By Katie Mogg - NBC News
Sausterie, eggnog, and candy: For many, the holiday season means indulging in these kinds of unhealthy treats.
But doctors and nutritionists say they avoid consuming processed foods and beverages that contain high levels of added salt and sugar.
NBC News consulted nine health specialists — doctors, dietitians and nutrition professors — about eating a healthy diet. Almost all agreed that they try to replace foods like crackers and cold cuts with vegetables, fruits, and whole grains.
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"I try to take a whole foods-based approach," said Jaimie Davis, a registered dietitian and professor of nutritional sciences at the University of Texas at Austin. "My rule is that if I'm having lunch or dinner, I try not to let everything come out of one package. So that could be chicken breasts with broccoli and rice."
Here's how experts determine what to avoid:
🥤🍹Sweet drinks are very caloric
Davis says she avoids soda, energy drinks, coffee and other sugary drinks to reduce her calorie intake and keep her two teenage sons healthy.
"We have the LaCroix and sparkling waters if we want something special, instead of regular water or milk," Davis explained. "We also make a lot of aguas frescas, like basil-infused waters and strawberries."
Some boozy cocktails are also deceptively sugary and calorie-dense, he noted. Instead, Davis recommends mixing sparkling water with a dash of hard liquor, and garnishing with fruits like raspberries or pomegranate seeds.
Research has long shown the link between high sugar consumption, obesity and heart disease. An October study looking at the effects of consuming sugar-sweetened beverages on adults in 185 countries found that they were associated with risks of type 2 diabetes, cancer and tooth decay.
"It's almost better to eat a Snickers bar than to drink a 20-ounce Coke," he said.
🥓Sodium-rich foods are a treat
Angel Planells, a registered dietitian nutritionist in Seattle, said he avoids "delicious" foods such as deli meats, smoked fish, canned soups and frozen dinners on TV.
"I like to talk to my patients and tell them: these things are like whims, if you eat them all the time, they are no longer a whim, but a habit," she insisted.
According to Planells, these sodium-rich foods can lead to heart health problems. The American Heart Association suggests that, ideally, people consume less than 1,500 milligrams of sodium a day, and the maximum should be 2,300 milligrams. Too much salt is linked to hypertension and obesity, according to a 2021 study.
Specialists usually avoid foods such as sausages in their diets. MEDITERRANEAN/Getty Images
Lauren Au, a professor of nutritional sciences at the University of California, Davis, said she cooks at home and limits restaurant outings to avoid sodium. It also follows a plant-based, Mediterranean-style diet that restricts red meat consumption and emphasizes vegetables, nuts, whole grains, and legumes. Au said his diet includes olive oil, seafood, chicken and tofu.
"I also have young children. When they start to get to know the food, you have to reduce the amount of sodium, because they are developing their taste preferences," Au explained. "When I cook, I try to limit, if not avoid it entirely, putting in a lot of sodium, and then adding it to taste once cooked."
🌭 The High Price of High-Fat Snacks
Dr. Linda Shiue, an internist and director of culinary medication and lifestyle at Kaiser Permanente, said she avoids snacks like cookies and bagged crackers. Also check labels for added chemicals such as additives or preservatives.
"If you don't know what it is, you don't really need it in your body," he said.
Eating large amounts of ultra-processed foods can increase the risk of obesity, heart disease, cancer, diabetes, irritable bowel syndrome, depression, and death, according to a study published in 2020. This category includes soft drinks, hot dogs, candy, breakfast cereals, and ice cream, which may contain high levels of saturated fat.
Research from 2020 showed that eating less saturated fat is linked to a lower risk of heart attacks. Another study published the same year found that diets high in saturated fat are associated with higher rates of death from all kinds of causes.
Shiue said it's important to prioritize vegetables because they're a source of fiber, which can improve gut health, and antioxidants that help prevent chronic disease. To like vegetables, they need to be cooked and seasoned, he added. Shiue, a cooking instructor, said she once convinced someone who hated Brussels sprouts to enjoy them by roasting them over high heat in the oven and seasoning them with olive oil, salt and pepper.
"A lot of people who don't like vegetables are because they grew up with someone who didn't know how to cook them. So it's possible that they ate those sad, soggy, colorless vegetables, and who wants to eat that?" he said.
🥦 There is no one way to eat healthy
Several of the nutrition experts interviewed emphasized that there is no single, standardized way to eat healthy, and that factors such as socioeconomic status, access to healthy food at affordable prices, and understanding product labels can get in the way of a nutritious diet.
For those who don't know where to start, Maya Feller, a registered dietitian-nutritionist in New York, suggested visiting a doctor to learn more about your health: "What's your blood sugar? How's your blood pressure? How's your cholesterol?"
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When you know there are no dysfunctions or allergies, she said, focus on making fruits, vegetables, whole grains, beans, nuts, seeds and legumes "a core part of your eating style."
However, Laura Bellows, an associate professor of nutritional sciences at Cornell University, said that instead of completely avoiding certain foods, she takes a moderation approach and follows dietary guidelines set by the Department of Agriculture.
"There are no bad foods, only bad amounts," he insisted.