The story of Chanukah describes how only one day's worth of oil, used to light the candelabra in the ancient Jewish Temple, miraculously burned for eight days. (For a bit more background, the Temple had been ransacked by the Greeks, who had tried to conquer Israel; the Maccabees, the Jewish army that successfully revolted against the Greeks, returned to the Temple and lit the lamp, or menorah, with the oil they found.)
Considering the cooking practices of today's chefs, it truly would be a miracle to make that amount of oil last so long! In fact, although it wears a heart-healthy halo, oil is highly caloric, and most people don't realize that they could be carrying extra pounds because of the quantity of oil they consume. It's hard to believe that one cup of oil (even clear, extra virgin olive oil) contains about 2,000 calories!
Although oil is a beneficial fat, along with nuts, seeds, and avocados, you might want to go easy on the grease if you're watching your weight. For sustained health and well-being, especially during the celebrations of the holiday season, try not to overindulge. That way, you won't have to work so hard to reverse any weight gain once the new year arrives.
So, on this Festival of Lights, here are a few tips to help you lighten up your intake:
• Try using cooking sprays and chicken broth to help reduce the amount of oil you use in meal preparation. Each tablespoon of oil that you don't use will save you about 120 calories.
• The holiday wouldn't be the same without a latke, a potato pancake made with grated potatoes, onions, eggs, and flour. This year, why not try baking latkes instead of frying them. You'll save calories and time.
• Summon the spirit and adventure of the Maccabees, and break with tradition by adding some veggies to your latkes. Chopped broccoli or cauliflower plus some aromatic spices can really jazz up your holiday menu. Try getting a head start on a healthier new year by swapping out white potatoes for sweet potatoes in your latkes. Aside from adding a magnificent fall color, they'll be rich in fiber, beta-carotene, potassium, lycopene, and vitamins A, B6, and C.
• Latkes are typically served with applesauce or sour cream. Switching the sour cream for Greek yogurt with 2 percent fat will still please your guests' palates. (For those who haven't tried Greek yogurt, the nonfat version may not make as tasty a first impression as one that contains some fat.)
• Although I'm an egg fan, if you're watching your cholesterol, it might be wise to use egg whites in place of some of the whole eggs in your recipes. Two egg whites can be substituted for one whole egg.
• Dairy products, particularly cheeses, are traditionally eaten on Chanukah. Instead of using nonfat cheeses, which may not taste good or melt well, opt for reduced-fat or part-skim cheeses. They deliver the same amount of calcium and protein as their higher-fat counterparts. Cream cheese, meanwhile, should have been called "cream fat," since, unlike cheese, it hardly contains any protein and provides little nutritional value.
• A Chanukah icon is the jelly donut. Weighing in at anywhere from 300 to 500 calories, this treat (known as sufganiyot), traditionally lacks a hole in the center and is stuffed with strawberry or raspberry jelly and sprinkled with powdered sugar. It's not much of a savings if you eat one with a hole, so perhaps if you're delving into homemade donuts, make them bite-sized. This trendy way of serving treats will help showcase your talents while reducing serving sizes.
• Be sure to have a beautiful fruit platter accompany your dessert display. Everyone enjoys fruit, and after a big meal, fruit will be refreshing and "enough" for dessert.
• Chocolate gelt, the foil-covered chocolate discs found in mesh bags, will cost you about 220 calories per ounce. Be sure to do lots of dancing to Chanukah songs if this is one of your holiday indulgences.
A holiday should be celebrated on that particular day, and not all season long. Certain foods, in spite of their steep caloric values, are special, and on these occasions they should be selectively enjoyed and savored.
Keep in mind that the very root of the word Chanukah means dedication, and the story of the holiday symbolizes overcoming adversity. This is a perfect time of year to dedicate yourself to making better food choices, in spite of the difficult challenges we face, to preserve tradition along with health.
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Bonnie Taub-Dix, MA, RD, CDN, has been owner of BTD Nutrition Consultants, LLC, for more than three decades and she is the author of Read It Before You Eat It. As a renowned motivational speaker, author, media personality, and award-winning dietitian, Taub-Dix has found a way to communicate how to make sense of science. Her website is BetterThanDieting.com.