First of all, what is gluten? Is it a carbohydrate?
Nope! Gluten is actually a protein that is found in wheat, barley and rye. Gluten may also be found in many foods that you may not think of (it’s often found in gravies, deli meats, cream sauces, you name it). This is because gluten has an important role in food chemistry – it is responsible for the elasticity of dough. Remember this, because we will get back to this fact later. But first…
Will You Benefit From Going Gluten Free?
The answer is not so clear. It used to be thought that someone should only go gluten free if they have Celiac Disease (also known as nontropical sprue), but now we know there are other individuals who may benefit from eliminating gluten from their diet. For example, non-celiac wheat sensitivity has now been demonstrated as a sensitivity associated with gluten or possibly another compound found in wheat. Since avoiding gluten inherently means avoiding wheat, this is likely to be an effective diet for these individuals. Also, some people may eliminate gluten (mostly – there are some exceptions) as part of the Low FODMAP diet, a widely accepted diet used for the symptom management of irritable bowel syndrome (IBS). However, if you do not have a gluten sensitivity or a condition that requires you to avoid gluten, you may want to think twice before eliminating gluten from your diet. A large, recent study1 revealed individuals without celiac disease who followed a gluten free diet were at an increased risk for developing heart disease. The researchers concluded that this was likely due to these individuals eating too few whole grains while following a gluten free diet. Whole grains are important for a lot of reasons, one of which is fiber. (Note: it is certainly possible to get enough fiber on a gluten free diet – but it is best to work with a registered dietitian to learn about gluten free sources of fiber and ensure that you are consuming enough fiber in your diet).
So Why May People Lose Weight When They Avoid Gluten?
It is most likely that many people avoiding gluten are losing weight because they are consuming less processed food than they were before they cut out gluten. Fruits and vegetables are naturally gluten free, as are nuts and seeds, legumes and animal protein sources, such as eggs, fish, poultry and meat. So if people cut out foods like excessive bagels, breads, pasta, pizza, doughnuts and other calorie-laden foods that happen to contain gluten, and consume more of these naturally gluten free foods, they will likely lose weight.
Also, it is widely accepted that consuming fewer carbs will likely result in weight loss. Now, before you start that low-carb diet, let’s get sidetracked for a minute – while research demonstrates a low carbohydrate diet may result in weight loss, this method of weight loss is:
a) unlikely to be sustainable (i.e. you may gain the weight back, because most people are unlikely to eat so few carbs for the rest of their lives)
b) some of the weight lost is likely to be water weight. This is because we store glucose (the simple sugar that carbohydrates are broken down into) in the form of glycogen, which holds 3 grams of water for every 1 gram of glycogen. That’s a lot of water! So remember that the next time you eliminate carbs for a week and drop a few pounds – it’s not necessarily promoting changes in body composition (i.e. altering proportions of fat and muscle within your body).
But we digress – back to losing weight while choosing unprocessed forms of gluten free foods (i.e. foods that are inherently gluten free). The confusing thing about going “gluten free” is it is acceptable on a gluten free diet to eat processed foods that are certified gluten free. This is great for someone who needs to avoid gluten due to medical reasons – it means they have food options just like everyone else. But, remember the role of gluten in food chemistry – it is responsible for the elasticity of dough. So basically, when gluten is removed from a food that typically contains gluten, that food is likely to taste like the cardboard package it comes in. That is why fat or sugar (or both) are typically added to “gluten free” packaged foods – these ingredients will soften the food. They will also replace a protein (typically recommended in increased quantities for weight loss) with a source of fat (higher in calories per gram than both carbs and protein) or sugar (that food so many people are trying to limit nowadays) – or both!
Bottom line? If you are going gluten free and focusing on more whole foods such as fruits, vegetables, nuts, seeds, legumes and protein such as eggs, lean meat, poultry and fish – great, you are adapting an overall healthy lifestyle and are likely to lose weight along the way. Just please make sure to consume gluten free sources of fiber-filled carbohydrates, such as brown rice or quinoa. But if you are replacing your bagels with gluten free bagels, don’t expect those pounds to drop so soon. Gluten itself is not likely to be hindering weight loss goals. In fact, there are many foods that do contain gluten (such as farro or whole wheat sprouted bread) that are recommended as a part of an overall healthy, balanced diet. And these foods contain fiber and protein to boot – which IS associated with weight loss.
- Lebwohl B, Cao Y, Zong G, et al. Long Term Gluten Consumption in Adults Without Celiac Disease and Risk of Coronary Heart Disease: Prospective Cohort Study. BMJ. 2017;357:j1892. doi: 10.1136/bmj.j1892.
