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Hidden Health Benefits of 14 Holiday Superfoods

author image Katherine Brooking
Katherine Brooking is a registered dietitian with a Master’s degree in nutrition education. She co-founded Smart Cookie Productions, Inc., which publishes AppforHealth.com and produces a weekly nutrition series, Appetite for Health. She a frequent nutrition contributor to the TODAY show, The Early Show on CBS and Good Morning America Health. She is the co-author of "The Real Skinny: Appetite for Health's 101 Fat Habits & Slim Solutions."

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Hidden Health Benefits of 14 Holiday Superfoods
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Holiday foods can actually be beneficial to your healthy eating plan. In fact, many traditional holiday foods contain abundant health benefits. From a fruit that can help keep you satiated, to a spice that might help trim your waistline, and a protein that can help stabilize your mood – read on to see a list of 14 holiday superfoods you’ll want to be sure to include in your meals and seasonal recipes. Let us know if your favorite made the list.

1. Nutmeg
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Add some spice to your holidays! When it comes to nutmeg, evidence suggests that this flavorful spice has antimicrobial properties that can help to prevent tooth decay. Additionally, macelignan, a compound found in nutmeg, may have antioxidant and anti-inflammatory benefits that can help to protect the skin against UV radiation and reduce the signs of aging. Sprinkle nutmeg on a bowl of warm oatmeal, add it to baked goods, dust it on apples and other fresh fruit, or use it as a topping for sweet potatoes for a double dose of antioxidants.

Related: Homemade Pumpkin Spice Latte (with Nutmeg!)

2. Pumpkin
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Pumpkins aren’t just for carving Jack-o-Lanterns. A type of winter squash, pumpkin contains powerful carotenoids, plant pigments that may help ward off some chronic conditions including heart disease and age-related vision loss (macular degeneration). Pumpkin is rich in vitamin A, potassium and iron, and it’s kind to your waistline too. One cup of cooked pumpkin contains just 49 calories. Wondering how to eat it? Add chunks to your favorite chili, stir pumpkin puree into a tomato-based pasta sauce for extra nutrition and flavor, or enjoy a delicious (and low calorie) dessert.

Related: 4 Crust-Less 175-Calorie-or-Less Pumpkin Treats

3. Sweet Potatoes
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Native to North America, flavorful sweet potatoes are among the most nutrient-rich foods. One medium (4-ounce) sweet potato, baked with the skin, has about four times your daily requirement of Vitamin A and almost half the recommendation for Vitamin C. Sweet potatoes are also a notable source of vitamin E, providing over a quarter of the daily recommendation. All this in just 100 calories! Sweet potatoes are perfect baked or mashed -- just be sure to go light on the marshmallows or brown sugar when making sweet potato casseroles.

Related: 16 Diet-Friendly Healthful Carbs

4. Turkey
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Don’t just save turkey for the holidays -- this lean protein is worth gobbling down year round. In fact, a standard 3-ounce portion of cooked turkey, with both white and dark meat, contains only 135 calories and 24 grams of protein. As an added benefit, turkey is also rich in the amino acid tryptophan, which helps the body to make serotonin which is thought help to stabilize mood and ensure a good night’s sleep. Turkey is also a good source of important vitamins and minerals, including niacin, riboflavin, vitamin B6, iron, phosphorus and zinc.

Related: How Do You Keep Your Thanksgiving Turkey Moist? Join the Conversation.

5. Apples
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When it comes to filling up without filling out -- apples are a sure winner. One medium apple contains just 95 calories and 4 grams of fiber to help keep you satisfied and subdue hunger cravings. The majority of heart-healthy fiber is found in the apple peel, so make sure to eat your apple with the skin on. Besides helping to ward off holiday weight gain, apples are also rich in flavonols, powerful plant compounds that can help prevent the bad cholesterol (LDL) from forming as well as help to reduce the risk of certain cancers and age-related degenerative diseases. Consider baked apples instead of classic apple pie to eliminate the fat- and carb-rich crust.

Related: Apple Crisp Recipe

6. Brussels Sprouts
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When it comes to Brussels sprouts, people generally fall into one of two categories: lovers or haters. If you love ‘em, that’s great because they’re one of the healthiest veggies you can eat. Brussels sprouts are members of the same Brassica family as cabbage and cauliflower (also known as cruciferous vegetables), which explains why they look like mini cabbages. Cruciferous vegetables contain compounds like sulforaphane, which help protect healthy cells against certain types of cancerous cells. A 1/2 cup of cooked Brussels sprouts contains 2 grams of fiber and is an excellent source of vitamin K. Plus, they’re just 30 calories! Brussels sprouts also pack in significant amounts of vitamin C, potassium and B vitamins. Try them roasted with olive oil or sautéed with a little pancetta or Canadian bacon.

Related: Canadian Bacon and 17 Other Foods with a “Bad Rap” That Are Actually Good for You

7. Butternut Squash
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Brimming with beta-carotene, B-vitamins, iron, and magnesium, butternut squash is a nutritional all-star. The carotenoid pigments that gives the squash its color (also found in pumpkin and other yellow/orangey veggies) may help protect against cardiovascular disease and even some types of cancer. A cup of baked squash contains just 80 calories and nearly 7 grams of fiber. In addition to classic butternut squash soup, due to its mild flavor, this veggie partners well with other holiday classics including cranberries, nuts and pomegranates. Below is a link for a great holiday side dish with roasted butternut squash, pomegranates and Israeli couscous.

