Naughty Or Nice

Christmas Treats - Naughty or Nice?

Contributed by Eve Persak, Nutrition Advisor, MS RD CNSC CSSD

It’s that time of year again – the holidays. When the diary is dotted with brunches, cocktail parties, potlucks, charity events, family-style dinners and gift exchanges. We celebrate culture and tradition. We spread good tidings and cheer. We break bread with family, co-workers, and old and new friends. And we basically eat – a lot.

Let’s be honest. The stretch of social events spanning Thanksgiving, Christmas, and both New Years, can feel like one long uninterrupted feast. Of course, a bit of occasional indulgence is to be expected. However, this steady stream of pastries, desserts, candies, hors d’oeuvres and multi-course meals can become a two-month test of dietary willpower. As the tally of treats accumulate, so too can our underlying worries that the festive season may completely undo any health gains achieved earlier in the year.

Well, to put your mind at ease this holiday, here are a handful of proverbial ‘no-no’s’ that you can actually say ‘yes’ to. When consumed in moderation and chosen wisely, these palate pleasers affect the body in naughtily nice ways.


When recent studies revealed that chocolate is a pleasure that isn’t so guilty, fans worldwide let out a collective sigh of sweet relief. However before reaching for that mini-mart candy bar, it’s important to know what makes chocolate a healthful treat and how best to reap its benefits. 

The chocolate taste we know and love is derived from the bean of the cacao tree.  When the fresh or dried cacao beans - commonly known as cacao nibs - are roasted they take on the ‘cocoa’ name. After processing, cocoa powders or liquors are then used to create the chocolate treats we see on store shelves. The characteristic bitterness of unadulterated cacao or cocoa is often too strong for the average palate. To make it more delectable for the masses, manufacturers add fats (oils or butter), dairy (creams or milk solids), sweeteners and sometimes, spices. As the percentage of cocoa increases, so too does the darkness - and bitterness - of the chocolate. Milk chocolates stand at the lower end of the cocoa spectrum at about 10 per cent, semisweet at 15 per cent, bittersweet at 35 per cent and darker varieties exceed 70 per cent. 

So, where does the nutrition part come in? Turns out, the raw cacao beans at the start line of chocolate production are loaded with more than 400 polyphenols. These naturally occurring compounds possess potent anti-inflammatory and antioxidant properties that control blood sugar levels, prevent cancer, preserve brain function, and protect the heart and blood vessels.

The catch? Unfortunately, these valuable phytonutrients are also the source of cacao’s astringency. The potency of these delicate compounds is greatly reduced by roasting the raw beans to counter their bitter flavour. Likewise, mixing cocoa with fats, creams and sugars allows manufacturers to use low quality beans and add less desirable extras that offset chocolate’s nutritional benefits. So, please eat chocolate this holiday! But to get the most out of each treat, think ‘raw’ (made with natural, unprocessed cacao) and dark (ideally contains at least 70 per cent of cocoa) and keep your servings small (just about the size of a box of dental floss).



Cheers to your health, wine aficionados! The latest studies reveal that wine offers substantiated wellness benefits. However, before you pop that cork, select the bottle in the cellar that scores high in the health-boosting department. 

Compared to its white and rose-colored peers, red wine delivers a standout nutritional performance. Why? The pigments in the skins of black, purple or red grapes are richest in resveratrol, the phytochemical behind red wine’s health benefits. Resveratrol is understood to counteract infection, inflammation, free radical damage and oxidative stress. It is also linked to longevity and protection against cardiovascular diseases, Alzheimer’s, cancer and depression. While it is also found in certain nuts, blueberries, cranberries, and pomegranates, resveratrol is soluble – and therefore better absorbed and used by the body – in alcohol. 

While wine is arguably the best selection from the happy hour menu, it’s important to sip smart. Before ordering another round, remember that alcoholic beverages – of all kinds – contain toxins that tax the liver and exert psychoactive effects. Moderation is key to avoid doing more harm than good. Likewise, purchase organic where possible. Look for the words ‘made with grapes from Certified Organic vineyards’ on the label. This will not only reduce your exposure to chemical pesticides, but also sulphite preservatives.



In case you haven’t heard, butter is back. Just a few decades ago, households worldwide swore off this spread due to concerns over heart disease. Today, a growing number of doctors are pulling butter out of retirement and recommending it to their patients. Here’s why: 

In recent years, scientists have begun churning out studies contradicting a connection between dietary saturated fats and cardiovascular diseases, and butter’s fat profile may prove helpful after all. For starters, the ratio of omega-3 to omega-6 fats in butter is believed to be ideally balanced for physiological function and inflammation control.  Likewise the conjugated linoleic acid (CLA), found exclusively in butter from grass-fed cows, is understood to ward off cancer and shift metabolism desirably toward burning fats and preserving muscles.

The butyrate in butter is also worth bragging about. This short-chain fatty acid not only improves digestive health by stimulating friendly probiotic gut bacteria, but also nourishes the cells lining the lower digestive tract. While the body can produce it from dietary fibre, we can also obtain butyrate directly from butter – the food after which this compound was named.  

Lastly butter serves up a generous helping of fat-soluble vitamins – especially vitamin A for vision, and vitamins D and K2, which are now considered as important as calcium when it comes to building and maintaining bone health. 

So, what should you take note of when buying butter? Purchase organic grass-fed varieties to boost CLA content, and to avoid added hormones and pesticides. Enjoy butter as a spread, but also take advantage of its high smoke point and use it for baking or high-heat cooking. Most importantly, too much of a good thing can be bad. Slice judiciously from the stick – just one teaspoon, about the size of a poker chip, is a standard portion. 




Forget ‘hands off’ and grab a handful, nut lovers.

That’s right. We are happy to report that nuts have finally cleared their long-held reputation as fattening snacks. Instead, these petites are now touted as must-haves for dieters and non-dieters alike. 

Their total fat percentages by weight are comparatively high. However, each type of nut contains its own unique blend of praiseworthy plant-based monounsaturated and omega fatty acids, as well as essential fat-soluble vitamins and minerals.  Instead of adding inches to waistlines, nibbling on 30 to 40 grams of nuts a day has been shown to satisfy appetites, control hunger, and promote weight loss. Their nutrient profile, especially that of walnuts and almonds, is also understood to promote heart health.

As with most other foods, though, the least processed brands will offer the most concentrated nutrition. So, reach for raw or dried nuts, rather than roasted or fried.  Likewise, check the labels for additives. Salted, honey-roasted, candied, or spiced varieties offer more flavour, but these extras also pile on more calories, sodium, sugar, and chemical flavourings that work against your overall wellness goals.  



Java drinkers, rejoice! The rumours are true. Coffee is back in the good graces of many health experts globally. This is thanks to studies that espouse coffee as a naturally rich source of antioxidants. Coffee has been shown to reduce the risk of heart diseases, stabilise blood sugar, ward off liver damage, and slow age-related cognitive decline. 

But it’s important to understand that not every cuppa is created equal. A good first step is to stick to coffee that is pressed or brewed from ground coffee beans. Instant or dissolvable powders may offer convenience and similar flavour, but most of coffee’s polyphenolic perks are lost when coffee beans are processed. Organic is always preferred as conventionally grown coffees bear a heavy fertiliser and pesticide burden – harmful to both the body and the environment. 

However, please pause before ramping up your daily drink to a triple espresso. When consumed excessively, coffee’s acids may irritate the digestive system and its stimulants may disrupt sleep. It may also interfere with the absorption of certain medications.  So keep that coffee date, but be conscious of your own personal needs and limits.