Homemade Chicken Chili
This chili recipe takes less than hour to make and is packed with protein and fiber to keep you feeling full. This spicy dish is the perfect, cozy, winter dinner – I like to double the recipe on a lazy Sunday so that I have extra for the busy week ahead. This is also delicious with my homemade guacamole!
Ingredients (serves 4):
1 lb ground chicken breast
1 medium onion, chopped
1 green bell pepper, chopped
1 clove garlic, minced
2 Tbsp olive oil
2 C chicken stock
1 can cannellini beans, rinsed and drained
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
1 tsp cumin
1 tsp chili powder
1 tsp chipotle powder
1/2 tsp oregano
- Warm 1 Tbsp olive oil in a large pot over medium heat. Add chicken and season with ground black pepper and 1/4 tsp salt. Cook until chicken is cooked through, stirring occasionally, approximately 10 minutes.
- Once cooked, transfer chicken into a large bowl and set aside. Warm remaining olive oil in the pot and add onion and pepper. Sauté until soft, about 5-7 minutes.
- Add garlic and sauté another 1-2 minutes.
- Add cooked chicken and sauté another 2-3 minutes, stirring occasionally until chicken and vegetables are slightly browned.
- Pat beans dry and add to pot. Add broth and spices (cumin, chili powder, chipotle, oregano and remaining salt) and stir all ingredients together.
- Raise to high heat and bring to a boil. Once boiling, cover and leave lid slightly off balance. Allow chili to boil for about 5 minutes, then lower to medium heat and cook for another 10-15 minutes, allowing chili to thicken. Enjoy!
The Goods: What’s Inside?
Calories 353 calories, Total Fat 19 g, Saturated Fat 1 g, Cholesterol 0 mg, Carbohydrates 19 g, Fiber 5 g, Protein 26 g, Sodium 476 mg, Calcium 47 mg
Baked Spinach Artichoke Protein Pasta
Meal Prep is easiest when you can make a large batch of one thing that can last through the beginning of a crazy week. One of my favorite foods to prep in advance is pasta – it’s always great warmed up and holds up well in the fridge or the freezer. This recipe was originally presented at a Culinary Workshop class I recently helped to lead, and I adapted it, pumped up the protein with legume-based pasta and Greek yogurt and used my Skinny Spinach Artichoke Dip as a base to make it my own. The result was creamy, spinach artichoke deliciousness – and a ton of leftovers – perfect for a busy week ahead!
Ingredients (Serves 8):
8 oz legume-based pasta, dry (I used Banza pasta- a chickpea pasta with added pea protein!)
1 medium onion, chopped
1 large garlic clove, minced
1 Tbsp olive oil
1 1/2 C plain, 2% Greek yogurt
2 Tbsp all purpose flour
1/2 C parmesan cheese, grated
3/4 C part-skim mozzarella, shredded
2 Tbsp smoked paprika
2 tsp garlic powder
1 can (about 15 oz) artichoke hearts, drained well (if salted, rinse and drain to remove excess sodium)
3 Cups frozen, chopped spinach, thawed
1/4 C low sodium vegetable broth
1/2 tsp ground black pepper
Nonstick oil cooking spray
- Bring a large pot of water to boil (add a dash of salt if desired).
- Preheat oven to 350 degrees Fahrenheit.
- While water is boiling, squeeze out any excess water from the spinach and artichokes (they must be dry before adding to recipe). Set aside.
- Heat oil in medium-sized skillet over medium heat. Add onion, stir and sauté for about 4-5 minutes. Add minced garlic, stir, and sauté for another 2-3 minutes. Remove from heat and set aside.
- Add pasta to boiled water and cook according to directions on package, stirring occasionally. Watch the pasta closely, as many legume-based pastas can get mushy quickly! Be careful not to overcook.
- In a large mixing bowl, combine yogurt, flour, spices (paprika, garlic powder, ground black pepper), parmesan cheese and about 1/4 of the mozzarella cheese. Add spinach, artichokes, onion/garlic mixture and vegetable broth and stir until ingredients are well combined.
- Once pasta is cooked, drain in a colander and add to mixing bowl. Stir all ingredients until pasta is coated well with yogurt mixture.
- Spray a casserole dish (9 x 13 inches) with nonstick cooking spray, add pasta and yogurt mixture to dish and spread evenly with a spoon or spatula. Bake in the oven for 25 minutes. After 25 minutes, remove from oven, add the remaining mozzarella cheese on top of the pasta and bake for another 5-10 minutes, until cheese is melted. Serve and enjoy!
The Goods: What’s Inside?
Nutritional Analysis Per Serving: Calories 262 calories, Total Fat 8 g, Saturated Fat 4 g, Cholesterol 15 mg, Carbohydrates 29 g, Fiber 7 g, Protein 19 g, Sodium 318 mg, Calcium 274 mg