Related: Roasted Butternut Squash and Israeli Couscous Recipe

8. Cinnamon
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In addition to filling your kitchen with a fragrant scent, research shows that spices can have a beneficial effect on your health, too. Recent data shows that consumption of mildly sweet cinnamon may help to improve cardiovascular health for those with type 2 diabetes. Furthermore, 2006 research shows that cinnamon may also help to reduce body fat percentage and increase lean body mass—great news if you’re looking to drop some weight before the New Year’s Eve rolls around. Embrace the flavors of the holiday season and consider adding cinnamon sticks to warm apple cider, or use to add flavor to a traditional fruit crisp. Ground cinnamon also makes a delicious oatmeal topping. Also consider sprinkling cinnamon on top of a latte or a cup of Greek yogurt with fruit.

Related: Cinnamon and Other 9 Foods That Make You Look and Feel Better

9. Cranberries
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Whether you prefer cranberry sauce or cranberry relish, canned cranberry or homemade, the small, antioxidant-packed berry is a terrific complement to your favorite dishes. Just 1 cup of raw cranberries provides a whopping 5 grams of fiber, 24 percent of your daily vitamin C needs and 20 percent of your daily manganese. This holiday favorite also contains high levels of anthocyanins, a type of antioxidant believed to protect against cancer and heart disease; and the specific anthocyanins in cranberries are also known to help with urinary tract health.

Related: Cranberry Juice and Other 17 Foods with a “Bad” Rap That Are Good for You

10. Dark Chocolate (…and unsweetened Cocoa or Cacao)
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There’s good news for chocoholics! Dark chocolate, hot cocoa or a delicious dessert made with cocoa (cacao) powder can be a healthy, antioxidant-packed finish to your holiday feast. Dark chocolate and cocoa powder are rich in phytochemicals that provide heart health benefits, including lowering blood pressure, and reducing risk of heart attack and stroke. Studies have also linked chocolate flavanols with a reduced risk for neurological decline. The darker the better, as the higher the percentage of cacao, the more polyphenols will be in the chocolate. Be sure to choose a chocolate with at least 70 percent cacao.

Related: Yummy Pumpkin Dark Chocolate Chip Cookies

11. Garlic
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For centuries garlic has been used as natural medicine to prevent or treat a wide range of diseases and conditions. Multiple studies published throughout the last 10 years confirm that using small amounts of herbs and spices in recipes can yield big health benefits. A review of garlic’s impact on heart health found that this flavorful herb may help to improve cholesterol and triglyceride levels and aid in blood clotting. Other studies have showed that consuming garlic may help protect against stomach and colorectal cancers. You can reap garlic’s health benefits by chopping it finely to release allinase, an enzyme that aids in the formation of garlic’s cancer-protective compounds. Since cooking stops the activity of this beneficial enzyme, it’s best to let crushed garlic “stand” for 10 minutes after chopping, before adding it to heat – this prevents total loss of its anti-carcinogenic activity.

Related: 12 Not-So-Common Tips to Fend Off Cold and Flu

12. Nuts
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Nuts are an ingredient in many holiday appetizers, main dishes and desserts. A 2013 study from Spain reported in the journal PloS One that subjects who eat 3 or more servings of nuts per week had reduced risk for overweight and obesity; type 2 diabetes; high blood pressure and high LDL cholesterol, compared to those who ate less than a serving of nuts per week. Some studies even suggest that nuts may help protect against certain types of cancer. Nuts are rich in many vitamins, minerals and unsaturated fats and many are rich in antioxidants. The American Heart Association recommends at least four servings (4 ounces) each week (as part of a diet low in saturated fat) for optimal heart health benefits.

Related: Want to Attain Your Weight Goals? Join the Conversation.

13. Onions
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Onions are a healthy addition to many popular holiday dishes from Thanksgiving stuffing, to roasted Brussels sprouts, to green bean casserole. Whether caramelized, roasted or grilled, onions boost the flavor of your favorite recipes. Although they may make you teary-eyed, this all-star veggie has many layers of health benefits. Studies show that onions contain high levels of flavonols, compounds that can help reduce the risk of atherosclerosis and cardiovascular related diseases. Research also suggests that onions can help lower the risk of age-related degenerative diseases and certain cancers. The onion’s cancer-protective properties are due in large part to quercetin, a plant-based compound with anti-inflammatory and antioxidant benefits.

Related: Onions and 15 Other Foods You Don't Always Need to Buy Organic

14. Pomegranate
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Fresh pomegranate arils are a great addition to many holiday dishes — from appetizers to desserts. Pomegranates contain several unique polyphenols and anthocyanins which are responsible for creating the fruit’s red color. Published studies have documented many health benefits associated with pomegranates and pomegranate juice, including heart health, anti-cancer properties, bone health and post-exercise muscle recovery. With the ripe fruit, you can easily pry apart the outer shell and get fresh arils or you can find fresh arils already packaged. A serving (4.3 ounces or about ¾ cup) of pomegranate arils has 100 calories, 6 grams fiber, 2 grams protein and provides vitamin C, potassium, vitamin K, and folate. For a sweet, tart flavor boost, add juicy pomegranate arils to your holiday stuffing, salads, roasted veggies or desserts.

Related: Kale and Pomegranate Salad

What Do YOU Think?
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Did you know about all of the health benefits of these 14 holiday foods? What other foods do you eat to boost your nutrition during the holidays? Do you have a favorite healthy holiday recipe? Leave a comment below and let us know.

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